Summer fishing is just getting underway around the Kenai Peninsula, but so far, signs are pointing to a pretty decent season.
The Russian River has been opened for sockeye fishing since Sunday. The latest weir counts from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game show a return nearly twice the size as the same time from last year. Kenai River Sportfishing Association Executive Director Ricky Gease says those numbers have equaled success for sport anglers.
“People were pretty crowded on the Russian, people were pretty excited for the opportunity to go out fishing for some sockeye; also some anglers up there fishing for rainbow trout. Overall, good reports from the Russian River."
The early king salmon run on the Kenai river is coming in stronger than last year, though the bar has been fairly low in recent seasons. As of Sunday, about 4,000 kings were estimated to have passed sonar counters. This year, the Department made some changes to its management goals for the early king run, focusing on the larger fish, those that are 34 inches in length or bigger, with an optimal escapement goal of between 3,900 and 6,600 fish.
"We had low water levels, clear water. We had the new management plans in place. The water level has subsequently come up a bit, (it's) a little bit muddier. Fish and Game liberalized below Slikok Creek so now you can keep a king salmon up to 46 inches. Above Slikok Creek, the regulations are still in place for single hook, no bait, no retention over 36 inches. So, still conservative management up above. The idea is to maximize the number of spawning fish in the tributaries for the next few years," Gease said.
Further south, king fishing on the Anchor river has been okay, but total numbers are down slightly from last year. The latest count from Monday showed about 2,400 kings had passed through. That number was around 3,200 fish on the same date in 2016.
The commercial season, too, is just beginning. The northern district directed king salmon and Big River sockeye fisheries have had a few openings. The big work for the Cook Inlet drift and set net fleets won’t start for a couple more weeks. ADF&G commercial fisheries manager Pat Shields says the outlook for the year is good, but other fisheries have given managers something to think about. The Copper River sport and commercial fisheries have been a bit of a roller coaster this year, with numbers for pre-season projections and actual returns not lining up too well. The king return has actually been much stronger than initially thought, which has made for some anxious commercial sockeye fishermen, eager to keep their nets in the water. Shields says watching that play out can be valuable for making decisions here, as both areas face relatively low king numbers, but solid sockeye returns.
“We can always learn from each other, and I just got off the phone with the manager from over in Copper River talking about that, and one of the things you do learn is you look at things like run timing, both of sockeye and king stocks. You look at forecasts; were they coming in above or below forecast. And it may be an indication for us, but sometimes it isn't. So while I say we can learn from each other, I can't just look over at Copper River and say 'okay, their run was five days early, that means we're going to be five days early'. We've tried that, we've looked at data from around other areas of the state and sometimes it is really highly correlated. Other years, it's not."
The big difference between the two systems is the quality and amount of data managers have to go by; the Kenai simply has more and better numbers. But in a year like this, it may not matter. The state legislature still has not approved a budget and Shields says he’s getting questions about what will happen if, come July 1st, when the fishing is really heating up, there’s still no budget?
"I don't have all the answers to that because there are a lot of things yet to be discussed," Shields says.
"But it is possible that all fisheries could be closed. That's a possibility, that as of June 30th, if there's no budget or no emergency budget or some sort of funding mechanism to fund state government beyond June 30th, it's possible that we could just close all sport and commercial fisheries. I'm not saying that's going to happen, I'm just saying that's a possibility. And then everybody can try to understand what kind of impacts that would have on the state, just from a fisheries standpoint."
That would be, of course, a worst-case scenario, so we’ll hope that a better solution can be provided by the folks in Juneau and until then, keep enjoying what’s starting out to be a good year of fishing.