May 7, 2006
Strangely enough, a silver caught in April
EARLY FIND: The salmon usually don't show up here until July
By Craig Medred
Anchorage Daily News
ANCHORAGE -- A quest for the legendary stream salmon of April ended Thursday for fishing guide Andy Couch of Palmer, and then things got a little weird.
What Couch had hoped to document was that king salmon -- the big fish of late May and June in Southcentral Alaska -- sometimes get ahead of themselves in the rush to procreate. It had long been rumored that an occasional king shows up in area waters as early as April when shore ice still clings to stream banks and the snow has yet to melt fully from the woods.
And the fish Couch pulled from the Eklutna tailrace along the Matanuska River did, indeed, prove some salmon come back early, way early.
What Couch caught was not a king, but a silver salmon. Silvers are supposed to be far at sea in April. They usually don't show in these waters until July, maybe the end of June if they're at the very front of a strong run.
To say that Couch -- who grew up in the Valley, once worked for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and has now been a fishing guide for about 20 years -- was shocked would be an understatement.
"It's just about unbelievable," he said.
Mike Hudson at Three Rivers Fly &Tackle in Wasilla went even further.
"If I hadn't physically looked at the fish,'' he said, "I would have said bull---- all the way to town.
"A silver, that's freaky."
Couch caught the fish at the tailrace of the Eklutna power plant along the Matanuska River south of Palmer. Fish and Game runs a stocking program there for king and silver salmon. The agency has been trying to build an early run of kings to the tailrace, which is why Couch, an admitted salmon addict, went there looking for fish.
"I've been trying to catch a king salmon out of the tailrace in April for three years," Couch said. "I saw a jack (a small, sexually immature but precocious male salmon) caught two years ago."
And there have been persistent rumors of a mature king or two either being caught or seen in the tailrace in the cold and snow of Aprils past. Given the few people who try fishing in that month, though, it has been hard to tell how much faith to put in the rumor, Couch added.
"You've got to love fishing to be out there in April," he said. "I kind of get out there and do the extreme thing."
Couch often has the place all to himself, but that could change quickly. Area sport-fisheries biologist Dave Rutz said word of Couch's catch had generated quite a little buzz in the Valley.
"Pretty soon, I'm sure, we're going to hear there's a whole school in there," he said.
Couch cautions that anglers shouldn't get their hopes up. Usually, he admits, when he goes to the tailrace this time of year, he doesn't see anything. Thursday was a rare exception.
"There was a fish he could see in the water," Hudson said.
So Couch rigged a line and cast to it. The fish hit, and the rest is a unique fish story. A true one.
Couch has the witnesses to prove it, no matter how wacky the report of someone catching a mature, 5.3-pound, chrome-bright silver salmon looking to spawn in April.
"It was like a fish straight out of the ocean," Couch said. "The earliest I've ever seen coho (silver) before is late June."
Rutz said he has little doubt that Couch, who has been handling Alaska salmon for decades, properly identified the salmon.
"He can probably identify one better than a lot of people I know," Rutz said.
Couch thinks maybe his odd silver was some wigged-out hatchery fish. Hatchery-spawned fish across Alaska have been know to behave somewhat strangely from time to time.
"The way they raise those fish is certainly different from the way wild fish (develop)," Couch said. That, he added, might mess up a salmon's sense of when to return to spawn. This one won't be spawning. Couch plans to eat it.
Rutz said he hopes to get a scale sample from the fish first. Fish and Game now has a DNA testing program that makes it possible to identify a salmon's origin based on a scale.
Rutz isn't buying the hatchery theory. He thinks the fish might be of Jim Creek origin.
Rutz said there have been reports of strangely early silver salmon showing up in that tributary to the Matanuska just a few miles upstream from the Eklutna tailrace.
"It's pretty strange," Rutz said. "(But) every now and then one goes in Jim Creek."
Couch, meanwhile, has resumed his search for a similarly early king, although with the calendar having rolled into May it would no longer be all that unusual to see one of those fish back.
"A few years back, I got one on May 1 out of the Little Su," Couch said, referring to the Little Susitna River, where the angling for kings is usually under way in earnest by the middle of May.