Harold Richards removes dirt and pebbles from a salmon his caught in Ship Creek in Anchorage on Wednesday, June 9, 2021. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

Early on a recent Wednesday morning, anglers in Anchorage lined Ship Creek and cast lines to catch returning chinook salmon.

Just minutes after 6 a.m., shouts of “fish on!” fluttered across the shore.

“Uncle! Uncle!” Marvin Richards yelled to Harold Richards. The top of his rod was bouncing as it rested in a holder.

Harold Richards grabbed the rod, moved it sharply up and to his right and hooked a salmon. His nephew grabbed a net and ran to the shore to help guide the chinook in.

With a grin that spanned the width of his face, Richards placed the fish in the grass and set the line again next to his nephew.

Anglers cast their lines in Ship Creek at 6 a.m. to fish for salmon. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

Similar scenes unfolded throughout the morning thanks in part to an ongoing effort from staff at the William Jack Hernandez Sport Fish Hatchery, where each year they raise the next salmon that will mature in the wild and return to Ship Creek in three to five years.

There, Alaska Department of Fish and Game fish culturists have raised the newest group of king salmon, which started as eggs last July and grew into smolt this spring. It’s part of an endeavor that’s been happening at the Anchorage hatchery for years.

It all begins with the yearly eggtake from chinooks returning to Ship Creek, a uniquely urban waterway that partially flows along the edge of downtown Anchorage. After the eggs are fertilized, they’re loaded into incubators surrounded by warm lights that mimic the color of the tens of thousands of orange eggs.

Eggs spill into a bucket from an adult female king salmon during an eggtake at the hatchery on July 22, 2020. (Emily Mesner / ADN)
Fish culturist Tim VanGelderen adds a light saline solution mixed in water to a bucket containing king salmon eggs and milt on July 23, 2020. (Emily Mesner / ADN)
Fish culturist Scott Cunfer adjusts trays used to hold eggs during incubation in July, 2020 . (Emily Mesner / ADN)

For months, it was up to fish culturists Scott Cunfer and Tim VanGelderen to keep these eggs alive and ensure their growth into fry. Long nights, daily checks and frequent cleanings are just a portion of the list when it comes to this job.

“I’ve just always enjoyed watching animals grow,” said Cunfer, who grew up around farm animals. “It’s just enjoyable to watch these fish get bigger and bigger … and to see it all happen in front of your eyes at such a quick pace.”

By mid-January, the fish weighed about 3 grams and were transferred to the production floor, Cunfer said. From there, fish culturists Cody Block and Greg Carpenter took over. Continued months of monitoring, disease control and cleaning took place as the salmon grew.

Scott Cunfer holds a newly hatched king salmon on Oct. 5, 2020. At this stage, the salmon's yolk sac is still attached and is providing essential nutrients for fin and organ growth. (Emily Mesner / ADN)
Nearly 87,000 salmon fry swim around a tank as they adjust to life outside of the incubation room on November 16. Once they outgrow this 2190-gallon tank they will be transferred to a larger tank. (Emily Mesner / ADN)
Scott Cunfer transfers trays of salmon fry into net baskets in November. (Emily Mesner / ADN)
Water flows through tubes as salmon fingerlings are transferred to a larger tank at the hatchery on Jan. 19, 2021. (Emily Mesner / ADN)
King salmon fingerlings flow through a tube that leads to a counter and large tank at the hatchery in January. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

“You worry about it all the time,” Carpenter said about the health of the fish during their time at the hatchery.

Earlier this month, the salmon were transferred to outdoor raceways that contained Ship Creek water. The fish imprint on this water, ensuring their eventual return, for about five days before being released.

Hatchery staff begin to remove barriers from the outdoor raceways to allow salmon smolt to be released into Ship Creek on June 7, 2021. (Emily Mesner / ADN)
A small king salmon swims to the surface of the outdoor runway. The salmon were held in the runway in order to imprint on Ship Creek water and were released into the creek about five days later. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

Staff then released the 580,000 chinook salmon smolt into the creek.

Kids, teenagers and adults watched the release as harlequin ducks swam to the edge of the fish ladder, hoping to catch an afternoon snack.

A fish ladder extends into Ship Creek as thousands of king salmon smolt run through it and into the water. (Emily Mesner / ADN)
People gather at a viewing area at the hatchery and watch as salmon smolt are released. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

“We’re putting these fish out there in order to give (people) a good opportunity … to enjoy this culture, heritage of fishing,” Cunfer said.

In the next six weeks, fish culturists will transfer 3.2 million fish out of the hatchery and into Alaska’s water sources, Carpenter said.

Just a few miles downstream from the hatchery, anglers have been gathering along the waterway in downtown Anchorage to catch returning adult salmon who left the hatchery as smolt years ago.

People bring a king salmon to shore from Ship Creek while fishing on June 9. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

Marvin Richards, who has been fishing most of his life, said it was his uncle Harold who got him into the activity.

They and cousin Mary Walker, all originally from Holy Cross, spent the morning watching the water intently and waiting for their next bite.

“That’s good eatin’,” Owen Brooks said after he helped Robert Rozelle bring in a king a couple hundred feet down the shore.

A 20-pound chinook caught by George Elgarico was that morning’s showstopper.

“It’s rewarding to see people actually catch the returning cohos and kings,” Carpenter said. “It’s just a continuous cycle every year.”

Johnny Aguilar, left, and George Elgarico lift a king salmon and weigh it.The salmon, caught by Elgarico, weighed in at just over 20 pounds. (Emily Mesner / ADN)