JOSTLING fly rods, the fishermen smile as they stand next to the Grumman Goose in the Dillingham airport. From the plane, their guide waves them aboard. Across the front of his shirt is written, ``Fish The Great One.'' As he turns to follow them inside and the plane roars to life, the words on his back reveal their destination: ``The Chosen.'' The third flight that day, they are headed for Alaska's Kanektok River, one so special that some guides won't speak of it by name. ``Many consider the Kanektok the greatest sport fishing river in the world,'' says John Kibbons, a 10-year Alaska guide. ``They fear if its real name gets out, it'll be ruined.'' Mr. Kibbons shakes his head. ``But it's too late. It's already happened.''
Kibbons, who has stopped fishing the Kanektok, explains why. ``With so many fishermen, it's no longer my idea of wilderness. But I also don't feel welcome. The natives resent us. We threaten their way of life and they're angry. They have some legitimate grievances, and I won't be part of the problem anymore.''
Located 400 miles southwest of Anchorage, the clear waters of the Kanektok flow out of the 4.3 million-acre Togiak National Wildlife Refuge, an area equal to Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. Officially designated in 1980, the refuge contains Alaska's second largest wilderness. This tundra land of lakes, mountains, and rivers lies between the maritime climate of Bristol Bay and the harsh extremes of continental Alaska. Scattered throughout the refuge are 3,200 people, most of whom are Yup'ik Eskimo.
In Quinhagak, a village of 500 located at the mouth of the river, salmon fishing is the chief economy. ``This industry is essentially the only opportunity villagers have,'' says state biologist Kim Francisco, who manages the area's commercial fisheries. Still, Quinhagak accounts for only a fraction of Alaska's annual salmon harvest. With an average household income of $5,000, the village is well behind the $27,000 regional average.
Many villages like Quinhagak augment income from commercial fishing with a proven rural tradition - subsistence. It's a way of life that depends less on a cash economy and more on fishing for personal use.
After the passage of a law that established Alaska native ownership of land 18 years ago, Congress expanded the federal conservation system in 1980, giving subsistence users access to federal land and a preference over other users. Subsistence is supposed to coexist with other uses; if wildlife populations decline, subsistence is given priority.
Although most natives favor this law, the concept of private ownership has been difficult. In the past, hunting and fishing rights were based on prior use, kinship, and regional affiliation. Natives didn't consider themselves proprietors of land with rigid boundaries.
Still, Quinhagak made its selections along the Kanektok, some 20 miles upstream from the village. Afterward, a refuge management plan was adopted and land above this boundary was designated wilderness. The river itself remained in the public domain.
By 1981, a change had taken place on the Kanektok. Word of the river leaked to an affluent sport fishing industry. Nonnative guides began floating on the river from Kagati Lake to Quinhagak.
``Those first years were amazing,'' says Kibbons. ``The number of fish, particularly large fish, was phenomenal.'' The river, which supports 13 fish species - from rainbow trout to all five kinds of Pacific salmon - became known for its trophy trout, often over 20 inches long.
During the next five years, annual visitor use of the river skyrocketed from only a few people to over 1,000. To alleviate pressure, the refuge placed a moratorium on use above the wilderness boundary.
But this action only increased pressure on the lower 20 miles outside the refuge, the section of river frontage legally owned by natives.
By 1987, the Kanektok was set for a confrontation. Angered by the increasing numbers of sport fishermen and frustrated by a recent closure of their commercial fishing season by Alaska's Department of Fish and Game, Quinhagak villagers organized to force sport fishing closed.
``Fish and Game said that escapement is so low they wouldn't allow us to take any more salmon,'' says native John Mark, president of the Incorporated Fishermen of Quinhagak. ``It was our intention to ask sport fishermen to put away their rods and reels for the time being. We went up to ask for their support. But because local people have been aggravated the last three or four years, things almost got out of hand.'' Relations between natives, state officials, and fishermen are still tense today.
Much of the problem is cultural. Sport fishermen typically practice catch-and-release methods on the Kanektok, intentionally killing only a few fish. Most fishermen praise catch-and-release as the utmost conservation practice, but John Mark disagrees.
``Since time immemorial, the Yup'ik have considered their food as sacred, a gift from the Creator. Food is not to be played with,'' says Mr. Mark. ``That's our culture, our values. If you play with food - whether it's animal, fish, or bird - they'll disappear and the people will go hungry.''
Says Mac Menard, biologist at the area's sport fishery, ``On the other side, you have a guy who gets off an airplane, is spending $3,000 for this once-in-a-lifetime fishing experience, and the ultimate thing he can do is play the fish and release it to fight another day. In the eyes of his peers, it's the best thing to do. But in the eyes of villagers, it's terrible.''
Mark believes that the fishery is suffering as a result of catch-and-release. He has witnessed dead fish in the river, fish that never had a chance to spawn.
Biologists, however, are confident that while some mortality occurs, few fish die as a result of catch-and-release. In fact, the sport take is minor compared to commercial fishing which comprises 72 percent of the harvest, while subsistence and sport fishing are only 5 percent.
In the end, subsistence - the native way of life - is always invoked. Because the distinction between harvesting fish for money or food is blurred in Quinhagak, many villagers believe their legally protected subsistence rights are at stake.
But refuge officials are following the law, says Pete Jerome. ``We don't believe that recreational use is having a significant impact on the refuge's fish and wildlife. If there are fewer fish today, it doesn't appear to be the fault of sport fishermen.''
Should the subsistence priority become necessary, it appears likely that commercial fisherman will be restricted first, most of whom are also villagers.
Bruce Foerch, a teacher in a nearby village, believes that numbers alone fail to address the real issue of the quality of native life. ``There are only a few places left on this earth where people can continue a subsistence life style, yet there are thousands of places for sports fishermen to go for recreation.
``This subsistence life style is just as important to protect as are the animals, the land, and the water quality.''
What it boils down to, says Kibbons, is that villagers simply don't want sport fishermen on the Kanektok.
It's a philosophical issue, one that will be ever more common as recreationists discover Alaska. ``I don't care how good the fishing is,'' says Kibbons. ``It's not worth the pain and anguish we are causing these people.''