The author’s wife with her first keeper king salmon of the 2022 season. (Jeff Lund / For the Juneau Empire)

The author’s wife with her first keeper king salmon of the 2022 season. (Jeff Lund / For the Juneau Empire)

I Went to the Woods: King size problem

We didn’t find the fish. We found a fish. A fish that was too small.

The fish pulled line like a king. It resisted like a king. But the struggle didn’t last and as the fish tired, we knew it wasn’t a big one.

We boated the salmon, measured, and it came up half an inch short of keeping.

We were on our first drag of the morning so we figured it was a good sign, especially now with gas prices being what they are, the common local fisherman can’t afford to be running around all day looking for fish. You fill the tank, choose your spot and hope the kings are there.

We didn’t find the fish. We found a fish. A fish that was too small.

This is a story that’s too common. There have always been king salmon that are just shy of keeper length, but the fact that the average fish is not much larger, is concerning. An experienced captain can find the fish when others can’t. But no matter how much experience one has on the water, he or she cannot make a fish grow.

As my brother and I sorted through the three boxes that held the contents of his childhood and young adulthood after mom sold her house, I found a newspaper clipping from the Ketchikan Daily News with the Craig-Klawock king salmon derby leaderboard from May 23 1996:

52.80, 51.04, 46.5, 42.96, 37.9.

Every year locals and non-locals bag big kings and to anglers making their first trip up here, the fishing is world class and the experience a lifetime highlight.

However, reality looms.

What is happening to the king salmon? is an urgent but complex question. Bag limits have been reduced with little effect and hatchery runs now supply a scary proportion of the opportunity to catch a king.

After years of blaming trawlers (rightfully so), commercial fishermen, charter fishermen, the DIY fleet, more people are warming to environmental factors.

The problem with the “Climate Change” campaign is that it seems so grossly political. The self-righteous Green New Deal crowd was tough to stomach for people living in a region familiar with the complexities of resource use and management as it pertains to the health and existence of rural communities. It seemed to many the latest iteration of performative politics meant to help a political career and maybe do something for the planet. People are just as skeptical of certain environmental groups and which politicians they “own” as they are oil companies and who is in their pockets.

The truth is environmental factors matter and it is possible to worry about the impact of accessing old growth groves, watershed productivity, ocean acidification and the destruction of spawning habitat without having a bumper sticker to tell everyone, or betraying your team. Simplistic generalizations make for great Instagram stories, but true understanding and the implementation of an effective strategy come from listening to those who might disagree and constructively critiquing your own beliefs or message.

In 2018, the Ballot Measure 1 “Stand for Salmon” initiative failed, probably because while it had a catchy name it didn’t seem, to many, like anything more than regulation for the sake of regulation. Without clear specific evidence that this initiative would save the future of fish, and that it was worth the potential cost of other resource economies, it failed.

No one wants kings to get smaller and scarcer. The more we focus on that simple fact as user groups, the more we can restore a level of trust and reality to the complex problem involving salmon.

• Jeff Lund is a freelance writer based in Ketchikan. His book, “A Miserable Paradise: Life in Southeast Alaska,” is available in local bookstores and at Amazon.com. “I Went to the Woods” appears twice per month in the Sports & Outdoors section of the Juneau Empire.

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