A sunny May day at southwest Anchorage's DeLong Lake brought out eager anglers looking to land one of the thousands of rainbow trout and landlocked salmon deposited into its waters each year by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. They didn't have to wait long to see the fish, which arrived by truck.
Most of the finned residents of the 19.7-acre lake -- with the exception of illegally introduced blackfish -- are products of the state's largest, and one of its newest, fish hatcheries.
A little after noon, some 1,500 trout showed up, brought to the lake's edge by a fish stocking truck. Within minutes they were flowing down a hose from the truck's holding tanks and into the lake.
The newly stocked 10- to 14-inch trout immediately began circling the dock as the people who just moments earlier were watching in awe began to toss out lines and hooks in an effort to catch dinner.
"It's awesome," said Curtis Silook as he watched his two young children try their luck. "It's a great way to introduce the kids to fishing."
With 3,000 rivers, 3 million lakes and more than 6,000 miles of coastline, Alaska is an angling paradise. Each year hundreds of thousands of people, locals and visitors alike, try their luck at catching one or more of the state's many fish species. And there are millions of fish here.
But they don't all live a Big Wild Life, as the tagline promoting Anchorage tourism goes. In fact, if you've pulled a rainbow trout from Alaska waters, chances are it began life in one of the state's sportfish hatcheries, not a pristine brook at the foot of a majestic mountain.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates that as many as 70 percent of the rainbow trout and 20 percent of king salmon caught by anglers grew up in a hatchery.
One of the newest, the William Jack Hernandez Sport Fish Hatchery in Anchorage, is a prolific producer of trout, Arctic char, grayling and several salmon species.
It was completed in 2011 at a cost of about $98 million. Construction costs were covered by a bond paid for by a surcharge on fishing licenses. Its operating costs, in large part, are covered by fishing licenses fees and a federal excise tax on sport fishing equipment and marine fuel.
Last year, the hatchery released 3.1 million fish into Southcentral Alaska lakes, rivers, and streams. The biggest were a few 5-pound Arctic char deposited into Campbell Point Lake and Sand Lake.
A smaller facility -- the Ruth Burnett Sport Fish Hatchery in Fairbanks -- released about 350,000 fish in 2013, according to Fish and Game.
The new hatchery replaced two smaller hatcheries on what is now Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. It was billed as a high-tech upgrade -- one expected to increase both the size and the number of the fish stocked throughout the state each year.
The hatchery, next to Ship Creek at the southern end of the base on Reeve Boulevard, has more than 100 tanks where fish are reared and held.
Most important, the hatchery has the ability to heat water to temperatures above 55 degrees, a critical step in increasing the survivability and size of all species in its tanks.
Before its opening in 2011, the two smaller hatcheries on JBER were operating with much colder water because the military shut down the two Anchorage-area power plants that provided them with waste heat about a decade ago. That reduced the number of fish stocked by as much as 30 percent. Hatchery managers said they are now back to pre-2004 stocking levels, producing more than 180,000 catchable trout and another 670,000 fingerlings each year.
Trout are stocked at about a dozen Anchorage-area lakes and many more along the Kenai Peninsula and in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough about three times per year.
But the hatchery also grows king and silver salmon -- two species of Alaska fish that have declined over the last eight years. "Our hope is that, moving forward, the fish we are releasing are larger and are in very good health and good condition so that we will see increased returns," hatchery manager Andrea Tesch said.
King salmon returns have dropped significantly since 2006, and closures and restrictions have become the norm in Alaska waters. In two hatchery-only runs near Anchorage, the royal absence has been both predictable and annoying to local anglers. Ship Creek, which dumps into Cook Inlet near the Port of Anchorage, and the Eklutna Tailrace, a managed salmon fishing area along the Old Glenn Highway, about 33 miles northeast of town, both attract a lot of attention from fishermen who stick to the road system near town in search of the state's largest salmon. Tesch said the new hatchery has allowed fish biologists to stock three times as many king salmon smolt into Eklutna as before.
In 2013, the new hatchery also allowed the state to up the number and size of the silver salmon it puts into Ship Creek, Tesch said.
"We are all very interested to see how the silvers fare because they almost all return after one year at sea," Tesch said.
At DeLong Lake, there wasn't much talk about the salmon. Most of them are still weeks away from showing up in northern Cook Inlet. But the wriggling mass of now-free trout definitely had the attention of people who were enjoying the sun and the fishing, if not the catching. Trout that moments before were in the back of a truck didn't seem interested in biting, but few people seemed to care.
"It's nice," float tube fisherman Gregg Giesprecht said. "I usually don't worry about catching stuff; I usually just do it to get out."
Reach Sean Doogan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By SEAN DOOGAN