The trouble with snagging

In recent years, whenever the Alaska Board of Fisheries meets to consider proposals for Upper Cook Inlet area fishing, the snagging issue comes up. Early in 2014, board members will wrestle with it again.

The dialogue will be spirited. Proposal 247, submitted by Kenai River guide Joe Hanes, would allow snagging sockeyes in the 50 miles of Kenai River downstream from Skilak Lake. Snagging would be allowed only after ADF&G had increased the daily bag limit to more than three sockeyes by Emergency Order.

In the recent past, the fish board has voted against allowing snagging in fresh water, but snagging hasn’t always been illegal. Until 1975, it was common along the Kenai. Anyone who wanted to catch a few salmon fast did it. The “smokehouse jerk” was a tradition anywhere salmon milled in large numbers.

However, not everyone thought snagging should be allowed. A large, not-so-silent group of sport fishermen thought snagging fish was no better than clubbing or dynamiting them. It was unethical, they claimed. It wasn’t even fishing, let alone sport fishing. How can there be fishing for sport and snagging in the same place and at the same time, they wondered? Bowing under pressure, the Board of Fisheries promulgated a “no snagging in fresh water” regulation in 1975.

Hanes expects positive changes to come from legalizing snagging. He asserts that proper escapement goals will be more likely to occur, that mortally wounded sockeye will be utilized, and that less enforcement dollars will be needed to control snagging. He expects all hooked fish and all consumptive anglers to benefit.

I’ve done quite a lot of sockeye fishing, called “lining” or “flossing,” and I’ll admit that it’s unconventional. In most sport fishing, the idea is to fool the fish into taking a bait or lure. However, sockeyes in rivers rarely bite, so most are caught by flipping a weighted fly upstream and letting it drift downstream. When a fish swims past with its mouth open, the line drifts into its open mouth, and you “set” the hook. The fish hasn’t “taken” the lure. Yet, if it’s hooked in the mouth, it’s considered to be a legal fish. An unintentionally snagged fish, one hooked elsewhere than in the mouth, must be released.

I don’t like Hanes’ idea. If you think a lot of sockeyes are snagged now, consider the carnage if snagging becomes legal. People wouldn’t fish with flies, as most do now, but would use the most effective legal means, probably a treble hook or two on a jig. The “flip, drift and retrieve” method most often used now has evolved as a way to hook sockeyes in the mouth. If it becomes legal to snag, anglers will soon be employing the long, fast, sweeping motions of the “smokehouse jerk” again. The resulting increase in the “sport” sockeye harvest would be phenomenal, and the “easy limits” would attract even more people to the already crowded banks of the Kenai.

I doubt that Proposal 247 will get anywhere with the fish board. According to the Kenai River Late-run Sockeye Management Plan, the Department of Fish and Game must manage the run “primarily for commercial uses.” Commercial fishermen, already irked by the spectacularly popular dip-net fishery at the river’s mouth, will oppose any regulation that potentially increases the in-river sport harvest of sockeyes.

However, for those of you who can’t bear seeing all those sockeyes going upstream without trying to snag some, there’s always next time. The fish board meets again in 2017.

According to the “2013 Alaska Sport Fishing Regulations Summary”:

“Freshwater sport fishing: (1) Fish may not be taken in fresh water by means of (a) fixed or weighted hooks and lures (except those of standard manufacture), (b) multiple hooks with gap between point and shank larger than 1⁄2 inch, … ; (2) it is unlawful to intentionally snag or attempt to snag any fish in fresh water. “Snag” means to hook a fish elsewhere than in its mouth. A fish unintentionally hooked elsewhere than in the mouth must be released immediately.

“Gear for fly-fishing-only waters: In waters designated as fly- fishing-only waters, sport fishing is permitted only as follows: (1) with not more than one unweighted, single-hook fly with gap between point and shank of 3/8 inch or less; and (2) weights may only be used 18 inches or more ahead of the fly. 3) Beads not attached to the fly are not allowed.

“snag—to hook a fish elsewhere than in its mouth.”

Les Palmer can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.

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