It was in early May of 1985 when Soldotna resident Les Anderson hooked into a big fish while fishing the Kenai River. That big fish was not only big, it was the biggest: a 97-pound King salmon that to this day remains the world record.
Anderson's catch further enhanced the Kenai River's reputation as a world-class sports fishery. People from all over Alaska and other countries came here for a chance at catching a trophy King.
Over the past three summers that reputation has been tarnished. The low number of kings returning to spawn in the Kenai has forced the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to impose numerous regulations on sports anglers, including bait restrictions, catch-and-release stipulations and finally this season an outright ban.
The uncertainty surrounding the fishery resulted in fewer visitors to places like Soldotna and Kenai. The uncertainty has hurt the economy in those towns.
Jim Golden who runs Trustworthy Charters in Soldotna books fishing trips for 18 different fishing guides. He says business is down by almost 60 percent over the past three summers.
Next door at Trustworthy Hardware and Fishing, co-owner Scott Miller says about 60 percent of his sales of fishing gear come during the month of July. This season those sales are down 25 percent compared to the same time last year.
While business is a worry, Miller and Golden are also concerned about the reputation of the Kenai. They say each season’s set of restrictions means anglers are finding new places to fish. According to Miller, a group of sports fishermen from Germany who came to the Kenai for years recently decided to try their luck in Canada.
Miller says there used to be a buzz in town when someone hooked a really big king. The fish was rushed off to be weighed. The newspaper would show up to do a story. The news stations would do stories. He says that's not happening now.
Businesses are now focusing more on other species of salmon, like reds and silvers. Golden says they're fun fish to catch, but they don't generate the kind of excitement the mighty king does.
No one knows for sure what's causing the low return of Chinooks to the Kenai. There are plenty of theories. Fish biologists are working hard to find a concrete answer.
For now, folks like Scott Miller and Jim Golden hope the answers come soon and the luster returns to the Kenai River.