Bruce Ewitt guided on the Kenai River for 11 years before he quit after the 2012 fishing season and shifted his efforts toward king salmon returning to the Columbia River.
He joined the ranks of sportfishing guides, nearly 100 since 2007, who have stopped guiding on the Kenai River a trend that other guides say could be indicative of future river use.
Ewitt, who primarily guided for king salmon, said the dwindling numbers of king salmon returning to the river made it difficult to make a living.
“When you drive up and you’re going to stay up there for almost four months, by the time you pay your rent and your meals … it’s about 30-40 percent higher than it is back here (in Washington),” he said. “You need to be doing something to generate a cash flow and if you’re not fishing, you ain’t doing anything.”
As an out-of-state guide, Ewitt is part of a minority in the guided fishing industry on the Kenai River where about 75 percent of the registered guides are residents, according to Alaska Department of Natural Resources permit data.
But, dwindling fishing time has made it increasingly difficult for professional guides to make a living taking anglers out for a chance at the iconic Kenai River king salmon.
“I took another job,” said Ed O’Conner, owner and guide at Sterling-based Advantage Angling. “It’s wiping me out. It’s almost impossible to book June trips.”
In June, anglers hoping for a chance at Kenai River king salmon would be targeting the early run of the fish. However, in late February the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, or ADFG, announced a preseason closure of king fishing on the early run — eliminating the already struggling six-week fishery.
While the preseason closure was unusual, managers said the action had precedent.
The, last time the river was closed to king salmon fishing preseason was in 1965 according to ADFG data.
The loss of catch-and-release fishing cut off an avenue of revenue for guides who could take anglers on other trips if king salmon fishing fell through.
“I enjoy taking people out for sockeye, the silver fishing and rainbows,” Ewitt said. “The money fish are the big kings and they’re not there.”
A preseason forecast of the run estimated a return of 2,230 fish — well below the lower end of the ADFG optimum escapement goal range of 5,300 – 9,000 fish.
The sport fishery for early run kings will be closed beginning May 1 through June 30.
While some private anglers, like Dwight Kramer chairman of the Kenai Area Fishermen’s Coalition, said they supported the closure — the move is a blow to guides who make a living on guiding for king salmon on the Kenai River.
Guides like Greg Brush owner of EZ Limit Guide Service, who last year voluntarily switched his clients to catch-and-release only fishing when they targeted Kenai king salmon.
Brush questioned the rationale for the closure using data like the Kenai River creel census data, or the angler-reported data on fishing effort, data on the number of boats and anglers per day, and ADFG estimates of catch-and-release mortality on Kenai River kings, Brush estimated that the closure of the early run fishery would save about 35 fish.
“I’m estimating 15 boats a day, three anglers on average per boat — which is generous — that’s 45 anglers per day. I’m estimating 45 anglers per day on the Kenai River during the early run during May and June. If we have a 25 percent success rate, so one fisherman out of four catches a king … that means 12 fish a day, 12 kings a day are caught on the Kenai River. That’s a very generous day,” he said.
Assistant area management biologist Jason Pawluk said he could not corroborate Brush’s figures but that saving roughly 35 fish would not be a statistically significant number in the context of the entire early run of king salmon.
However, he said, the larger issue was the extremely low forecast of the run of king salmon.
“What is statistically significant is that we’re forecasting a run that’s less than half of the lower end of the escapement goal,” Pawluk said. “That’s significant.”
Angler effort on the early run has trended downward in recent years and during 2013 ADFG managers restricted the early run of king salmon to catch and release and trophy fishing May 16 before closing it to king salmon fishing on June 20.
Five fish died from catch-and-release fishing in 2013, according to preliminary data from the ADFG 2010-2012 annual management report and 2013 recreational fisheries overview.
While Brush called the ADFG decision to close the river controversial and disappointing, he said he did support it — in a fashion.
“My gripe is not that they closed the Kenai River,” he said. “I’m actually in support of that.”
While the closure of the early run of king salmon represented a financial blow to many Kenai River guides and businesses associated with the sport fishery, Brush said there was a lack of equal harvest reduction in other fisheries in the Cook Inlet that harvest Kenai-bound king salmon.
“They basically crushed our fishery,” Brush said. “They need to have equal restrictions on the other fisheries that they are killing (king salmon).”
