A slightly higher than average early run for Kenai River king salmon coupled with regulations that would liberalize the fishery have offered a rosy outlook to the early run king salmon fishing season.
Approximately 17,000 kings are expected to return to the Kenai River for the early run, Robert Begich, sportfishery biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said in an e-mail on Tuesday. The forecast is slightly higher than the average of 16,000 fish, which is good for anglers.
The Alaska Board of Fish has set a new size limit on kings that are caught before June 30. Begich said anglers can keep a fish that's between 20 and 28 inches without it counting toward their bag limit. Also, the relaxed slot limit will allow anglers to keep a fish that is less than 46 inches in length and 55 inches or more in length.
Even though the early-run king salmon fishery looks good, there are some closures anglers should keep in mind. Flowing waters on the Kenai Peninsula and Kenai River will close to rainbow trout fishing from May 2 through June 10, Begich said. And the Kenai River from the Upper Killey River upstream to Skilak Lake may be closed to all sportfishing from May 2 to June 10. The waters will reopen to sport fishermen beginning June 11.
"All sorts of flowing water may be opened or closed," Begich said. "Rainbow trout spawning closures is what it is. Anglers need to read the regs."
Ricky Gease, executive director for the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, said the king salmon forecast and the new regulations should encourage local anglers to get out on the river, particularly for folks who are looking to fill their freezer. Typically, the huge crowds during the July king salmon fishing season keep local anglers off the river, so the new size limits should encourage them to start fishing.
"It should be a good season," Gease said, adding that some boat launches are offering season passes instead of day passes. "(If) people are going to use the river a lot they may want to look at getting a season pass. But if they don't like crowds, the liberalization would be an opportunity to go fishing when there's fewer people."
Also, based on the projected escapement goal, anglers may have an opportunity to use bait. Begich said if Fish and Game projects an escapement goal between 5,300 and 9,000 fish, the department will allow bait. Until then, anglers can fish using a single hook and no bait.
Gease said the likelihood of anglers being able to use bait during the early-run should also be more incentive for locals to fish the river.
"In past years when you (weren't) going to bait earlier and (had) a slot limit the local community was turned off to the early run," he said. "Now they've put some liberalization it should be better for local anglers."
Dwight Kramer, chairman of the Kenai Area Fisherman's Coalition, said a run of 17,000 king salmon is pretty good. The coalition worked with the Kenai River Sportfishing Association and the Kenai River Professional Guides Association to help maximize the harvest and make the fish more available. Anglers being able to keep one fish that's between 20 and 28 inches long would take care of the excess number of jack kings that have been swimming up the river, Kramer said.
"That should bode well for anglers and increase participation I would think," he said, adding that the potential to use bait if the projected escapement goal is between 5,300 and 9,000 should be an extra incentive to locals as well.
Kramer said locals were turned off to the early run king salmon season because they weren't able to fish with bait. Most locals aren't into the crowds that flock to the river during July either.
"The boat counts tell the story," he said. "The highest boat count in June between the Warren Ames Bridge and the Soldotna Bridge was 138 boats. In July we'll see a lot of days where there's 350 to 500 boats in that same stretch of water."
Jessica Cejnar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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