A few of the vehicles in the armada of RVs, motor homes and travel trailers camp out on the beach prior to the three-day opening of the Ninilchik River to king salmon fishing.
Photos by Joseph Robertia
Make way for the king salmon that is, as the tiny fishing village of Ninilchik once again transformed into the fourth-largest city in Alaska, as it does every year for the Memorial Day weekend.
The community offers numerous amenities, such as beautiful campgrounds and lodges, ethnic restaurants and stores for shopping for tourist treasures, but all of them are secondary attractions.
What really draws the thousands of people from all over the Kenai Peninsula, Anchorage and beyond is one thing: Alaska’s state fish, the mighty king salmon.
“They’re an exciting fish. They’re not that hard to hook, but they’re hard to land,” said Dave Atcheson, author of the book “Fishing Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula.”
Atcheson, who lives in Sterling, has fished the Memorial Day opener which runs from 12:01 a.m. Saturday though midnight Monday for many years, and he said the Ninilchik River and Deep Creek are usually great places to land an early season king.
Soldotna revelers Mindy Duncan and Justin Banks of Soldotna said they come to the Ninilchik opener every year not for the fish, but for the party.
Photo by Joseph Robertia
“Of course, it always de-pends on being in the right place, at the right time, with the right bait or fly, but it’s rare you go home without fish if you put the time in,” he said.
In addition, Atcheson said the opener offers something that is hard to find anywhere else, unless anglers are willing to pay a hefty price.
“You’ve got a chance of catching a 30- to 40-pound fish for next to nothing, and the chances of catching one are good. Last year during the opener, I hooked eight fish and landed four. How often can you do that without dropping the money to fly to Nushagak or somewhere like that?” he asked.
Atcheson said in addition to being an affordable way to catch a king, bank fishing for them can also be very exciting.
“You have a chance of getting one on your own. It’s not like being on a boat with the boat driver doing as much work as the angler,” he said.
Also, it’s still early, according to Atcheson. Things haven’t yet become as shoulder to shoulder on riverbanks as they will be in July.
“Full combat fishing has kicked in, so, you can still play the fish which you need to be able to do when tangling with a fish with this much power. If a bright 30-pounder takes off on you, you’ve got to chase it, and you can do that on the Ninilchik,” he said.
And, Atcheson said, when an angler has chased a king on a wild ride up and down the river with a bent rod in hand, they often find it is them that is hooked, not just the fish.
As much fun as they are to catch though, anglers may have to work harder to get a “fish on” this Memorial holiday, according to Nicky Szarzi, Homer area management biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
“If the Anchor River is any indication to how it may be in Deep Creek and the Ninilchik (River), there may be fewer fish caught than the last couple of openers,” she said.
The Anchor River saw spotty fishing for it’s first three-day opener last weekend, and sonar estimates from the unit located two miles upstream from saltwater have recorded a fraction of fish compared to the last few years.
“On May 24, 2004, the Anchor had a daily count of 204 (fish) with a cumulative total of 1,977. On the same date in 2005, the daily count was 216 with a cumulative 1,473. This year on the 24th we had a daily count of 30 with a cumulative total of 467,” Szarzi said.
Alaska State Parks Ranger Jaculine Erion makes contact with Justin Banks of Soldotna just before midnight.
Photo by Joseph Robertia
As to why the king count is so low this year, Szarzi speculated it may be a combination of water temperatures that are colder than normal and river conditions running high and muddy.
Regardless of the cause, Szarzi’s predictions seemed true at the midnight opener on the tea-colored Ninilchik, as few fish were caught in the first hour. Many enthusiastic anglers said they were willing to wait, though.
“After practically having to take out a bank loan to afford driving here in my RV, you better believe I’m staying right here until I catch a fish,” said James Rudd, who came up from Nevada in the hopes of tangling with a Titanic king.
Other folks said they didn’t care whether the fish were biting or not they came for the festivities. The all-night revelry seemed to be for old and young alike.
“Whether I catch a fish or not, I still have fun. It’s one of the few things you can do after college where you stay up all night and just go, go, go non-stop for three days. By the end you’re ready to drop. It’s great,” said Bill Mathews of Anchorage.
“We just come to party!” said Mindy Duncan of Soldotna.
“I live here so I don’t even worry about fishing, we come every year and just party the whole three days,” said Duncan’s friend Justin Banks, also of Soldotna.
Duncan and Banks were partying a little too hard for the authorities though, and were told to take it down a notch by Jaculine Erion, a ranger with Alaska State Parks. Despite the crowds, she said, most people were staying out of trouble.
“It’s been really busy, but most folk are complying,” she said. Many of her pre-midnight contacts with the public involved keeping children off the dunes, and getting hot-doggers on four-wheelers to slow down.
Assisting the rangers, several Alaska State Troopers also made their presence known on Friday and early Saturday, and said it would be the same through Monday.
“We’ll have a lot of people down there this weekend,” said Lt. Steve Bear, with the Alaska State Troopers Bureau of Wildlife Enforcement.
“We’ll have people in the area making sure everyone is licensed, using the correct gear and not over their limit,” Bear said.
In addition to ensuring bank fisherman are keeping it legal, Bear said troopers in a joint effort with a Coast Guard Team from Ketchikan will be conducting boating safety checks on marine fishermen.
“We’ll be checking for (personal flotation devices) to make sure they are all serviceable and the right size,” he said.
Bear said in addition to it being a major risk to not have these items, it is also illegal. As such, anyone found in violation will get a citation and be returned to port.
Bear added they also will be looking for required items such as fire extinguishers, air horns, working signal flares and other items for emergencies and survival.
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