“That was a school of coho salmon!”, I shouted as we rounded a deep, silty pool in our inflatable red canoe. It was the morning of July 26th and we had just begun a survey of Campbell Creek to count ruby-red king and sockeye salmon in the heart of Anchorage. While these species are pairing up to spawn in the riffles of Campbell Creek in late July, the coho salmon are just arriving; still silvery, occasionally dotted with sea lice, and hungry for spinners or eggs under slip bobbers.
Campbell Creek has been home to coho salmon for generations, but the inevitable urbanization of Anchorage led to difficulties for these fish. For example, young coho salmon need extensive boggy wetlands where they can feed on insects and grow quickly in the warm summer months. Coho also require high water quality, with low pollutant levels and limited erosion so their eggs do not get buried under a blanket of sediment. As Anchorage grew, wetlands were exchanged for creek-side subdivisions and runoff from highways reduced water quality, limiting the natural run of coho salmon to only about 150 individuals in the late 1980s. While Campbell could not support the entire life cycle of coho salmon, anglers and fisheries managers alike wanted to create a unique urban fishery in the middle of town, so the Elmendorf Fish Hatchery was enlisted to help in 1992. Now the William Jack Hernandez Sportfish Hatchery raises and releases 50,000 5-inch coho salmon smolt into Campbell Creek to return as large silvery adults ready to be caught for fun and food.
As a new sportfish biologist in Anchorage from Fairbanks, salmon fishing is still new to me. After spotting numerous coho salmon on our survey of Campbell Creek, I had to give this urban fishery a try. Floating Campbell Creek from Piper Street down to Dimond Boulevard provided an incredibly fishy perspective that you can’t quite get from Google maps (though I would caution even experienced boaters from floating this winding and splashy creek). It might appear tame from above, but several abandoned kayaks and torn pool floaties along our float suggested otherwise. As we ping-ponged into alder-laden banks, waved hello to tourists on the trail, and anxiously drifted by an angry mother moose, I saw many bright flashes of coho salmon in deep pools among downed spruce trees, likely resting after they journeyed up the creek overnight.
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