ANCHORAGE (AP) -- As once-wild Southcentral Alaska approaches its ever-more-populated future, combat fishing has become a way of life.
Two decades back, shoulder-to-shoulder competition for fishing space was pretty well limited to the Russian River and a handful of king salmon hot spots along the George Parks Highway north of Anchorage.
Today king salmon anglers bang gunwales for fishing space on the lower Kenai River and sometimes plug the mouth of the Deshka River so tight there's no channel for navigation.
At once-remote streams such as Lake Creek, east of Skwentna, and Clear Creek, north of Talkeetna, dozens of king salmon anglers jockey for space on gravel bars.
Even along the lower Kenai River, where the bank fishery for late-run red salmon developed only about 20 years ago, there are now so many anglers that habitat biologists have closed some fishing areas to save stream banks from trampling and designed various ways to protect other banks against all the foot traffic.
Every year, the great mob of salmon anglers spreads amoebalike from Anchorage to the north, south, east -- and most particularly the west.
Less than a decade ago, an angler could hop an Alaska Airlines jet from Anchorage to Iliamna to explore near-wilderness fishing on the Newhalen River, adjacent to the airport.
Today, when the red salmon run, the banks of that river overflow with summer campers and anglers who, by their sheer numbers, force each other out of the best fishing holes into the broad lagoon where the river enters Lake Iliamna.
These days the main differences between the Newhalen and Ship Creek in downtown Anchorage boil down to the quarry and locale.
--Ship Creek has king salmon, while the Newhalen teems with the smaller red salmon.
--Ship Creek is lined with mud, while the Newhalen spills out from between rocks onto clean sand and gravel.
--Ship Creek is close to good shopping while the Newhalen is adjacent to wilderness.
At the start of the 1990s, Alaska licensed 363,000 anglers, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. By 1998, the numbers topped 425,000, an increase of almost 20 percent for the decade.
Annual growth has been steady and constant at 5 percent to 6 percent a year, said Fish and Game statistician Mike Mills.
Nonresidents fuel all that growth; fishing by Alaskans has declined.
Eventually, it appears, crowds become so severe that anglers look for other places to fish.
Still, like an amoeba, a barrier to movement in one direction simply produces a squirt in another direction.
Fishing effort continues to grow on a variety of Southcentral streams from the Gulkana River in the east to the Talachulitna River to the north and west. Some rainbow trout streams, notably the upper Kenai River, have begun to see crowds, too.
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