Searching for silvers

Posted: Friday, August 29, 2008

The sun broke through the clouds when Sean Boyer pushed his power boat off the dock at the Pillars boat launch and headed down the Kenai River to Eagle Rock.

At least 17 anglers plied the water with their hooks in the late morning of Aug. 20. Most of the time they reeled in humpies, often snagging them by their dorsal fins, only to kick them back in the river. But occasionally a silver salmon leaped out of the water fighting for dear life on one end of the line while an angler fiercely reeled at the other end. Once the fight was over and the fisherman's catch lay on the bank, Boyer, a fisheries technician with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, went to work.

When Hunter Cox, 13, of Rockport, Texas, reeled in his silver, Boyer ran down to the water's edge, whacked the fish on the head and proceeded to take measurements. First he used a hole puncher to mark the fish so other technicians would know its data was already taken. Then he took a few scale samples in order to record the fish's genetic information. Finally, he checked if the silver's adipose fin -- located on the fish's back between the dorsal fin and the tail -- was intact before running a wand over its body. If the adipose fin was missing, Boyer's wand detected the coded tag he knew must be in the fish's head.

"If the adipose fin is clipped off and it's got a wire tag in its head it was raised in the Moose River," he said.

In addition to collecting silver salmon data, Boyer, who fishes for rainbow trout and steelhead when he's not working, shoots the breeze with fellow fishermen. They usually let him know what the fishing's like, where they're from and what sorts of things they plan to do on their trip. Boyer said since he began the silver salmon project on Aug. 1, 75 percent of the people he's spoken to are from out of state while the other 25 percent are residents. In addition to collecting valuable information from the anglers, he is able to provide what help he can in turn.

"He has been very very helpful anytime I have any questions," said Herb Ohley of Alton, Ill. "He has been super. He deserves a pat on the back."

Ed Skutecki, of Glendale, Ariz., said this is his 19th trip to Alaska and even though Fish and Game representatives show up often, he's never been checked for a license.

"In Arizona they will come out on a boat," he said. "It's a totally different attitude.

Boyer and two other Fish and Game technicians are sampling silvers from the mouth of the Kenai River to the Soldotna Bridge, said Rob Massengill, fishery biologist with the sportfish division. Many of the technicians will wait at the Pillars Boat Launch, Cunningham Park or other sites to catch anglers either fishing from the bank or coming in off the river. They ask anglers for permission to sample their silver harvest, he said, and confirm if the fish is missing an adipose fin and if it's tagged. If a hand-held detection wand beeps, the fish usually has a coded-wire tag in its head. Fish and Game's sampling project began Aug. 1 and lasts until Sept. 30.

This is the last year of Fish and Game's coho salmon research project, Massengill said. The project started in 1992 when Fish and Game technicians marked silver salmon smolt with coded tags and clipped their adipose fins. The project was designed to help Fish and Game estimate how many salmon were being caught commercially in Upper Cook Inlet as well as to estimate how many smolt the drainage was producing.

"We mark coho salmon as juveniles (smolt) and when they're adults you recover them or you can sample for them as adults," he said. "In the past we sampled for adult coho salmon in the commercial fisheries and the in-river."

In the mid-1990s Fish and Game began tagging all fish in the Moose River. Massengill said the Moose River is a real big rearing area for coho salmon. About 20 to 40 percent of coho salmon production in the entire Kenai River drainage occurs in the Moose River, he said.

The juvenile salmon usually spend two years in fresh water before heading out to the ocean. Fish and Game used to sample coho salmon caught in the commercial fishing harvest, but Massengill said through their sampling, Fish and Game found out the majority of silvers were caught by sportfishermen.

"Right now smolt production is our lone tool to track the production of coho salmon in the Kenai River," he said. "It's been helpful because if we saw a big consistent drop in smolt production it would be a real red flag to us."

For the most part smolt production on the Kenai River as a whole has been stable, Massengill said. Other than a drop in production in the mid 1990s, Fish and Game has estimated that about 600,000 to more than 1 million juvenile silvers are produced in the Kenai River drainage.

Back on the river, while Boyer was sampling, Doug Poulson of Walla Walla, Wash., asked him if Fish and Game would send him the data they were able to find out about his fish.

"It would be cool to see which rivers they go to spawn," he said.

Boyer took Poulson's e-mail address and made sure to mark down which fish sample belonged to him and said he'd receive that information some time in the winter.

"I get to talk to a lot of people from all over the country," Boyer said. "I like to see them catch fish. I love it."

Jessica Cejnar can be reached at

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