Alaska anglers are known to keep their hottest fishing holes secret. But one such "secret" is out: After years of dismal king salmon returns, Ship Creek -- in the heart of Anchorage -- is heating up.
People are noticing.
Dozens of kings are being hauled in on each tide and, unlike in years past, most of the fish are full-size adults, not jacks -- the name given to juvenile fish that return to freshwater too early and rarely exceed 20 inches in length.
Thursday saw about 200 people fishing Ship Creek, which runs from the Chugach Mountains to Cook Inlet and dumps into the muddy waters beside the Port of Anchorage. The easy access can attract lots of anglers, who can walk to the creek bank from downtown Anchorage business offices. And this year, the Ship Creek experience involves more than casting. Many anglers are catching fish, too.
"That's what we are seeing. It is great," Alaska Department of Fish and Game information officer Ryan Ragan said. "The water conditions are really good, and we are seeing some phenomenal returns of those kings. They are beautiful kings."
The word "phenomenal" has rarely, if ever, been used to describe Ship Creek king salmon fishing over the last five years. Like many rivers and streams across Alaska, Ship Creek has seen its king salmon returns dwindle. It is is difficult to say, for certain, just how many fish are coming into the creek. There is no weir, test fishery, or sonar for Ship Creek Kings. But this year, judging by the anecdotes of several fishermen, the big fish have returned in better numbers and bigger sizes.
One reason may involve the new William Jack Hernandez Sport Fish Hatchery. Opened in 2011, the hatchery has provided larger and healthier salmon fry for stocking. The first king smolt from the hatchery -- 340,000 of them -- hit Ship Creek in 2012. Hatchery managers say they only need 750 fish for their brood stock -- that is fish that provide eggs and sperm to begin the cycle the following year. Fish and Game said it wants people to catch the rest of the kings.
The "phenomenal" Ship Creek fishing comes with a catch. It is still early in the run. Fishing on the creek usually doesn't peak until mid- to late June. And even though fish are being caught, it can take hours of flogging the water before you hook one.
The wait paid off for 12-year-old Claire Meeds on Thursday; her dad helped her land a 10-pound salmon.
"I was really excited that we finally got one because we had been fishing for about two hours and hadn't got anything yet," she said.
Other people have fished for days without landing a king. But the fish clearly have arrived in time for next week's start of the annual Ship Creek Slam'n Salm'n Derby, a fundraiser for the Downtown Soup Kitchen, which serves about 600 people per day. The derby runs from 6 a.m. Friday, June 13 through noon, Sunday, June 22. Derby tickets are free, paid for by the event's major sponsor, Microcom. But derby officials accept donations, which last year totaled about $50,000, at the fish shack set up prior to the event.
"Last year we were amazed because it was slow fishing and there was still a lot of participation," said Angelique Miller, the Downtown Soup Kitchen's director of development.
In 2013, the biggest fish caught during the derby weighed only 29 pounds, earning the distinction of being the smallest derby winner in history. But this year, biologists, derby officials and people familiar with the creek said it may take a 40-pound-plus fish to take home the new 16-foot Cataraft and trailer that go to the winner.
"I'm seeing a lot of bigger fish, more so on the upper part of the creek," said Dustin Slinker, owner of Ship Creek Bait Shack. "I have been seeing a lot of 30-pounders coming out of here."
Some Ship Creek fishermen said they thought this year could even produce a derby record, topping Craig Harrison's 50.2-pounder, caught in 2005.
Even though the derby is about a week away, anglers were excited to get some practice in -- and actually catch some fish -- on Thursday.
Priscilla Hunter showed up near the creek's mouth in the afternoon. In less than an hour, she landed a fresh, 23-pound king. Hunter said she had been posting on Facebook and hadn't noticed the fish strike her eggs. But soon, the line took off, and the fight was on. Without a net of her own, she was thankful a nearby group of 20-something soldiers helped her land the fish. And Hunter returned the favor, giving the men all her "special formula" cured salmon eggs, collected on a fishing trip to Bethel last year.
"They always say the Native way is that you have to give some away to keep it, so that was my way," Hunter said. "I gave away some of my good luck to someone else so that they could be blessed."
Contact Sean Doogan at sean(at)alaskadispatch.com.