I have spent most of my 73 years as a sports fisherman, having fished the Kenai River and the salt waters of lower Cook Inlet since the early 1960’s. Therefore, I read with keen interest the articles and letters that appear in your paper discussing the decline of the King Salmon.
There are several reasons given and some no doubt contribute to the reduction in their numbers. Often cited causes are setnetters, drifters, trawlers and adverse ocean conditions. But rarely discussed is the effect of sports fishing on kings that have reached their spawning beds in the river. Unlike sockeye salmon, which spawn around Skilak Lake and the upper river, kings spawn mostly in large holes in the Kenai River from the Keys area just below Skilak Lake downstream roughly to Eagle Rock. Kings in the spawning mode become highly agitated and strike when a perceived predator (a lure) enters their spawning hole.
For many years there were two robust king salmon runs in the river. The first was the June run. Beginning in the 1960’s, this run was expanding rapidly (no more fish traps after statehood) and its abundance was the delight of Anchorage and Peninsula sportsmen. The run began collapsing in the 1990’s, even though commercial setnetting and drift gillnetting had been discontinued in May and June for decades. If gillnetting is not to blame, did adverse ocean conditions and trawling cause the decline during this period? Not likely. Remember, the Magnuson-Stevens Act became law in the 1970’s, establishing the 200 mile coastal zone, it stopped high seas drift netting and prescribed trawling activity. This points strongly to over fishing the spawning holes as a major cause. At the time, the Alaska Department of Fish & Game said that the river was being managed mainly for the red salmon run, not the June kings.
This brings me to the July kings. Think about the timing of this run as a parabolic curve with one tail in late June and the other in early August -- meaning that the bulk of the run happens in mid to late July with the early and late fish arriving at other times. These mid-July fish are now virtually gone -- largely being blamed on setnetters, and other causes. But, lo and behold, the August stragglers have now become what used to be the July run. The parabolic curve has shifted to the late July early August time frame. Why? No small wonder. August sport fishing for kings has been closed for decades, leaving the August fish as the only successful spawners. The Department says the escapement is being met -- but in August. Again it is hard NOT to point to the June/July sport fishing in the spawning holes as the main cause of the decline.
It is clear to me that a medium sized river on the Kenai Peninsula can’t continue to be the king salmon sports fishing mecca of the world with hundreds of fishing guides leading thousands of tourists to the best place on the river to kill a “trophy” king. The Department needs to take a much more activist stance -- limiting the taking of kings once they arrive in the spawning holes. If the legendary Kings of the Kenai are to remain in existence for future enjoyment, we need to look less to our own personal and commercial interests and join together in an effort to ensure that this magnificent race of giant salmon survive.