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Salmon are slammin' at Anchorage's Ship Creek

  • Author: Matt Tunseth
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published June 18, 2015

Perhaps the only thing hotter than Anchorage's record-breaking weather is the city's red-hot king salmon fishing.

"This morning was absolutely on fire," Alaska Department of Fish and Game program technician Shane Hertzog said Wednesday afternoon.

Up and down the bustling industrial shores of Ship Creek, anglers carrying chinook salmon have become as common a sight as a fly-by from a fighter jet or the passing of a freight train near the unique urban fishing hole.

Locals say fishing is as good as they've seen in recent years, with the bulk of the run slamming into the creek with such force that catching a king is about as sure a bet as you'll find in fishing.

"It's probably been over a decade since we've seen it like this," said Dustin Slinker, who owns the stream-side Bait Shack tackle shop.

Slinker said the best time to fish is on the incoming tide, especially early in the morning or at night. Fishing is open 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Cured salmon roe works well, as do coho flies, Spin-n-Glos and "corkies" -- small, round floating lures that are fished above a single or double hook and beneath a lead sinker.

Bigger smolt

Hertzog said it's still too early to say why this year's run is so strong. It could just be that the fish are arriving earlier than usual.

"We don't know if it's front-loaded," he said of the run.

However, one difference between this year's run and those of previous years is the number of high-quality smolt released from the William Jack Hernandez hatchery on Ship Creek. Completed in 2011, the hatchery released more than 320,000 juvenile kings in the summer of 2012. That's about the same as the year before, but on average, those 2012 smolt were more than 10 percent bigger than smolt released in previous years. Bigger smolt typically survive better in the open ocean.

"If it's not front-loaded, I think that would explain why Ship Creek is doing as good as it is," Hertzog said.

Fisherman Rod Weaver Jr. works at the nearby shipping container yard, one of the many industrial facilities that line the waterway wedged between downtown and the Port of Anchorage. Wednesday, Weaver stopped by Ship Creek on his lunch break and had a 21.5-pound king salmon on shore within about 15 minutes.

"Working near here makes it nice to just pop on by," he said.

Weaver caught his king on a single corkie that he drifted beneath a lead weight. After catching his fish, he immediately took it to the headquarters of the Downtown Soup Kitchen's Slam'n Salm'n Derby to be weighed and entered. Although it was still just 12:35 p.m., Weaver's catch was the 43rd king entered that day.

Close and convenient

Another avid angler, Anchorage's Ruben Ramirez, said he used to fish the Russian River for sockeye but has turned his attention to Ship Creek more and more each year because of the urban fishery's convenience.

"It's close and we can do more fishing," he said after catching a small king Wednesday.

Downtown Soup Kitchen development and outreach director Angelique Miller said there have already been more than 250 fish entered in this year's derby. Tuesday, she said a dry-erase board listing the day's catches had to be cleared off because it was overflowing with entries.

"A lot of fish have been coming in, and people are excited," she said.

As of Wednesday, the largest fish in the derby was a 37.55-pound king caught by Maria Jarvis, but that spot could be in serious jeopardy over the next few days, according to Slinker.

"It's only going to get better," he said. Last year's winner, caught by Anchorage's Kirby Shurtz, weighed 42.3 pounds.

The derby is free to enter, although anglers must pick up a ticket at derby headquarters at a tent across from the Ulu Factory. It runs 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily and closes at noon Sunday.

First prize is a gold medallion, but Miller said there are dozens of other prizes available for everything from the smallest fish entered to daily prizes for the biggest fish, plus tagged fish worth up to $1,000. For information, visit the derby's website at shipcreeksalmonderby.com.

Miller said there's also raffle prizes and an award for the most sportsmanlike fisherman, meaning anglers don't even have to catch a fish to win.

However, there may be no better time to catch a king, and Slinker believes Ship Creek could be the best place to fish in Alaska right now.

"I think we're fishing better than anywhere else," he said.

The fishery is popular with locals and tourists alike for its ease of access and proximity to downtown. It's a great place for novice anglers to learn how to fish for salmon because all of the equipment -- from hip waders to fishing poles to cured salmon roe -- can be found nearby. Slinker said he'll rent out everything from his shop and he even gives anglers hints on where to fish.

"We want to tell them how to do it, when to do it, anything we can to help them catch fish," he said.

He'll even fillet fish for folks unfamiliar with how to clean salmon and offers how-to seminars each Saturday. Check the Bait Shack Facebook page for details on where and when to catch an upcoming seminar.

Unlike many anglers, Slinker has no qualms about giving up Ship Creek's secrets. When a little kid or someone from Outside hooks into a big king, that's far more of a reward than catching one himself, he said.

"That's the payoff for me," he said.

Colorado's Wayne Schell traveled with his wife to Alaska in a motor home this summer as a "bucket list" trip. The Schells are staying at the nearby Ship Creek RV Park, a five-minute walk from the creek. Schell fished Wednesday morning, but didn't have much luck. Still, he was pleasantly surprised to learn he could fish so close to where he was camped out.

"We chose this for being closer to downtown," he said while working on his motor home beneath cloudless blue skies Wednesday. "We expected fishing here in Alaska, but we didn't know it was going to be right downtown. That's pretty neat."

Weekend best bets:

Eklutna Tailrace coming on strong

King fishing at the Eklutna Tailrace off the Old Glenn Highway is reportedly strong, and this weekend could be the perfect time to get a kid hooked on fishing at the low-key fishery near the Butte.

Saturday from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., the Department of Fish and Game has created a youth-only fishery at the tailrace, a hatchery-supported fishery where the outflow from the Eklutna Power Plant flows into the Knik River. Fish and Game biologist Samantha Osland, who works out of the department's Palmer office, said the fishery will be open to anglers ages 15 and younger from below the pedestrian bridge to the mouth of the tailrace. The idea is to give kids a place to fish without having to compete with older anglers.

"They like having their own fishery," she said.

Wednesday, Osland said a Fish and Game employee pulled a king out of the tailrace before coming into work.

"Early morning fishing seems to be the most productive," she said.

Osland said salmon eggs work well, as have pink Vibrax spinners. The tailrace is a great place to take kids, she said, because it's a slow-moving waterway with a large nearby parking lot and lots of room to fish from shore.

"It's a very kid-friendly location," she said.

Rush to the Russian

Early-run sockeye salmon fishing on the Russian and Kenai Rivers continues to build. According to Fish and Game, almost 2,000 fish were counted past the department's weir at the outlet of Lower Russian Lake on Tuesday, the highest count so far this season.

The department's online fishing report says angling is expected to get better, with a larger-than-average return forecast for the early run.

Russian River access can be tricky. There are several campgrounds on the river, but they're full almost all summer, meaning long lines for anglers hoping to get a spot. There's also a ferry at Sportsman's Landing, where anglers can park their vehicle and pay to take a boat ride across the Kenai River.

Beware wildfires

The Sockeye fire in the Willow area has limited travel between Mile 63 and Mile 88 of the Parks Highway and forced road closures to Deshka Landing.

"Access to the Susitna River drainages is still available at Susitna Landing and this facility remains open," according to a Fish and Game press release.

For updates on travel along the Parks Highway, anglers can call 511.

Contact reporter Matt Tunseth at 257-4335 or mtunseth@alaskadispatch.com

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