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Iditarod director tames the kings in Little Susitna

Posted: Friday, June 15, 2001

LITTLE SUSITNA RIVER (AP) -- Adrift on this narrow, twisting king salmon stream just down the road from his office, Stan Hooley, executive director of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, is in familiar country.

Not far from where the Iditarod Trail crosses the slightly muddy waters, Hooley points out where he was camped in a tent with his three daughters when a grizzly bear strolled out of the woods a couple of summers back.

The family dog, which had been sleeping quietly outside the tent, started barking insanely, Hooley said. He told it to be quiet. When it wouldn't stop, Hooley got up to investigate.

He looked out into the face of the bear.

The dog, Hooley said, just wanted to be in the tent with everyone else. It seemed to understand the first rule of bear safety: There's protection in numbers.

The bear was a symbol that a little slice of wilderness still exists here on the outskirts of Wasilla. Motorboat traffic in the area of the state-built Little Susitna Access has made the river noisier in the past decade, and Alaska's growing population has filled the more accessible stretches with anglers, particularly on weekends.

But if you sneak away during the week, as Hooley was doing this morning, or take a two-day float downstream from Houston to the access, the Little Su remains one of the region's more accessible gems.

''This is a special hole,'' Hooley said as he drifted down the river June 1 with friend and guide Norm Haynes of Rainbow River Expeditions at the oars of a johnboat. ''I was just thinking, my three daughters caught their first kings here, all three of them.''

This time, the boat slips through the slide with nary a bump on any of the big flatfish lures wobbling along at the ends of the lines trailing behind. It is just after 6 a.m. The short Alaska night is long gone, and the day is brightening by the minute.

Salmon smolt -- 3-to-4-inch miniatures of the adults just starting to return -- are jumping all over the surface of the water, chasing hatching midges or caddis flies.

The river slides smooth and easy past high, sandy banks and between thick patches of spruce, aspen and birch trees. Spruce bark beetle-killed trees are sprinkled among healthy, dark green ones.

The deciduous trees have just leafed out into that bright yellow-green special to spring. The buds of the understory willow and alder are just cracking. The grass is still a mix of the yellow dead and the green new, but everywhere it is obvious the land is coming to life.

As the boat drifts, Hooley leans over the side and notices a school of tiny fish. These are fingerlings of pink or chum salmon following the smolts of the silvers and kings to sea. This river is home to all four species, but silvers and kings are the ones that attract anglers.

''The silver fishing last year (August) was phenomenal,'' Hooley said.

''Just fantastic,'' Haynes adds. ''I'd take four people out, and we'd be done in an hour.''

Fishing so far this year has not been quite so good, but it has improved steadily since the start of the month. Haynes notes that Memorial Day, the traditional start of serious king salmon fishing throughout the region, came about as early as possible on the calendar.

The early date combined with a late spring caught the Little Su in early-May condition over the holiday weekend. Low, clear water meant few fish. A few days later, conditions were better.

''We were out Saturday, and this water is a lot different,'' Hooley observes as Haynes guides the 20-foot outboard-powered skiff upstream to start the day. ''It really colored up.''

''This will actually help,'' Haynes said. ''It will get the fish back in the usual holes.''

Soon he is sliding the boat to a stop not far from where the Iditarod Trail crosses the river in winter.

''Recognize this spot?'' he asks.

''Yes, sir,'' Hooley said. ''I didn't realize we'd come up this high.''

Haynes cuts the engine and starts rigging lines. Hooley and his nephew Jason, a youth counselor in the Susitna Valley, have their lines in the water within moments.

The boat hasn't drifted far before Hooley says, ''This is the same spot I got that 51-pounder two years ago, just this side of that big tree.''

An angler since his youth in Indiana -- ''I can't remember a family vacation that didn't involve fishing'' -- Hooley hit the angling jackpot in 1993 when an executive search firm contacted him about the possibility of taking over day-to-day operation of the Iditarod.

At the time, 35-year-old Hooley was executive director of the Amateur Athletic Union of the United States, an Indianapolis-based arm of one of the world's largest sports organizations. After negotiations with the Iditarod board, Hooley signed a three-year contract to work for the sled dog race.

Almost a decade later, he's still here.

Part of the attraction, he acknowledges, is the challenge of running a sporting event that now draws the attention of an international audience each March. But Hooley also enjoys those unique and special Alaska activities: softball, snowmachining and, of course, fishing.

He is so enamored of the latter that he has even taken on the volunteer job of promoting the 2001 Mat-Su King Salmon Derby. King anglers, he contends, are missing out on some great opportunities in the Valley because of the lure, and the hype, surrounding the Kenai Peninsula.

Easily accessible, weekend-only roadside fisheries north of Anchorage, like Willow and Montana creeks, get plenty of attention, but the Little Susitna remains underexploited, Hooley said.

On this morning, it is hard to argue.

One amazingly noisy airboat, half a dozen guided fishing boats and a handful of anglers have more than a dozen miles of the Little Su to themselves.

By noon, many guides will be back at the landing with big fish and smiling clients. Hooley will be smiling right along with them, because, shortly after 7 a.m., the plug wob-wob-wobbling at the end of his line is attacked.

Hooley's rod tip dives. The linebacker-sized amateur jock responds by hammering back into the rod and driving the hooks home in the tough jaw of a 20-pound salmon.

Playing the fish with the deft touch of someone who has done this many times, Hooley has the fish to the boat in minutes. Haynes swings the net, and in seconds it's all over.

''The first one of the season,'' Hooley says. ''That felt pretty good.''

''That's the fourth one I've taken out of this hole this year,'' Haynes says. ''Good job, Stan.''

''Well, thank you, Norm. That was great.

''It's amazing no matter how many times you do that how good it feels.''

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