Backstory: Anchorage reels in a true fish story

An urban fishing spot where office workers can run down the block on a coffee break and land a 40-pound salmon.

At one of Alaska's hottest sport-fishing spots, the salmon run large, scrap-seeking seagulls and an occasional bald eagle circle overhead, cool marine breezes fan the swaying marsh grasses – and the tall buildings of downtown Anchorage loom just steps away.

Ship Creek, the waterway running through the core of Alaska's biggest city, is home to a unique downtown salmon fishery. It may be the only urban spot in North America where anglers stand nearly shoulder-to-shoulder on the shoreline in hopes of hooking salmon.

On an overcast July afternoon, with the cresting salt-water tide bringing king and silver salmon into the creek from nearby Cook Inlet, peak fishing coincides happily with workers' quitting times. About 50 people – downtown workers fresh from their jobs, family groups with children darting in and out of the trees on the bluff above the creek, and tourists – stand on the bank fishing a block-long section between two bridges as windbreaker-clad sightseers watch, some recording the scene on video.

A tour bus rolls by. More anglers, carrying their rods, gear, and an occasional folding chair, migrate down to the creek. Even though there is nearly endless daylight remaining in this mid-summer evening in Alaska, the best time of the day to catch a salmon at Ship Creek is right now.

This is no Alaska wilderness fishing stream.

"OK. You don't have the pristine environment of the Russian River. There aren't bears walking along. You have crowds sometimes," concedes John Reed, a human resources manager stationed at Fort Richardson Army Base, located just up the hill. "But it's not bad."

Mr. Reed, who comes down to the creek often after work, says he enjoys the camaraderie and the atmosphere as much as the salmon. "If the fishing's not good, you can walk up the hill and have ... a good meal," he says. "And it's not like you have to drive an hour to get here."

For his wife, Michelle, the fishing is definitely good. Before coming here, she'd never fished, but she hooked her very first a couple of weeks ago – a 40-pound, attention-grabbing king salmon.

"To have this first one be a monster was really exciting," says Mrs. Reed, dressed in jeans and rubber boots, and looking nothing like a rookie angler.

Proximity to the workplace doesn't always enhance job attendance, suggests Chris Schweigert, who works at a nearby tour company. A couple of years ago, he and a buddy called in sick, intending to get an early start on their fishing at Ship Creek. Immediately, they caught their limit. Instead of showing up on the job and pretending to have a miraculous recovery, the two spent the day at home cleaning fish.

"We were here at 5, done by 6," he says, as he casts his line repeatedly into the creek. "I went in the next day and 'fessed up to my boss."

The calling-in-sick phenomenon is widespread, according to one Ship Creek expert. "You see a lot of lunch-breakers-plus – people calling in sick for the rest of the day," says George Petry, who runs Riverside Adventures, a small fishing-supply shop on the creek bank.

Mr. Petry, dressed in an authentically Alaskan plaid shirt patched with duct tape, is a contractor but runs the shop with his family as a labor of love. They've fished here for years. Daughter Brittany, who works at the store, remembers catching a 21-pound fish the summer she turned 21. Customers can buy snacks, coffee, and fishing licenses, and can rent all the equipment needed to fish. There is brisk business from tourists and airline pilots, in town briefly.

Ship Creek wasn't always such a magnet for anglers. Actually, this downtown area used to be considered an eyesore. The creek runs through one of Anchorage's warehouse districts. The noisy Alaska Railroad rail yard is next door. Beyond that is the near-constant background sound of the port, where beeping forklifts and rumbling tractor-trailers ferry cargo from ships.

The state Department of Fish and Game tried for years to establish salmon runs strong enough to support a downtown sport fishery, but it wasn't until the 1980s that they hit on the right type of stock to support one, says Dan Bosch, assistant management biologist for the Anchorage area.

Now the creek has a sport-fish catch of about 12,000 salmon a year, he says. The only comparable urban fishery might be in Portland, Ore., where the Columbia and Willamette rivers meet, Mr. Bosch adds. But anglers there work mostly in boats and are more spread out than here.

Ship Creek fishery has deflected pressure on wild stocks and given city-bound residents the chance to wet a line, says Bosch. Are the fish good eating? "Absolutely. These are great fish."

And so far, the downtown location hasn't meant any unusual problems. Fishing limits and license requirements are enforced, and local officials have begun a program to protect the stream side from erosion by foot traffic.

Coinciding with the growth of sport fishing is a long-term effort by Anchorage municipal officials to remake Ship Creek from an industrial zone into a tourist destination.

A gradual facelift is in progress. A flower-lined bike path and walkway wend along the creek, and shrubbery buffers pedestrians from industrial shops. Amid the rail yard, warehouses, and port traffic are several new tourist destinations – a hotel, shops and an upscale restaurant called The Bridge. Patrons there gaze out at anglers while enjoying such offerings as crab-and-mango tempura rolls, grilled asparagus, crème brûlée and – of course – all varieties of fresh Alaskan salmon and halibut.

It's common for diners in one whole side of the restaurant to erupt in applause when an angler they see out their windows lands a salmon, says managing partner Ashi Samarasingher.

The Petry family has participated in the beautification effort, painting their shop a cheery red and installing flower pots around the shop to make it look homey despite its location beneath a highway overpass full of thundering truck traffic.

They seem proud of Ship Creek and its growing fishing tradition. "I'm sure there are other states in the Lower 48 that have the same situation. But I bet you the fish are lousy," Petry says.

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