Sonar count starts on Kenai River

Posted: Friday, May 23, 2008

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game's sonar site is up and running at river mile 8.6 of the Kenai River. The official count began at 12:01 a.m. on May 16 and as of Tuesday, a season total of 226 king salmon have passed the site.

Robert Begich, sportfishery biologist at Fish and Game's Soldotna office, said in an e-mail on Thursday that it's very early in the return, but the most recent five-year average is 262 king salmon through May 20. Earlier this month, Begich said the king salmon run was predicted to be slightly higher than average, but right now it's too early in the run to tell if that prediction is accurate, he said.

"They generally start entering freshwater by mid-May and the peak or mid-point of the return has been reached by mid-June," Begich said. Few fish were caught last weekend because not many fishermen were vying for king salmon, Begich said, but the sportfishery division recently sampled some good-sized kings in its creel survey. "For a report, we would have to say it is slow, which is typical for this early in the run. Anglers can expect fishing to improve as the numbers of fish in the river continues to increase," he said.

The sonar project got its start in 1987 and was used along with mark-recapture experiments, creel surveys and netting surveys to estimate the abundance of king salmon in the Kenai River, Begich said. The sonar site is located three and a half miles upstream of the Warren Ames Bridge and a mile and a half down stream of Beaver Creek.

"Boaters who are traveling or people fishing in this section of the river need to stay clear of the buoys in the water on each side of the river and stay in the middle of the river channel," Begich said, adding that boaters and fishermen need to yield to Fish and Game's netting crew, which operates at the sonar site. "The buoys mark submerged sonar gear and you do not want to run into it because you will damage your outboard. You do not want to get your fishing line snagged on it because you will have to cut your line and loose your gear."

The sportfishing division also operates a weir at the old Crooked Creek hatchery to establish the escapement of early run king salmon. The weir also allows Fish and Game to assess its stocking efforts in the early run Kasilof River king salmon fishery.

The king salmon returns to Deep Creek and the Ninilchik and Anchor rivers are expected to be good, particularly the Anchor River, said Nicky Szarzi, area management biologist for the sportfish division in Homer. Fish and Game biologists conduct sonar counts in the Anchor River when the water level is high, she said, and when the water level drops Fish and Game uses a weir make their counts.

"The average since we've had the project in is 10,400 since 2003," Szarzi said.

For Deep Creek and the Ninilchik River, Fish and Game biologists don't count every fish that swims upstream. Szarzi said biologists conduct an aerial survey on Deep Creek using a helicopter when most of the salmon are expected to be spawning close to the end of July. During these surveys, biologists hope to come up with a number between 350 and 800 fish, which is the escapement goal for Deep Creek, Szarzi said.

"We've been within or above (that count) since 1998," she said. "The Deep Creek salmon run appears to be doing well."

Fish and Game also operates a weir on the Ninilchik River during July, Szarzi said, to take eggs from the stocked kings. The fish are stocked at three locations in Kachemak Bay, she said, and the weir count is an index of how that run is doing. The range biologists look for in the Ninilchik River is between 550 and 1,300, she said.

Fishing in the Anchor River and Deep Creek is expected to be challenging for anglers this weekend, Szarzi said. The Anchor River is starting to warm up prompting more fish to enter, she said, adding that the Board of Fishery added another day to the fishery. Fishing for king salmon on the Anchor River opened May 17 and will be open for four additional three day weekends as well as Wednesdays. For example, according to the 2008 Sportfishing regulations, anglers can fish for kings on the Anchor River this week from Saturday through Monday and on May 28.

High water levels and muddy conditions will make it difficult for kings to see bait in Deep Creek, Szarzi said. Fish will also be fighting strong currents, also making it hard on anglers.

"Since the water's flowing so fast it's hard to fish it," she said. "When you get a fish on, you're fighting the fish fighting the current and they break off pretty readily."

Szarzi reminded anglers to read their regulation book. In addition to the increase to the Anchor River fishery, the annual bag limit of king salmon on the river has also increased from two fish to five fish, Szarzi said. The annual bag limit on Deep Creek is two fish. Also marine waters one mile north and south of the mouth of the Anchor River is closed, Szarzi said.

Jessica Cejnar can be reached at jessica.cejnar@peninsulaclarion.com.



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