There’s one thing sportfishermen can’t stop talking about this summer: the Kenai River king salmon fishing.
For the past several years, the king salmon fishing on the Kenai River has been either closed or restricted until July 1, the official demarcation between the early and late runs. The Kasilof River has provided some early opportunity, and the lower peninsula rivers have provided weekend and Wednesday opportunities before the Kenai opens for late-run fishing.
This year, the story is different. An improved run and exceptionally low and clear water conditions have provided excellent fishing conditions, and anglers are walking away lucky. Regulations prohibit anyone from retaining a Kenai River king longer than 36 inches, but anglers are hooking and releasing kings bigger than that.
“We had one in May that was 53 inches with a 29 inch girth,” said Jimmie Jack Drath, the owner of Jimmie Jack’s Alaska Fishing Lodges in Kenai. “That was really cool to catch a fish that big in May. The water level has been really low this year, and in May it was really low … it was a nice, big, healthy king too.”
The king salmon fishing on the Kenai has been consistent this season so far, Drath said. Though clients have to release the big fish by regulation for conservation, they seem to understand the reason and are happy just to be out on the river experiencing the fishery, he said.
Throughout the spring, clients also had the chance to fish for kings and retain them on the Kasilof River and in the marine troll fishery, both of which went well this year, he said.
“Everybody’s been really happy with how the salmon fishing’s been going,” he said.
As of Tuesday, 2,820 large kings have passed the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s sonar counter on the Kenai. That doesn’t include harvest above the sonar, but effort has been low so far and only about 31 percent of the run is in the river based on past years’ run timing, so the managers are projecting a sonar count of about 9,200 large fish with a final escapement of about 8,900 fish, significantly above the upper end of the escapement goal of 3,900–6,600 large fish, said Jason Pawluk, the assistant area management biologist for the Division of Sportfish in Soldotna.
The managers will likely take some action within the next several days, he said.
“Those options include changing the size limit to something greater than 36 inches,” he said.
The early-run Kenai River kings have been in trouble in the past, with declining sizes and numbers, and poor male-to-female ratios. This year, the age classes, sizes and sex ratio all look better than in past years, based on sonar and netting data, Pawluk said. The netting data indicates about 55 percent females, he said.
“Right now, we’re actually seeing a large proportion of females in our netting catches,” he said. “… As of right now, things are looking normal.”
All over the peninsula, fishing conditions are excellent — water levels are low and extremely clear, making it easier for anglers to spot the fish. Anglers are having good luck on the Kasilof for kings as well, and though the runs are not as strong on the Anchor and Ninilchik rivers and Deep Creek as they have been in past years, fishermen are still pulling kings out of the water. All three rivers open for fishing again Saturday for king salmon fishing and will be open until Monday.
The big attractor this weekend, though, is the Russian River opener on Sunday. One of the most popular sportfisheries in the state, thousands of anglers per year flock to the confluence of the Russian and Kenai rivers to fish for sockeye salmon returning to the Russian River, a separate stock from the Kenai River mainstem fish.
This year is shaping up to be an excellent opener based on the numbers of sockeye Fish and Game staff have already spotted passing the sonar downriver and in foot surveys, Pawluk said. In a foot survey of the area June 5, staff spotted more than 1,000 fish already moving up into the Russian River. The sonar counter is also seeing large numbers of fish large enough to be sockeye, about double last year’s count by this time, he said. Anglers are reporting catching sockeye and the research surveys are seeing sockeye in their nets. Between the visual data and the excellent water conditions, he said the managers are expecting a good opener Sunday.
“We’ve got our eye on it, that’s all I can say,” he said.
The entire upper Kenai between Kenai Lake and Skilak opens for fishing Sunday as well, after the spawning closure for rainbow trout ends.
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