Counting heads on the Killey

Chinook study proving worth of Kenai tributary

Posted: Friday, July 06, 2001

Mark Twain, comparing water in the west with the Mississippi River, didn't consider anything you could jump over or wade across a river. The Killey River in many parts of the world would be called a creek, except at high water, like now.

"I can wade across it at low water. It's no more than below waist deep. But today it is over my head," said Rob Massengill, a fisheries biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, on Tuesday.

One of Massengill's projects is the Killey River Chinook Code Wire Tag Program. Fish and Game biologist Bruce King is the project supervisor.

The project is located on the main branch of the Killey River, which feeds into the Kenai River at Mile 44, across from Kenai Keys, just below Stump Hole.

This study began in 1997 with the tagging of the out-migrating chinook smolt from the Killey. It is thought that 50 to 60 percent of the Kenai kings come from the Killey, Massengill said. They are perhaps not the biggest kings in the Kenai, but most likely the majority of the population. This year, the average size is about 25 inches. Tuesday, a couple of 39.4-inchers were captured.

The original goal of the chinook study was to address the concern in the 1990s of the Deep Creek marine king fishery. Massengill said the question then was, are all the Deep Creek marine kings being caught bound for the Kenai River?


Johnthomas Williamson stops the upper fish wheel on the Killey River so he can check the box for captured chinooks.


"Since then, the Deep Creek marine king fishery has stabilized. It was found to be a mix of stocks and was not depleting Kenai kings," he said.

Now the purpose of the study is to establish "baseline data" for chinook populations in the Kenai, Massengill said.

"We will be able to look back a few years from now at the data and have a reference point, an estimate of the smolt production coming out of the Killey River."

In other words, how many are going out, and how many are coming back. The study is done each year between June 15 and July 15, as that is the "bulk of the run, and we know we are going to get the majority of fish," he said.

Since 1997, out-migrating kings have been tagged in the Killey River. In 1997, about 13,000 smolt were tagged, in 1998 about 7,000, and in 1999 about 40,000. The tag is implanted in the snout and the adipose fin is clipped.

"You can't see the tag, but it looks like a bar code," Massengill said. "We know by the clipped fin the fish has been tagged."

In 1999, a fish wheel was set up on the Killey to recapture returning tagged kings. Massengill said the first year only about 100 fish were recaptured, but the wheel worked. Last year the wheel caught 400 fish, about 21 wore tags.

"This year our goal is to recapture 600 fish," he said.

The summer's high water has been thwarting the effort. The water came up three and a half feet in 10 days. Nothing but debris was coming down, root wads and spruce trees, Massengill said.

Only about 150 fish had been recaptured by last week, but Monday things changed. The water receded a bit and 72 fish were in the trap, 10 of them were tagged, said Heath Strausbaugh, a summer fish technician from Sterling. Strausbaugh and Johnthomas Williamson, of Soldotna, actually live at the project site. They stay in a cabin close to the fish wheels, courtesy of the Nature Conservancy, which has bought much of the private land in the area to protect habitat. Other access on the Killey for the study is provided by permission of Cook Inlet Region Inc.

Strausbaugh has been working on the project for three years; Williamson for two years.

The tagged fish that are caught are kept, the heads sent to Juneau and the carcasses given to the food bank. All the other kings are released after measurement is taken, the adipose fin is punched and a scale sample is taken.

"The scale sample gives us the age of the fish. It's like the rings on a tree," Massengill said.

The percentage of captured tagged fish is small. Considering last year's capture of 21 tagged fish out of 400, Monday's capture of 10 tagged fish out of 72 is an excellent sample, he said.

This year there are two fish wheels in action, one is about one-half mile downstream of the other. The fish caught in the lower wheel have their anal fin punched and then released, unless they are a tagged fish. The purpose of this is to do a rough estimate of the population of marked fish and unmarked fish that migrate up the river.

The fish recaptured in the upper wheel (anal fin punched) are multiplied by 10 to give a population estimate.

The kings captured in the Killey are not fresh. Massengill said they hold in the Kenai Keys, then shoot up the Killey.

"They are pretty ripe. We only see a few bright fish in the Killey all season," he said.

The results so far have offered some valuable information. The tagged kings are coming back in age classes from one to five years. Most all of the feeder kings, those that return after only one or two years at sea, are males. Massengill said he doesn't remember ever seeing a jack female. He said 1999 was a "killer out-migration," which led to a strong return of 2-year-old fish, which should lead to a strong 3- and 4-year ocean-aged fish return. Meaning 2002 and 2003 may be good years for kings in the Kenai.

It is not finalized, but from the percentage of tagged fish recovered, rough estimates of total fish populations can be made.

Then there are those things called variables. Only 5 to 10 percent of the smolt make it back to their home stream. Predators, fishers, disease and environmental factors all take their toll.

"That's fisheries," Massengill said.

Massengill said a more accurate study could be done if radio tags were used.

"But there isn't any money for that. An additional piece of the puzzle we are considering is Benjamin Creek, a clear water tributary," he said.

Indications are that there is a big run coming out of the Killey this year, maybe bigger than last year, Massengill said.

The Killey may look like a creek, but it breeds chinooks like a river, and the study indicates it to be a very important tributary of the Kenai River.

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