Dena’ina tradition holds that each spring when the Golden Crown Sparrow warbles its distinctive three-note song the first of the five Pacific salmon runs to the Cook Inlet have arrived.
Legend has it that a man waiting on the bank of the river heard the bird sing, hurried down to the river with a dipnet, jumped into the water and caught a king salmon, according to ethnographer Peter Kalifornsky’s book.
The king, or chinook, salmon are the largest of the salmon species and since the world record for a sport-caught king — a 97 pound and 4 ounce fish — was landed in May 1985 by the late Les Anderson, the king fishery on the Kenai River has exploded in both popularity and controversy.
However, just as the Dena’ina were not the first in the Cook Inlet to exploit salmon — evidence suggests that fishermen as early as 1000 B.C. used gillnets to capture sockeye on the Kenai River— Kenai-bound kings are not the only chinook run in the Inlet to serve as both a draw and a point of contention for hopeful anglers trying to land a trophy fish.
Newspaper articles, reports from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the recollections of long-time fishermen paint a picture of Cook Inlet kings that indicates the king returns are cyclical in both the irresistible draw of fishing during times of abundance and the infighting among users when kings don’t return to their natal streams in large enough numbers to satisfy area fishermen of all types.