Their numbers are small compared to an entire summer's run, but gliding unseen just below the surface of the Kenai River this time of year are a few of those "five-ocean" kings, huge salmon living a seven-year life cycle who often reach 80 to 90 pounds.
And beginning today at the wee hour of 5 a.m., some 188 eager anglers boarded 47 guided fishing boats at Harry Gaines Fish Camp and headed out onto the river to lay in wait, hoping to hook one of those trophy-sized honkers.
The occasion is the 10th anniversary of the Kenai River Classic, an annual, by-invitation-only happening held since 1994 and the Kenai River Sportfishing Association's primary fund-raising event.
After expenses, net revenues from the Classic go toward the nonprofit corporation's overhead and projects and programs promoting its mission: habitat restoration, fishery conservation and public aquatic education.
The affair has been so successful that in each of the past two years, gross proceeds from Classic's entry fees ($6,000 to $7,000 per fishing pair), corporate sponsorships and an annual auction have hit $1 million.
"We fully expect that again this year," said Brett Huber, KRSA's executive director. "The wild card is the auction. If the auction performs like I believe it will, we will exceed the $1 million mark. We anticipate higher gross revenues this year."
This year's auction will be held tonight at the Soldotna Sports Center.
"We will raise a couple of hundred thousand dollars in 2 1/2 hours of auction," he said.
While the fishing and auction are closed to the general public, the Classic's impact is felt in the local economy. Huber said it costs between $250,000 and $300,000 to hold the event.
"We'll probably spend about $285,000 in the community this year," he said.
The honorary co-hosts for this year's Classic are Sen. Ted Stevens and Gov. Frank Murkowski. Six other U.S. senators, as well as several members of President George W. Bush's cabinet or top agency staff, are expected to be among the 188 participants, Huber said. Also attending will be first lady Nancy Murkowski, Senate President Gene Therriault and Speaker of the House Pete Kott.
The popularity of the Classic has grown each year, but the association has limited entry to the fishing extravaganza, so it will grow no bigger in terms of boats and participants. Huber said he had to turn some teams of fishers away for lack of room. It's a matter of logistics, he said.
"The biggest reason is the pride we have in taking care of the people while they're here," he said. "If it were larger, I don't know if we could provide for the personal attention our guests have grown used to. Facilities we use can only hold so many people. We can only load so many boats."
Huber said the affair depends heavily on volunteers. He expects to have a volunteer staff to rival the number of actual tournament participants, he said.
"The auction crew alone is over 50 volunteers," he said. "Over the years, it's gone from an association event in the early days to a communitywide event today."
Events kicked off Monday night with a welcoming dinner at Robert and Jeannie Penney's River Presence log home on the Kenai River.
Fishing began this morning at 5:30 a.m. and runs until noon. The schedule repeats Wednesday. Fish are weighed from noon to 1 p.m. each day. The Kenai River boasts the current world record king at 97.25 pounds, according to the association. Classic anglers are, no doubt, harboring hopes of topping that record.
Points are awarded per inch and per pound. Prizes are given for the largest salmon retained, the largest released salmon, and an overall tournament honor goes to the fisher with the total number of points.
Last year, Classic champion honors went to Bill Chadbourne, who hooked and kept a 68-pound fish. Anthony Ennis was named catch-and-release champion for a 52-inch salmon. Mark Hanley of Anchorage took home the Ted Stevens Classic champion angler award for hooking and releasing 14 salmon for a total of 578.6 points. Twenty extra points are awarded for each salmon caught and released, Huber said.
Catch-and-release is encouraged to keep some of the healthiest and largest kings in the gene pool. Of the 349 fish landed last year, 279 were released.
Participation may have been so high because last year's early run was poor. This year, the early run was considered average, Huber said.
Releasing a fish earns a tournament angler an extra 20 points, but while those extra points may help participants win prizes, the association has an ongoing program called the Release a Hawg, Take Home a Trophy that encourages catch and release all season long. Those who qualify can win money toward the cost of a fiberglass replica trophy.
The program helps preserve the gene pool of large salmon and helps ensure future returns of trophy-sized fish. That's especially desirable when it comes to so-called "five-ocean" fish, salmon that spend five years in the deep ocean, which accounts for their often dramatic size.
Since its beginnings, the Kenai River Classic has raised and dedicated millions toward KRSA's mission of protecting riparian habitat, providing education and promoting responsible sport fishing, Huber said in a press release Monday.
The nonprofit partners with various agencies and municipalities to forward projects beneficial to the river. Last year, for instance, KRSA joined the city of Soldotna on the Rotary Park Island Trail, and with the Alaska Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation on the Morgan's Landing handicap access facility. It also partnered with the Kenai Watershed Forum on a water-quality monitoring program.
The association's efforts led to joint projects with various state and federal agencies, including the Adopt-A-Stream project with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Science on the Kenai program with the Kenai Convention and Visitors Bureau, and the STREAM Program with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Some 38 private property habitat projects were completed last year thanks, in part, to funding through the 50-50 Cost Share Program administered by Fish and Game and Fish and Wildlife.
KRSA's Kenai Eagle Award recognizes property owners and public land managers who are examples of sound stewardship. The association also produces presentations and displays at area schools, chambers of commerce and sportsman's shows.
The On The River program takes local, state and federal officials on tours of the river to show off habitat protection projects and to discuss issues facing the river.
However, while under their 501(c) charter, the association is permitted what Huber said the IRS calls "an insignificant amount" of lobbying time, KRSA does not lobby.
"We don't take positions on legislation," he said.
The association does provide education material regarding the river.
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