Specifically, Brush said the commercial setnet fishery that opens in late June in the Kasilof section of the Cook Inlet and a marine recreational fishery that catches king salmon in the Lower Cook Inlet should be restricted.
“Basically — when Fish and Game closes a fishery completely, any fishery, they are saying in their actions, ‘we cannot afford one dead fish,’” he said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of fish it is, it doesn’t matter if it’s sport or if it’s saltwater or inriver.”
Pat Shields, commercial area management biologist, said he was not sure how ADFG would fish the Kasilof section of the setnet fishery as ADFG staff was still meeting to decide how they would fish the upcoming season.
Restrictions to the marine recreational fishery in the Lower Cook Inlet were announced by ADFG alongside the emergency order that closed the early run of king salmon.
The combined annual limit for king salmon, 20-inches or greater in length, is five for the Cook Inlet. However, just two of those kings can be harvested from the Anchor River, Deep Creek and Ninilchik River and all marine waters down to Bluff Point from May 1- June 30, according to the ADFG emergency order.
“We tied the annual limit for kings in the marine waters with that of the Lower Cook Inlet streams,” said Carol Kervliet, management biologist in the area.
Other restrictions have been placed on the marine recreational fishery in recent years including restricting the fishery to no-bait and single-hook fishing as well as restrictions on how close to shore marine anglers can fish according to ADFG emergency orders from 2012 and 2013.
While each of the management actions were designed to conserve king salmon, which are returning in low numbers decline Inlet-wide, Tom Vania, ADFG coordinator who oversees management of the Cook Inlet, said restrictions in the Lower Cook Inlet were not necessarily mean to pair with those on the Kenai River.
“In the marine rec fishery — typically for that early run time period — we’re managing that based on actions they’ve taken for the Lower Cook Inlet area,” he said. “It’s based more off of the Lower Cook Inlet streams than they are on the Kenai.”
While the restrictions may be announced at the same time, Vania said, they were not necessarily related.
Still, a reduction in king salmon harvest in the lower parts of the Cook Inlet would result in higher numbers of fish returning to Upper Cook Inlet.
“If you reduce harvest in the marine rec fishery, because they are a mixed stock fishery, they’re going to harvest less fish and a percentage of those fish are going to be Kenai fish,” he said.
Just how much of the harvest of Kenai-bound king salmon occurs in the marine rec fishery is still in question, Vania said.
However, genetic sampling is set to begin in 2014 in the marine fishery and will allow managers to understand how to structure the fishery, he said.
A difficult time
As managers figure out how to reduce king salmon harvest in the commercial and sport fisheries, local guides say they are struggling to stay financially viable.
“I guide for all species on the river, but the big draw is always the kings,” O’Connor said. “We were lucky we had a good early run of sockeye last year and we were able to get some people on fish last year … but it’s definitely harder to get them up here.”
O’Connor, like several other guides, said he still thought the closure was “the right decision” for ADFG managers, but said he would likely be switching to guiding part-time permanently.
Steve McClure, owner of McClure’s Rustic River Retreat, and president of the Kenai River Professional Guide Association said he had several clients that were not coming to the state at all, while others had moved to a different time period.
While the season on early run king salmon is just about six weeks long, McClure said the closure would have a ripple effect throughout the community as guides did not have the famed king salmon as a lure for out-of-state anglers.
In previous seasons when king salmon fishing has been severely restricted, McClure said, guides could still book other trips and guide for other types of fish with clients who —once on the Kenai Peninsula — are willing to spend a vacation fishing even if they cannot get a chance at the Kenai king salmon.
“The Kenai king is the biggest king salmon in the world, it has a draw,” McClure said.
Still, McClure said he was in support of the closure and was glad ADFG managers announced it as early as they did.
“So we can tell our clients,” McClure said. “The more notice, the better.”
For Ewitt, who stopped guiding on the Kenai River after the 2012 season — the last good season he had was in 2009.
“There were a lot of years where I was hitting 150-200 kings a year. It was pretty good fishing,” he said.
During his last year, Ewitt said he hooked nine king salmon.
“That’s hardly worth talking to people about,” he said. “Why would I go up there and just sit on my hands and listen to disappointed people.”
Still, Ewitt said, he has a lot of friends who are heavily invested in the fishery and he hoped the community would support them.
“There’s an awful lot of people, businesses that aren’t able to stay with it if they don’t have the tourist trade there to make a living,” he said.