Kenai River Sportfishing Association founder Bob Penney died earlier this week at his winter home in Indian Wells, Calif. He was 90.
Penney was a powerhouse in the worlds of fishing and state politics, and his unrelenting advocacy for Kenai River king salmon often put him at the center of the so-called Cook Inlet “fish wars.”
Penney moved to Alaska in its early years as a state to manage a lumberyard in Anchorage.
“He loved the state,” said his son, Henry Penney. “He moved here in ’51 and didn’t have a dime.”
Henry said his dad was always a big fisherman. But it wasn’t until 1976 when he had his first big close encounter with a Kenai River king. The two were together, and Henry caught a 60-pound fish.
“When we had it up next to the boat the look on my father’s face, his eyes were as big as dinner plates,” Henry said.
He said that was the beginning of a long passion for king salmon preservation.
“That definitely — if you’ll pardon the pun — set the hook, and he has been addicted to that river ever since,” Henry said. “And that’s why he fought so hard to try and save the habitat.”
In the 1980s, Bob Penney founded the Kenai River Sportfishing Association — a sportfishing advocacy group based in Soldotna with a mission to conserve Kenai River kings. Penney also served on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which manages fishing in Alaska’s federal waters.
Penney and his wife, Jeannie, spent winters in California and summers in Soldotna, where they had a home on the river.
“My heart and soul is on this river,” he said in a 2021 tribute video posted by KRSA. “And I think it always will be.”
King salmon like the one the Penneys caught 50 years ago are much more rare today. But Penney’s long-time friend Eldon Mulder said his advocacy for Kenai River salmon continued throughout his life.
“As he always told me, ‘I just want to make sure, Eldon, that my kids and my grandkids have the same opportunities that you and I do,’” he said.
Mulder said Penney walked the walk. On his own property, Penney was an early installer of light-penetrating boardwalks, to allow vegetation to grow underneath, and installed walkways down to the river to limit bank erosion.
“And if anybody ever needed a hand doing any of those kind of things, like cabling trees, or whatever, he was always there to help — either financially or lending himself when he could,” Mulder said.
Penney’s fight to preserve kings put him in direct conflict with Cook Inlet commercial fishermen — particularly east-side set-netters, who fish for sockeye but who Penney said caught too many kings in their nets, close to shore. Penney tried to get set-netting banned in urban areas in a 2016 ballot initiative, which the Alaska Supreme Court later ruled unconstitutional. As king salmon counts have continued to decline, set-netters have faced more and more limitations on their fishery each year.
Although he didn’t have his own ambitions for political office, Penney was a political powerhouse — a good friend to Sens. Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski, and a big backer to candidates like Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who he helped elect with large donations in 2018 and again last year.
Penney’s friend, Tim Navarre, of Kenai, said there was more to the fisherman than his sportfish advocacy and politics. He contributed to local Kenai Peninsula nonprofits, like the Challenger Learning Center and the Kenai Peninsula Foundation.
“People would just have to come up and say, ‘Bob, can I get a little help?’ And a lot of times, he’d come up with initiatives himself to help nonprofits here on the peninsula raise additional funds for themselves with his help,” Navarre said.
Penney also owned Penco properties, a real estate brokerage company based in Anchorage, and helped found the Alaska Resource Development Council.
Eldon Mulder said Penney was a force of nature. He met Penney when he was working in the Legislature and Penney was raising money for an Anchorage bid to host the Winter Olympics.
“If he sensed that there was a gap or a hole that needed to be addressed, he jumped right in with both hands and both feet and he worked to make sure that deficiency was addressed,” Mulder said.
He said they traveled the world together — and even in his old age, Penney was insistent on keeping up.
“And the only thing that made him mad is if you offered to carry his bag,” Mulder said. “He refused to allow anybody to help him.”
Penney leaves behind four children, 10 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren, according to a statement from his family.
Henry Penney said the family plans to hold a local celebration of life in the summer.