Patch up your waders and fish out your fishing line, because king salmon season is right around the corner. But make sure you’re aware of regulation changes before heading to the Kenai River this year.
Five thousand, four hundred and ninety-nine king salmon larger than 34 inches are forecast to return as part of the Kenai River early run of kings this summer. That’s according to the 2018 Kenai River king salmon run projections released Monday by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
That’s one fish shy of a nice, round 5,500 kings, but it’s enough to meet the early run’s optimal escapement goal of 3,900 to 6,600 big kings returning before June 30. Fish and Game implemented a change to its counting strategy in 2017, now tracking fish larger than 34 inches.
“The primary reason for doing that is assessing small fish is more difficult because you have larger fish of other species that can interfere with the sonar count and that makes it difficult to tell whether you’re counting a king salmon or a large sockeye. So, by focusing on the large fish, we know they’re king salmon and that number is more accurate across time,” said Brian Marston, area management biologist for Fish and Game.
For the late run, starting July 1, the preseason forecast for the Kenai River is 21,503 kings larger than 34 inches. Just like the early run, that forecast is lower than the final escapement count of kings returning in 2017, but Fish and Game still expects the 2018 run to meet the sustainable escapement goal.
“It’s not quite as many fish as last year for both the early and late run projections but we’re in our escapement goals, given normal harvest rates and stuff, so that’s as good as it can get for now,” Marston said. “We have seen increased numbers over the last, say, four years, slowly. And now, if you compare it to last year, we just came down off that a little bit but it’s still looking sufficient to have fisheries.”
That means sportfishing in the early and late Kenai king runs can start out under general regulations. Those regs are a little different since 2017, as well. Remember the slot limit? Since 2003, when retention was allowed in the early run, you could only keep kings smaller than 44 inches or larger than 55 inches. Now, 36 inches is the magic number.
“The main difference between the old slot limit is now we have essentially a maximum size, so all the fish that are larger than 36 inches need to be thrown back,” Marston said.
In the late run, kings of any size can be retained below the Slikok Creek marker. Above the Slikok marker, the 36-inch size limit remains in effect all season.
All this is, of course, subject to in-season management decisions. If either run seems in danger of not making its escapement goal, Fish and Game could enact fishing restrictions by emergency order on both in-river sportfishing and commercial fisheries on the east side of Cook Inlet. While commercial fisheries target sockeye salmon, their nets can catch kings, too.
But emergency orders aren’t necessarily just bad news for fishermen. If escapement numbers look good, Fish and Game might allow bigger fish to be retained.
“Just pay attention to our emergency orders. If we get more fish than we are projecting then we will change that limit, or vice versa we might have to restrict a little bit, but right now it’s looking pretty good,” Marston said.
As always, it’s a good idea to read all applicable fishing regulations before heading to the water. The 2018 sportfishing regulations come out in mid-March.