AD Main Menu

Photos: The Salmon Project, winter kings

"Winter kings" are salmon that are not ready to spawn. Also known as feeder kings, the fish caught in the extraordinary fishery in Kachemak Bay have been found to be "non-local" kings. Biologists believe that these kings are from Southeast Alaska and British Columbia, and have come to do what they do in the 5-7 years they spend out in the saltwater before returning to their natal streams to spawn: feed voraciously.
Courtesy Jim Lavrakas / Far North Photography
A little-known secret, the winter king fishery in Kachemak Bay is utilized by locals, with a few select charter boats that specialize in catching these fish taking clients fishing throughout the winter.
Courtesy Jim Lavrakas / Far North Photography
Using downriggers on the stern of a boat, winter king fishermen troll small herring, spoons and salmon flies at depths from 10-110 feet, in search of feeding king salmon.
Courtesy Jim Lavrakas / Far North Photography
Veteran anglers know that a king that comes to the surface and shows its dorsal fin is a nice "keeper."
Courtesy Jim Lavrakas / Far North Photography
The fight is extraordinary, with many fish lost at the boat by inexperienced fishermen. A calm netman will get the job done with no mistakes.
Courtesy Jim Lavrakas / Far North Photography
With the fish safely in the net, relief and celebration can break out.
Courtesy Jim Lavrakas / Far North Photography
It's a team effort between angler, netman, and captain.
Courtesy Jim Lavrakas / Far North Photography
Once the king is onboard the celebration can begin, and the processing of the fish starts immediately.
Courtesy Jim Lavrakas / Far North Photography
The prize is stunned with a club, and the fish is bled, then dropped into the fish hold where cold seawater will keep it chilled.
Courtesy Jim Lavrakas / Far North Photography
Captain Josh Brooks, arguably one of the best captains in Homer, a town with an impressive cadre of fishing experts, holds a feeder king he hooked and landed, by himself, on a rare day off from clients in December 2013.
Courtesy Jim Lavrakas / Far North Photography
Brooks, Homer-born and raised on the saltwater, clearly loves to fish. He couldn't resist a break in the weather to get out near Seldovia and fish for a few hours. The big fish of the day got a big hug...
Courtesy Jim Lavrakas / Far North Photography
And a kiss!
Courtesy Jim Lavrakas / Far North Photography
It's a quiet and contemplative fishery. Downriggers are used to bring bait down to the targeted depths where the fish are traveling, which ranges from 10 to 110 feet. Knowledgeable captains troll with at least two rods in the water, setting each bait at a different depth to "cover the water column" the best they can.
Courtesy Jim Lavrakas / Far North Photography
For many, it's a fishery that tests stamina, and the ability to handle the elements. Kachemak Bay has it's own ADF&G regulated Winter King season from October 1 through March 31 in which there is a limit of two kings per day, but no seasonal limit, like there is for the summer king season.
Courtesy Jim Lavrakas / Far North Photography
Captain Bob Howard, far right, on his charter boat Sea Nymph, cranks up the down riggers while a client fights a king during the 2013 Homer Winter King Tournament.
Courtesy Jim Lavrakas / Far North Photography
The Homer Winter King Salmon Tournament, a one-day event that has taken place on the second to the last weekend in March for 21 years, has as many as 1000 anglers vying for the top cash prize, and the bragging rights that comes with it.
Courtesy Jim Lavrakas / Far North Photography
The top ten fish are arranged while the weighing is going on. A fish will be replaced as a bigger fish takes its spot. In 2013, Emmitt Trimble of Anchor Point landed in the top spot, and stayed there to take home $10,000.
Courtesy Jim Lavrakas / Far North Photography
Trimble, far right, celebrates with his in-laws, Joe, Aaron, and A.J. Eisenhour, who captained their boat, Serenity, to win the 2013 Tournament. The Eisenhours, as captains of the boat, won $20,500 in side bets and the John Hillstrand Memorial Award.
Courtesy Jim Lavrakas / Far North Photography
In 2011, Mike Walls proudly hoisted his 30 pound winning fish to claim the championship in the Homer Winter King Tournament. Walls' winnings for that one day of fishing were more than $30,000.
Courtesy Jim Lavrakas / Far North Photography
In the vast area of water that comprises Kachemak Bay, it's amazing that in trolling a small bait at a guessed depth, these wonderful fish can be found. It's a testament to the health and vitality of the resource that feeder kings provide such a unique, exciting, and sustainable fishery.
Courtesy Jim Lavrakas / Far North Photography
Jim Lavrakas

(Fifth of 15 parts)

The importance of salmon in our household cannot be overstated: we eat salmon at least two times a week. The act of catching and processing our own meat and fish has become a part of our lifestyle that we realize we can never give up.

After almost 40 years in Alaska, it’s ingrained in us now.

My discovery of the feeder king fishery (aka, “winter king”) in Kachemak Bay 20 years ago began a lifetime of learning and love. Like steelhead fishing to some, recognizing, understanding and building on knowledge absorbed through years of fishing turned into a love affair with the species.

And like steelheaders, winter king fisherman have to be crazy in love to do it.

From the first time I felt the power of a feeder king stripping line from my reel like there was no end to Dec. 31, 2013, when I caught my last king of the year, the feeling remains excitingly addictive. First-timers and veteran anglers can’t help but show their joy.

Feeder kings are salmon that are not ready to spawn. Kings normally live 5-7 years, and during that time before spawning they do what fish do: Eat! The fish in Kachemak Bay are here year-round, and locals fish for them year-round. It’s a quiet little fishery with dedicated local boat owners and a few charter boat operators keeping their boats in the water through the winter.

Biologists from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said in a 2007 study that these immature fish are harvested throughout the summer (mixed in with returning spawners) and “are of non-Cook Inlet origin, including Southeast Alaska, British Columbia, and to a lesser extent Washington and Oregon.”

Although other areas on the North Gulf Coast have feeder king populations (Kodiak, for example), the bait-rich waters of Kachemak Bay bring high concentrations of these wonderful fish. When the fishing is hot, anglers can take home a limit of two kings a day in a couple of hours of fishing.

It’s a cult of fishermen here in Homer. Captains and crew share local knowledge and advice. The camaraderie is apparent even during the annual Homer King Salmon Tournament every March. And the payoff at the end of a successful day of winter king fishing is a fat-rich (the good fat) salmon on the grill.

Jim Lavrakas is a retired photojournalist who caught the fishing fever late in life. He lives in Homer with his wife Ruth, and owns Skookum Charters, a saltwater fishing and eco-tourism charter business.

The Salmon Voices Series is produced by The Salmon Project, an experiment in telling and hearing the stories of Alaskans and our salmon. The project hopes to highlight and deepen Alaskans' strong personal relationships with salmon as food, a source of income, and a way of life. Support for the project is provided by the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.