In the wake of new river regs

Anglers split on benefits of engine efficiency, horsepower rules

Posted: Friday, June 08, 2007

After 30 years of boating on the Kenai River, Brian Bell’s days may be numbered. Under new regulations currently awaiting a signature by the lieutenant governor, Bell will have to get rid of his 35 horsepower two-stroke engine by 2010.

“I’m for cleaning up the river,” he said. “On the other hand, the old-timers on this peninsula have mostly two-cycle motors, the kind you don’t want. I’m willing to abide by it, (but) it’ll put me off the river.”

These regulations will force fishermen along the Kenai River Special Management Area to purchase cleaner burning four-stroke or direct fuel-injected two-stroke engines, while allowing them to increase their speed to 50 horsepower in order to reduce erosion along the riverbank.

Unwilling to pay several thousand dollars for a new engine, Bell said he’ll book a charter for the little bit of king salmon fishing he does in the summer.

“I only need one king salmon to tide me through this summer,” Bell said. “I can catch all the reds I want sport fishing off the bank.”

Most locals agree that the pollution problem needs to be addressed, but there is some contention over whether or not increasing the horsepower to 50 is necessary. For some people, mainly guides, the speed increase couldn’t come fast enough. Others say the increase was politically, not scientifically, motivated. Then there are those who say overcrowding along the river exacerbates any pollution and erosion problems it may have.

Don Johnson, owner of Alaska Dons Johnson Bro’s Guides and Outfitters in Soldotna, said he can remember when the Department of Natural Resources decreased the horsepower from 50 to 35 horsepower. To him the Kenai River is big enough to accommodate a larger horsepower and anything below a minimum 50 horsepower poses a safety risk due to lack of visibility.“(Our) charter service got hit by another boat,” he said. “(The pilot) was down in the boat with its nose up in the air, when he plowed into the bow of our boat.”

The 35 horsepower change had its benefits in a reduction of noise pollution, Johnson said.

“A 35 horsepower outboard jet engine, when you put it on the boat they lose about a third of their power when you go from a propeller to a jet engine,” he said.

Back when the horsepower decreased, Johnson said he sold most of his engines and had to make due with a detuned 50 horsepower engine. And while many people simply take the detuning kit off, Johnson said he’s seen engines blow up because of that.

“When you take a brand new engine and detune it and run it for years like that that could ruin the engine,” he said. “If you pull the mechanism out and run it on the river full bore, you run a substantial risk of blowing it up. Anybody who’s undetuning their horsepower from 35 to 50 should avoid the full throttle settings for more than a few seconds at first and let it cool off and allow it to gradually work itself in like the new break-in procedure.”

Dave Atcheson, who teaches fly fishing at Kenai Peninsula College, has fished the river for 20 years and is the author of a book and several articles on the subject.

Increasing the horsepower to 50 will prevent erosion along the riverbank, he said, but it won’t completely take care of the pollution problem. Taking two-stroke engines off the river will reduce hydrocarbon levels, but only slightly.

“If you didn’t increase (horsepower) to 50 and you got rid of two strokes (pollution) would go down more,” he said. “If it was up to me, they’d make it drift only and then they wouldn’t have a pollution problem.”

The river has a definite economic impact on this community, Ed Krohn said. Krohn, who authored a proposal in 1999 that allowed only drift boats in the river on Mondays, said if you remove the power boats, there won’t be a pollution or erosion problem.

“If you remove the (engines), you don’t have hydrocarbons and you don’t have boat wakes,” Krohn said. Some of the main reasons the Kenai River is having problems, he said, is because users are asking it to provide unlimited access to an unlimited number of people. “You are dealing with a very small finite resource, it’s a small river. But the demands on the Kenai River are very large.”

Jerry Hamilton wants to know what a horsepower increase will do to the habitat. A commercial fisherman from Kasilof, Hamilton said he’s seen a lot of people speed down the river at 50 horsepower already, despite the existing limit.

“Are they 50s?” He said. “(Or) are they cranked up to 70 or 65 (horsepower)?”

While people can save some money on newer engines now with the Kenaitze Indian Tribe’s buyback program and several other rebates that are available, they won’t be around for long. And the cost of an engine would still be around $5,000. But an even bigger problem to Bell is overcrowding at the municipal docks. He said guides do business on those docks and they leave others waiting outside the gate.

“They ought to be obligated to get their own private launching if they’re a commercial operation,” he said. “Like at the pillars where I launch, there are 350 guides on the river with no end in sight.”

Despite these reservations, he said in July he’d rather have a guide than try to find a space for himself.

“Right now it gets to be such a zoo during the July opening that I’d just as soon let it slide by,” Bell said. “I’d rather have somebody else do it for me than worry about the parking.”

Jessica Cejnar can be reached at

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