It's only May, the season is just starting, but already people are upset about angling on the Kasilof River.
According to those who frequent the river, the problem is too many boats and not enough places to haul out. Starting this year, the most popular spot for salmon fishers to end their floats down the river will be off limits to many commercial guides.
A new ramp may be in the works, but in the meantime, some guides find themselves adrift in more ways than one.
The private boat ramp on the north shore of the lower Kasilof, owned by the Trujillo family, has been open to all comers for a $10 use fee for the past 15 years. But this year, the gate will be closed, and only guides with a key will be able to get in.
Jim Trujillo said the growing crush of people using the river prompted the change.
"I can't bear the brunt of the whole fishing industry on the Kasilof River. It's reached a point where the state has to step in and get more access points," he said.
"When the Kenai River closes down, we are overwhelmed. ... It has just grown and gotten out of control."
Trujillo estimated that 70 percent of the boats fishing the Kasilof came out of the river at his place last summer. He declined to estimate how much money he earned from the fees.
"I've never done an actual trip count," he said. "Let's just put it this way: It was getting to be too much."
As many as 300 vehicles per day were driving through his yard at the peak of the 2000 fishing season. They began about 4 a.m. and ran until midnight.
His family and neighbors began complaining about the traffic, dust, litter and speeders. And the noise. He described the sound of a rig towing a skiff over the unpaved road.
"It sounds like someone beating on a drum from half a mile from our house," he said.
At the end of last summer he knew he had to draw the line.
He considered doubling the price, but decided that would favor big business and penalize resident users with small operations.
"So I just decided to limit the access to the people I know and do business with, except the local people," he said. "Yes, there is a gate up."
The general public is welcome to use the ramp for personal use, but he is trying to reduce commercial traffic, he said. He is issuing keys to commercial guides who use his fish processing service, Ed's Kasilof Seafoods, and have used the site regularly over the years.
Trujillo said those guides have supported him and his business, and he owes them the courtesy of continued access. He has given out about 40 keys so far, and is still deciding how many to issue in total. He dismissed rumors that he is trying to get Alaska State Parks to purchase his property.
"My property has been taken off the market," he said.
In the past he tried to sell it, but now that he has a family of his own and has become a father, he wants to keep the place as a permanent home and raise his child there, he said.
Chris Degernes, the Alaska State Parks superintendent for the Kenai area, said Tuesday she knows of no deal in the offing. Years ago, the Trujillos approached State Parks about selling the property through the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council's habitat acquisition program, but nothing came of it. No new transactions have been proposed through her office, she said.
Meanwhile, the guides without keys are casting about for alternatives.
Steve Poitry, who runs Poitry in Motion charters, does not have a key. He said he sympathizes with Trujillo's traffic problem but does not like the way the situation is shaking out.
"It doesn't encourage anyone to use his business," he said of Trujillo's fish plant.
"I've been using him for 12 years, and now I've been told I can't. ... I have heard some resentment among other guides."
Poitry noted that the state used to stock salmon in Crooked Creek, increasing runs in the upper Kasilof, but that has been scaled back and, instead, the state is doing more enhancement at Coal Creek on the lower river. To add to the difficulty, management of the river is outdated and inadequate, he said.
"It is not until July it is really going to bother me. That is when we use the lower river. ... The major portion of the fish no longer run up where I used to fish."
Poitry, who also guides on the Copper River, said the access problem on the Kasilof is symptomatic of statewide trends.
"I deal with this up north, too. It's not just here," he said.
People are leaving the guiding industry because of the hassles, he said.
"Each year we are regulated a little more and access gets a little harder," he said.
"There are a lot of hoops to jump through for eight weeks of work. ... It's just guiding. There are no guarantees in this business."
Suzanne Fisler, the park ranger who issues guide permits, has been hearing from distressed fishing guides. Many have already booked clients for trips the length of the river, trips they may not be able to make.
"I just learned about it a week ago," she said. "It was a surprise to me."
State Parks cannot step in to fill the gap, she said.
"We don't have land that is suitable," she said.
She expects the big crunch to come on Memorial Day weekend, unless more access comes available by then.
Fisler clarified the rumors that a new, private ramp is about to open near the mouth of the river. One property owner is seriously considering providing a site this summer but wants to discuss the traffic issue with neighbors before proceeding or making the idea public, she said.
Fisler said the situation should remind everyone that when facilities, public or private, are used, a certain level of responsibility and consideration is necessary to preserve that access.
All involved agreed that the problem comes down to more and more fishing pressure on limited Kenai Peninsula rivers.
Said Trujillo, "It's a small river, and there are just too many people on it now."
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