The renewed lure of king salmon draws urban fishermen in Anchorage, Alaska

“It’s really noisy,” Dorcas Willie-Milligrock says of fishing for chinook on Ship Creek in Anchorage.

“It’s really noisy,” Dorcas Willie-Milligrock says of fishing for chinook on Ship Creek in Anchorage.

(Kyle Hopkins / For the Los Angeles Times)

With gleaming office towers filling the skyline behind him, Iutisone Iaulualo stood on the muddy banks of Ship Creek telling friends a fish story.

He had landed a 22-pound king salmon here a few days ago, and after years of living in Alaska, his kids were finally getting a taste for the rich, fatty fish.

“I smoked it with lemon and fried it,” Iaulualo said to his Samoan fishing buddies. “They finished the whole salmon.”

For Alaska city-dwellers, the prized king salmon, which can weigh as much as an elementary school child and sell for $25 a pound elsewhere in the country, has surged back to Ship Creek.

Anchorage is the only metropolis in the United States where downtown streets end in a world-class salmon-fishing hole.


Despite having closed the creek to sportfishing for kings as recently as last year, state Fish and Game officials say fishing in the city has rebounded this summer as spawning fish head upstream to a $100-million hatchery completed in 2011.

The department’s annual survey of local fishermen estimated the catch at about 1,300 kings in the Anchorage area in 2013, the most recent number available. That’s a big boost from the 10-year low of about 330 the year before.

“I’ve seen more people fishing, and I’ve seen better fish caught this year than ever,” said Ryan Ragan, an Anchorage-based Fish and Game information officer who sometimes fishes the creek on his lunch break. “Every day I go down there, man, I see multiple 30-pound fish come out.”

Even for Alaska old-timers, the river is a spectacle. Ship Creek pours from the Chugach Mountains past dense Anchorage neighborhoods where violent crime rates are among the highest in the nation and homeless people sleep in tents under the midnight sun.

The river flows past roadside moose and below a midcity airport, where propeller planes buzz overhead like fat, white bees.

In some places, it trickles like a pale-green creek, split by islands of waffled, sucking mud. In others, anglers wade to their hips in freezing, blue-black water.

Alaska’s most prized salmon arrive here in early summer. Also known as chinook, they’re treasured by commercial fishermen in cash-poor rural Alaska villages and by sport fishermen.

A single fish fills a backyard grill with thick, pink steaks. Fried in chunks, a modest king can feed a party.

By the time they reach Ship Creek the salmon are looking to spawn rather than feed and have grown stubborn, fishermen say, with the bigger fish idling in the deepest water.

“Once they move from the ocean to fresh water, if they do bite, they are biting because they are aggressive,” said Roseanne Leydon, a 55-year-old transplant from Honolulu who is still trying for her first king.

She is competing elbow to elbow with a cross-section of Anchorage anglers to catch the mammoth chinook.

Crusty Alaska sourdoughs, vests flecked with dried scales, lend nets to buzz-cut soldiers stationed at the nearby Army base. Tourists overdressed for the 60-degree weather scrabble in the muck beside stay-at-home Anchorage moms.

A pipe fitter from nearby Eagle River hoisted his son on his shoulders and carried two chrome kings to the parking lot, where derby organizers awarded small silver bars for the biggest catches of the season.

Maria Robinson, 47-year-old Army veteran and mother of four who calls the creek “mama’s playground,” showed up in red lipstick and leather flats to collect her derby prize for a 37.55-pound king.

She began fishing the river 13 years ago, when her husband was first stationed in Anchorage. A neighbor introduced her to the river full of salmon 5 minutes from her door.

Robinson saw the soldiers and airmen wearing waders over their fatigues and the businessmen in rubber Xtratuf boots. Soon, she was waking up before her kids to chase the kings. “I got hooked,” she said.

To keep the river stocked, Fish and Game released 365,246 tiny hatchery kings into Ship Creek in early June.

The 5-inch smolt will head to sea, with survivors returning in two or more years in an attempt to spawn. Those that escape hooks and slip past anglers wading in the center of the river dart upstream, where workers collect eggs and milt to start the cycle again.

The result is a reliable stream of king salmon in a state where low returns of the prize fish have led to disaster declarations for commercial fishermen and arrests of protesting Yupik gill netters who catch the salmon for food.

Dorcas Willie-Milligrock, who moved to the city a month ago from the Arctic whaling town of Barrow, was eager to catch a king for herself.

“It’s really noisy,” she said. She baited her hook with a dime-sized glob of bowhead whale fat.

Back home she had fished in silence and solitude, catching long whitefish through a hole in the frozen Chukchi Sea. Here, cargo trucks thunder overhead across a four-lane concrete bridge.

But her first king has been elusive in her first month of city fishing. Maybe the muktuk bait will change her luck, Willie-Milligrock said.

As she talked, her daughter played on the rocky banks and dozens of onlookers, mostly tourists and would-be anglers, watched from a wooden trestle bridge above. If she catches a king, Willie-Milligrock said, she’ll freeze it and eat it this winter with seal oil.

Ignoring the hollering of onlookers and rumbling traffic overheard, she cast her hook and waited.

Hopkins is a special correspondent.