For years, Kodiak Island's 25-mile-long Karluk River offered some of the finest king salmon fishing in North America.
Just ask Les Robbins.
"There ain't nothing like the Karluk," said the 60-year-old Long Beach, Calif., angler who fished the river six consecutive years before fishing was restricted last year. "You could catch as many fish as you wanted. You could easily hook into 20, 25, 30 kings a day, and I'd hook into kings that would take 40 minutes to land.
"It's in a class by itself."
No more. Months before the first angler shows up, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has clamped restrictions on the Karluk and Ayakulik, two premier Kodiak rivers battered by weak king salmon returns.
In the Karluk, any king hooked must be released while in the water. Bait is prohibited downstream of Karluk Lake.
In the Ayakulik, the bag and possession limit has been cut to one fish -- with an annual limit of two.
Both waterways saw dismal returns last season.
The Ayakulik failed to meet its minimum escapement goal of 4,800 kings two of the past three years. A strong return of 24,742 kings in 2004 slid to 3,071 last year, far short of the 10-year average of 13,400 spawners.
The Karluk fared even worse.
Just 730 kings escaped in 2008, the lowest count on record. Kodiak biologists anticipate another dismal return this summer -- well short of the escapement goal of 3,600 to 7,300 fish biologists seek to ensure strong future runs.
Nobody knows why the Kodiak fisheries crashed.
"We could make some educated determinations," Fish and Game biologist Len Schwarz of Kodiak said. "If we could count smolt (leaving the river), then we'd at least know if it's a problem in freshwater or saltwater.
"Without that, it's basically just wild guesses."
Schwarz pointed to the fact that the parent fish mainly are 5- and 6-year old kings. Five years ago, 7,525 kings passed the weir to spawn and nearly as many did so the previous year.
"I was up there beach-seining those kings," Schwarz recalled. "You could see them spawning. They were up there -- not imaginary fish.
"That's what's so frustrating."
Until recently, the Karluk's bounty may have been exceeded only by its beauty.
A shallow river that's largely a series of shallow ripples slicing through lush hillsides, the clear Karluk has a rocky bottom and is less than 50 feet across at its narrowest.
"It's a gorgeous, meandering river in a stunningly gorgeous area," Robbins said. "You can cast the width of it no problem.
"The sky is crawling with bald eagles, and there are a lot of foxes running around."
But fewer kings than ever.
"Our bookings are way down," said Michael Carlson, owner of Larson Bay Lodge. "It wasn't that long ago, maybe five or six years, it was a great run. But over the years it's diminished.
"I'm as confused as everybody else. Seem like everybody's starting to have tough king runs, a lot of runs thoughout the state. That's telling us something."
Bill Pyle, supervising wildlife biologist at Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, said his agency is planning to launch a study examining king smolt survival on the Karluk.
"We're hoping to eliminate freshwater concerns as a factor," he said. "Ocean concerns, who knows?"
Although all but the lower eight miles of the Karluk are located within the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, much of the land adjacent to the river and Karluk Lagoon is privately owned.
Public-use trail and site easements have been reserved at intervals along the river to provide access.
Koniag, Inc. and the Karluk Tribal Council, owners of most land adjacent to the river, sell permits granting access -- and most anglers fish the Karluk in one of three ways:
• Fly into the village of Karluk by air taxi and fish the Karluk Lagoon and the lower Karluk River during peak times.
• Fly into Karluk Lake and float the river downstream to a takeout about halfway downstream or float all the way to Karluk Lagoon.
• Or go halfway by starting halfway downstream and floating to the lagoon.
Regulation and its remote location ensure that the Karluk gets far less fishing pressure than what's common in Southcentral.
"It's highly regulated," said Robbins. "I was incredibly impressed how regulated it was and on top of that fishery they were."
Reach reporter Mike Campbell at email@example.com or 257-4329.
By MIKE CAMPBELL