Do Alaska Anglers Need Special Rules to Compete

January 23, 2005

These are embarrassing days to be an Alaska angler.

Some of our compatriots seem to think we're incompetent. They apparently don't think we can out-fish a walleye fisherman from Minnesota or a bass angler from Alabama. So they've gone to the Alaska Board of Fisheries to ask for a special dispensation.

They want half of the Kenai River king salmon catch set aside for Alaskans only or -- more accurately -- for Alaskans who own Kenai-capable fishing boats. Alaskans who happen to use fishing guides to fish the Kenai would be lumped with the nonresident anglers everyone loves to hate.

Some of the Alaskans engaged in this scheme to bash Kenai guides are people I like. Truth be told, most of them are people with whom I agree on most fisheries management issues.

Not this time.

The proposal to set aside 50 percent of the Kenai king catch for nonguided, resident anglers is just plain greedy. It is being billed as a set-aside for the "common man.'' That claim is, at best, disingenuous.

The "common man'' fishes from the banks of the Kenai because he can't justify the cost of a Kenai river boat and motor. The "common man'' knows it's hard to hook a king from the banks of the river, and even harder to land that fish because of the roaring current.

These are the reasons the "common man'' doesn't catch many Kenai kings.

If someone really wanted to do something for the "common man,'' he or she would identify additional stretches of Kenai shoreline from which it is possible to hook and land kings. These areas would then be closed to anglers in boats -- as a few are already -- to give shore-bound anglers a better chance.

Unfortunately, that isn't the proposal before the board. The proposal before the board is nothing more than an attack on guided anglers.

Why?

Because Kenai boat owners think guides give too big an edge to Joe Schmoe visiting Alaska from Wisconsin on his salmon-fishing trip of a lifetime. Or they don't like Jane Jones from Anchorage catching a fish because she's decided it makes more economic sense to pay $150 to a Kenai guide than to invest $7,000 in a boat and motor she doesn't know how to run.

The Fish Board has already dealt with this issue several times. It has limited the days and hours guides can fish the river and, years ago, banned Kenai guides from fishing while guiding. No longer can they show anglers how to hook a fish or, as happened in some cases, hook fish and hand the rod over to clients.

Guides were relegated to sitting in the boat twiddling their thumbs. Some, of course, countered by learning to "fish'' with their outboard motor. They now troll baits or plugs from behind fishing poles stuffed into rod holders clients are forbidden to touch. The guide watches the rod tips, and if one dips, sets the hook by gunning the outboard.

Having been banned from the use of rod and reel, Kenai guides are now showing they can out-fish other Kenai anglers by using a boat. You would think that Alaska anglers who can't out-fish a boat would be so embarrassed they would go hide, but obviously not.

By now, I'm sure some in the Kenai anti-guide crowd are getting ready to discredit this column with a claim that I must be buddy-buddy with the guides.

I only wish. Those guys apparently know how to fish better than anyone since the disciples, and the latter were operating under the guidance of Jesus. So I'd best state, for the record, that the last time I fished the Kenai with a guide it was Harry Gaines, and he died of cancer in 1991.

Frankly, I don't like fishing with guides. You pay a guide to tell you how to do things, and I don't like to be told how to do things. It's a personal problem that goes back to a golf coach who deconstructed a perfectly good golf swing when I was a teenager. Ever since, my personal attitude toward coaches, instructors and guides has been this:

"OK, who taught Orville and Wilbur Wright to fly?''

Most people don't have this problem. They are happy to listen to advice from an instructor. A fair number of Alaska anglers fall into this group. Some of them probably need Kenai guides more than the tourists do.

Former Daily News sports editor Lew Freedman might never have caught a fish in his decade and a half here were it not for a guide. Freedman simply lacked angling skills.

Daily News fishing report writer Ken Marsh, on the other hand, is the opposite. He was born with a fishing rod in his hand but never stopped trying to improve his abilities. He makes me feel like a fishing stumblebum.

Marsh doesn't need any help to out-fish you, me or any guide. He can compete. He doesn't need the Fish Board to tilt the field to give him an edge. I'm not nearly the angler Marsh is, but I don't want anybody stacking the odds in my favor, either.

It doesn't feel right.

I'm an American. Americans are supposed to be competitors. When the competition gets stiff, we're supposed to try harder -- not ask for special rules guaranteeing success. And that's really what's happening with the Kenai.

A comparative handful of people who own the machinery necessary to effectively fish the state's most popular river are arguing they deserve special treatment. Some of them, no doubt, also believe they represent the "common man.'' They don't.

Someone representing the "common man'' would propose making the whole Kenai River into a drift-only, king-salmon fishery. A ban on fishing from power boats would make guides work a whole lot harder to earn a living, and it would end the gunwale-bashing battles between power boats -- both guided and unguided -- on the lower river.

Get the power boats off the river, and it might be safe for some "common man" to put on a personal flotation device, blow up a $39.95 vinyl raft, and float the hole at Beaver Creek with hopes of hooking a king.

The way it is now, a raft like that wouldn't stand a chance. If a guide boat didn't run it down, deflate it and sink it, one of those 18-foot Kenai barges driven by a nonguided resident certainly would.

The proposal to split the king fishery 50-50 between guides and resident nonguided anglers won't solve this problem. It will only remove the guides from the picture and leave Alaskans wealthy enough to afford Kenai boats to make the chaos. But then, this isn't about minimizing the chaos to make the fishery more accessible to the average Alaskan.

Oh, no.

This is just another manifestation of that unique form of Alaska special-privilege greediness that started with limited entry in the commercial fisheries and morphed into a Tier II subsistence scheme that ensures only old Alaskans with motor homes and four-wheelers can hunt the Nelchina caribou herd. Now it threatens to spin out of control on the Kenai.

Alaskans can already catch all the salmon they need to eat in Alaska-only dipnet fisheries. Now they want to be guaranteed 50 percent of the "sport'' in the king salmon fishery? How much worse can it get?

As an Alaska fisherman and hunter for better than three decades, I'm near ready to give it all up and join the antis. If we can't play fair -- with a simple set of rules that apply to everyone, with only the rarest of exceptions -- then maybe we shouldn't play at all.

Daily News Outdoor editor Craig Medred can be reached at cmedred@adn.com or 257-4588.

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