Yesterday, a fishing pal of mine excitedly exclaimed that we should “get bait” any day on our Kenai River king fishery. He seemed a bit taken aback when I sharply blurted “I hope not!”
Sure, like any angler, whether that be guide or private, local or tourist, I want to maximize my chances and hook as many fish as possible … but not at the expense of our resource or the future of our fishery. That would not only be selfish and short-sighted, but down-right irresponsible. Which is exactly how the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is acting with our early-run Kenai River king fishery.
Presently, the low-end of our early run escapement goal is set at 5,500 chinook, a relatively small number that is almost half of what past minimum escapement goals used to be. I’m no biologist, but common sense tells me this is pretty low for a large 81-mile river over a six-week period (May 15-June 30). But when you factor in recent admission by ADF&G managers that their sonar counter “may be off by as much as 50 percent” this number quickly becomes only 2,750 fish. Do you feel comfortable with less than 3,000 early run Kenai kings on our spawning beds? Do you think that is enough to propagate healthy returns for the future? Do you really believe that our children will enjoy reliable May and June Kenai king fishing with management like this?
No wonder our early run king fishing is so challenging the past few years. Many long-time locals know that our king runs are but a shadow of what they used to be. And this year is no different: despite good water conditions where scentless lures become most effective, catch rates so far have been only fair at best. This leads one to believe that there just aren’t that many kings in the river. Last June we went through similar woes and our managers reacted by jumping all over the map with their management actions, first abruptly closing our king fishery (with no step-down action, as the management plan calls for) while at the same time allowing a shady “cost recovery” net fishery near the mouth. Then, doing a sudden 180, they not only re-opened the Kenai king sport fishery to catch and keep, but allowed the use of bait. Adding injury to insult, they even let anglers fish kings above the bridge, harvesting the very fish that were totally “off limits” to all hook and line fishing (not netting though!) just the week before!
The bottom line: our managers are not being responsible with our fish. In my opinion, each and every one of us has an obligation to hold them accountable. Managing our early run on a razor’s edge with no “cushion” and then giving anglers bait early — so we can catch and kill more of the few kings we do have — is not sound management.
The question now is how do we get sound management?
Another fishing friend of mine (who is not a guide) bumped into a state park ranger last week at our beautiful Kasilof River boat launch. He asked him “why do we have a such a nice public put-in and no public take-out on a river that is mandated as drift boat fishing only?” The ranger quickly and nonchalantly replied, “There just hasn’t been a public out-cry for it.”
Are you kidding me? Does the state (whether it be ADF&G fishery managers or state park officials) really need and expect a “public outcry” before taking action? Do they actually desire angry town hall meetings and bull-headed license boycotts? Maybe they want to see sport anglers parading down Sterling Highway and Kalifornsky Road, with boats in tow, ultimately rallying in ADF&G’s parking lot like the summer of 1989?
I’ve got a better idea: how about the state just identifies and addresses “a need” and then acts on it responsibly. Currently, there are two barely acceptable private take-outs on the lower Kasilof, with the upper one (Coho Cove) recently sold and about to close to the public. This leaves only the mud-riddled Kasilof Cabins take-out, which is miles past the last fishing hole and often back-logged for hours as drift boats have no other options. Last year, sadly, an angler was even killed on the lower Kasilof in a tragic boat retrieval accident as a long-time local attempted to come-up with a better take-out option. If these facts don’t scream “a genuine need” to the state, what does?
Those who know me are well aware that I call ‘em like I see ‘em! Over the past two decades, I know that I’ve alienated many agency heads by speaking my mind and not pulling punches. That’s OK by me. Personally, I think that tip-toeing around and remaining politically correct is a big part of the problem here: anglers grumble amongst themselves while managers punch their 9-to-5 clocks, doing the bare minimum and not wanting to make the tough decisions that need to be made.
With that said, I think it is time to demand sound management. Make a bit of noise by contacting your local managers, their supervisors in upper management, the Board of Fish, and the Governor … demanding more accountability with prudent actions that not only provide decent access to our fisheries but also ensure sustainability of our unique resource.
Greg Brush is a concerned resident angler and guide.