The Department of Fish and Game will close the Kenai River drainage for early run king salmon sport fishing this weekend, and is also restricting the fishery for naturally-produced kings on the Kasilof River.
In an announcement Thursday afternoon, Fish and Game said the Kenai River from its mouth to the Soldotna Bridge will be closed Saturday at 12:01 a.m. until the end of the month. The river from the Soldotna Bridge upstream to the outlet of Skilak Lake will be closed to king fishing Saturday at 12:01 a.m. and remain closed through 11:59 p.m. July 14. The Moose River will be closed from its confluence with the Kenai River upstream to the northernmost edge of the Sterling Highway Bridge from Saturday to July 14, as well.
The Department said that due to the closure of the Kenai, the Kasilof will likely experience increased use. In order to meet the escapement goal for that river, fish and game is restricting the fishery.
According to Jason Pawluk, Fish and Game assistant area manager in Soldotna, the early run chinook escapement goal for the Kenai is between 5,300 to 9,000 fish before the end of June. Based on the current sonar counts of 739 kings that have swam up river since counts began May 16 and based on historic run timing, the escapement projection is 3,800.
"We're short 1,500 fish," he said.
Pawluk said that this is by far the lowest estimate ever for early run kings this time of year.
"It's tracking to be one of the lowest returns we've ever had. And that's with no harvest because we closed the fishery," he said.
Dave Athons, of Soldotna, who fishes the lower Kenai mainly by drift, said that he agrees Fish and Game's emergency order.
"If the fish aren't there then most of us expect the department to protect the resource and shut it down," he said. "It needs to happen when it needs to happen."
Fishing guides were not as resolved about the closure, as it will undeniably affect business this summer.
Ed O'Connor of Sterling's Advantage Angling said he is not surprised about the closure and hopeful that business will not be too bad.
"At least the Kasilof will still be open as an outlet," he said. "Hopefully it won't be too awful of a hit to the business this year and hopefully the numbers will bounce back."
Scott Eggemeyer, owner of Soldotna's Bear Paw Drifters, said that he , too, is disappointed, but he is ultimately in favor of protecting the resource.
It's like telling someone that their office will be closed tomorrow and he can't go to work, he said.
But, with river conditions the way they are it was hard to catch any kings anyway, he said.
"The river is mud anyway. We couldn't catch a fish right now if my life depended on it," he said. "Could they have gone to catch and release? Yes. But they've gone ahead and closed it to sustain the run."
Eggemeyer seemed perturbed about the restrictions on the Kasilof.
Traditionally, by regulation anglers are allowed to retain wild kings, identified by the presence of an adipose fin, on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, Pawluk said. Fish and Game's order restricts retaining naturally-produced kings at all times but does not prohibit bait.
"By using bait some of those naturally occurring fish are going to die," he said. "The poor little old Kasilof is turning into the scapegoat for all user groups."
But Eggemeyer said he still remains optimistic about the rest of the season.
"This is only June," he said. "The bulk of the fishing season doesn't really start until July."
According to Pawluk, this is the first time since 2002 that Fish and Game has had to restrict the fishery on the Kenai. That year the fishery was restricted June 11. In 1998, due to poor numbers in an early run the fishery was limited to catch and release.
This year's closure is the earliest ever.
"We've never seen it before this time of year," he said. "It's scary."
Last year was some of the lowest returns and escapements ever, Pawluk said.
Poor runs and fishery restrictions are not unique to the Kenai Peninsula, either.
"The Copper River isn't doing very well this year," Pawluk said. "We're not really sure what's going on. This is something bigger than the Kenai River."
Deep Creek, the Ninilchik and Anchor rivers have also been closed to bait for the rest of the month, and the saltwater closure adjacent to the Anchor has increased from one to two miles north and south of the river mouth and one mile offshore. These restrictions are in response to low returns and projected escapements as well as the probability of increased use due to the Kenai's closure.
Brielle Schaeffer can be reached at email@example.com.
The Kenai River from its mouth to the Soldotna Bridge will be closed Saturday at 12:01 a.m. until the end of the month. The river from the Soldotna Bridge upstream to the outlet of Skilak Lake will be closed to king fishing Saturday at 12:01 a.m. and remain closed through 11:59 p.m. July 14. The Moose River will be closed from its confluence with the Kenai River upstream to the northernmost edge of the Sterling Highway Bridge from Saturday to July 14, as well.
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