Todd Lowery and Ashten Tweet of Anchorage enjoy each other's company by a campfire Friday while awaiting the 12:01 a.m. opening of the Ninilchik River to king salmon fishing Saturday. Hundreds of people from Anchorage, the Matanuska Susitna area, outside and elsewhere came to take part in the weekend fishery.
Photo by Joseph Robertia
Gone are the tule geese and harlequin ducks that lined the still banks of the Ninilchik River as recently as last week, replaced by hordes of active anglers with rubber waders, mesh vests and graphite rods in their hands.
It's opening weekend for king salmon on the Ninilchik River and Deep Creek and, as usual, there were crowds waiting to wet their hooks at the 12:01 a.m. start of the three-day event.
"I come to the opener every year," said Ronnie Brooks of Anchorage. "It's a ritual. It's kind of my way of welcoming the start of summer, even if it is the unofficial start."
Like Brooks, the vast majority of people at the Ninilchik River were from Anchorage, the Matanuska Susitna area or Outside, and they came in an almost nonstop convoy Friday.
Starting early in the day and for several hours after midnight, the southbound lane of the Sterling Highway had a constant string of vehicles miles long.
The residents who live along the highway rolled out their version of a welcome mat with homemade billboards and spray-painted signs that read "Herring bait for sale," and "Firewood $4 a bundle."
Once at the Ninilchik River, people staked out their sites and set up camp. Some recreationalists were car loads of young adults carrying more beer than tackle to their pitched tents, where they blasted loud music from battery-powered boom boxes.
Others were families that sat at portable picnic tables outside fifth-wheel trailers, enjoying conversions while barbecuing their dinner.
"I've been coming for, geez, at least 30 years now," said Ed Tweet of Anchorage. He made the RV trip down Friday with more than a dozen family members of all ages, from grandparents to tiny children.
"I've got a big family. We all come down and usually at least one of us goes home with a fish," Tweet said.
"It's just not me. I usually get skunked," he added.
Like Tweet, many anglers will return home empty-handed, but that's not to say the trip is a disappointment for them.
"There's a lot more to fishing than just catching fish," said John Schultz of Eagle River. "There's a social component to opening day that's equally important to the act of casting a line in the water. It's about getting out of the city, traveling way down here, being outdoors, swapping stories and bonding with your buddies over tackle boxes."
The bite started slowly as the tide was way out at the river mouth at 12:01 a.m. As the water flooded in, salmon came too, and anglers found the fishing conditions fair to good.
"It's not too bad. It could be better, but it could always be worse, too," said Steve Hyde of Wasilla after flogging the water for more than an hour after the opening.
"I'm just happy the weather's not too bad. There's just enough of a breeze to keep the mosquitoes at bay. Hopefully this will continue through the weekend," Hyde said.
This year the weekend weather is predicted to be fairly typical cloudy with a chance of light rain and temperatures ranging from highs in the upper 50s to lows in the 40s. Wetter weather could improve the chances of catching a king.
"The Ninilchik River and Deep Creek, they're not like the Kenai and Kasilof rivers. They're not glacially fed," said Stan Harrington of the Anchor Angler tackle shop in Anchor Point.
He explained that lower peninsula rivers typically run clearer, warmer and more shallow than their northern peninsula counterparts. As a result, lower rivers may be more dependent on inclement weather to produce optimum fishing conditions.
"If it's sunny and hot with clear water, the kings hate it. They get spooky and they'll hold up," Harrington said, adding that this is a natural behavior that prevents the salmon from exposing themselves to predators.
Harrington said when a low pressure system moves in, clouds hang overhead, water temperatures cool down and the rivers run less clear. That's when the bite can pick up.
"Drizzling is for sure better and heavy rain would be the best. It'll trigger the kings to really move in spurts up the river," he said.
Rain or shine, there is one group of people on the rivers having less fun than everyone else. Law enforcement officers are busy keeping the peace while anglers are busy wetting their hooks and relaxing.
"It's a busy weekend for us. We will have extra personnel there throughout the weekend," said Lt. Steve Bear, an Alaska State Trooper with the Bureau of Wildlife Enforcement.
"Our general focus is on wildlife, enforcing the fishing regulations and ensuring that no one is using illegal means or methods," Bear said.
He added that Bureau of Wildlife Enforcement troopers also may assist other troopers to ensure that partying doesn't get too excessive, drinking doesn't become dangerous and tempers don't flare.
Bear said that making a visible presence at the rivers with officers in uniform is typically enough to keep things in check, but said there also will be at least one officer out of uniform by the water acting like everyone else.
"That always keeps people on their toes," Bear said.
King fishing continues at the Ninilchik River and Deep Creek through Memorial Day. The bag limit for king salmon at Ninilchik are two per day with a maximum of two in possession, only one of which may be a wild king (recognized by the presence of an adipose fin). The bag limit at Deep Creek is one per day with one in possession.
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