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  The Venerable Kwikfish…Can It Really Be Considered A Conservation Tool? By Greg Bush  

It’s no secret. Other than in a handful of rivers and bays, Alaska’s Chinook salmon are struggling.

Those charged with managing this resource, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, publicly refer to our present King salmon situation simply as a “period of low abundance”. That vague oxymoron does little to inspire hope in me for the future. I want to know “What happened and how do we fix it?’ Unknown ocean conditions may be beyond our control, but harvest levels aren’t. Perhaps the users of our king salmon resource, myself included, have just “taken, taken, taken” too many kings?

I’m tired of the mean spirited, finger pointing, allocative-based debate that screams, “It’s their fault”. This dead-end approach has occurred in Alaska for decades and I think it’s time to clean our own house. Have you ever heard the trite, but true, saying that says, “If you aren’t part of the solution, you’re likely part of the problem”?

With that in mind, what are the choices for a conservation-minded King salmon angler that wants to do his or her part?

Choosing not to fish for king salmon is certainly an option, although painfully extreme and arguably not necessary in all but a very few isolated instances that ADF&G should already have closed. Focusing your angling effort on waters where you target mixed-stocks is an idea. Homer’s feeder king fishery immediately comes to mind. One could travel to healthy fisheries like Bristol Bay’s Nushagak River where a “harvestable surplus” of kings still exists. Or, how about doing what my clients and I now do: if and when we fish on king salmon stocks that “aren’t quite what they used to be”, we utilize “fish-friendly tackle” and practice proper catch and release.

Despite what anti’s and nay-sayers might claim, the fact of the matter is that catch and release is a very effective and proven management tool. According to a 1990 study conducted by ADF&G biologist Terry Bendock, the hook and release mortality on early run Kenai River king salmon is estimated to be 8.8%, and only 5.9% for the late run. Those numbers sound pretty good, but remember that this 1989 study was done with bait, multiple hooks, and increased handling (creating more stress) to measure, sex and pull scale samples, thus it is very possible that a knowledgeable and conscience sport angler employing proper catch and release and using “fish friendly tackle” might lower his catch and release mortality to as low as 1-2%. In “glass half full” terms, that means that 98-99 out of one hundred Chinook caught and released live to spawn. I can live with that.

Reams of “how to” books, articles and columns have been written illustrating proper catch and release, but what exactly is “fish friendly” tackle?

“Fish friendly tackle” is gear that discourages deep hook sets and facilitates fast and easy release, thereby minimizing mortality during catch and release. In this sense, “fish friendly tackle” could even be called a conservation tool.

Stout rods with heavy line allow an angler to land a king quicker, minimizing exhaustion and speeding recovery. Rubber-coated net baskets remove less bacteria-fighting slime and damage fewer protective scales. Single hooks reduce the chance of a deep, fatal hook set. And, believe it or not, some lures can be more “fish friendly” than others.

Enter Luhr Jensen’s Kwikfish®.

There is little debate amongst seasoned salmon anglers that this venerable plug is one of the all-time greatest Chinook lures ever designed, but can it be called “fish friendly”?

In king salmon appropriate sizes such a K15 and K16, the physical dimensions of these big plugs discourage an aggressive salmon from taking this lure deep. While a Kwikfish’s large profile helps, it is really its action that is so effective. Ask any experienced king fisherman and he will tell you that a Kwikfish’s tantalizing slow-roll produces a vicious strike rather than the feeding response other lures often instigate. When backtrolled through known traveling lanes or good holding water, big kings will slash, grab and turn downstream in an effort to run off with a Kwikfish. As the angler’s line comes tight, the lure is pulled through the fishes mouth and the hook lines up precisely in the bony corner of the king’s mouth, nearly every time.

Conservation minded anglers who choose to fish catch and release for Alaska’s king salmon can minimize mortality even more by slightly tweaking their plug. First, change the stock trebles to one 5/0 or 6/0 single siwash hook and think about pinching the barb. Next, consider not wrapping your Kwikfish with smelly sardines if scent and bait is legal. In this way, you will be using the most effective conservation-minded king salmon lure ever designed and employing truly “fish friendly tackle”, thereby practicing proper catch and release.

Short of never fishing for king salmon again, it’s the right thing to do considering our present “period of low abundance”.


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