"Don't put this in the newspaper," a fishing acquaintance told me at this time last year, "but they're going to extend the king opening on the Ninilchik River."
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game had extended the opening the year before, he said, allowing anglers to harvest hatchery-reared kings. He went on to say the fishing had been great -- the salmon-crazy crowds caught red fever as sockeyes began hitting the upper Kenai and Russian rivers, and he had the Ninilchik to himself.
At the time, I didn't have the heart to tell my acquaintance, Dave Atcheson, that Fish and Game had sent a press release and his hot tip was no longer a secret.
Of course, Atch-eson's book, "Fish-ing Alaska's Kenai Peninsula," has hit local book shelves since then, blowing the lid of all of the rest of the peninsula's hottest fishing secrets.
Fish and Game once again has extended the season for hatchery kings on the Ninilchik River. While the Anchor River and Deep Creek are open for king salmon fishing for the last weekend of the season, the Ninilchik River will open at 12:01 a.m. Saturday and remain open through 11:59 p.m. June 30.
The Ninilchik River is open downstream from the Sterling Highway bridge, and only hatchery-reared king salmon may be retained. Hatchery fish are identifiable by the lack of an adipose fin. The adipose fin is the fleshy fin on the back of the fish just ahead of the tail. The daily bag limit is one fish 20 inches or longer and 10 fish less than 20 inches. Bait is allowed, but tackle is limited to single hooks.
Of course, many anglers will be turning their attention north to the upper Kenai and Russian rivers, where red salmon are beginning to turn up. The upper Kenai opened Wednesday while the Russian River opens at 12:01 a.m. Sunday. The sanctuary area at the confluence of the two rivers is closed until July 15. Fishing for rainbows on the Kenai River below Skilak Lake also opens Sunday.
Three Anchorage anglers familiar with the upper river, speaking on condition of anonymity -- at least one was supposed to be at work -- described Wednesday's float from Sportsman's Landing to Jim's Landing as "great," saying that they were mostly fishing for rainbow trout, though they also were looking for red salmon. They said most of their success came when they were fishing with flesh patterns -- another hot tip that drew comments of, "Don't give away all our secrets," from the other assembled anglers.
Jane and Dale Kelley of Troy, Mo., weren't quite as secretive about their float trip, saying they had a great time fishing for trout and enjoyed watching wildlife along the way. Their guide, Dan Nelson of Kenai River Sportfishing Lodge, said the couple had pretty good success using plugs to fish for trout.
Of course, many anglers will be heading toward the upper Kenai and the Russian in pursuit of early run red salmon, and Fish and Game area sportfish manager Mark Gamblin reported the run to be right on schedule. Fish and Game counted the first reds of the season at its Russian River weir Monday, and had tallied about 850 through Wednesday.
"We've been tracking the fish through our sonar sights, and the run is on schedule and on time," Gamblin said. "It looks like a near normal, maybe slightly less than normal start, but all signs are good right now."
Recent rainfall has raised water levels on the peninsula's rivers and the water has been a little off-color.
The sanctuary area around the confluence of the Russian and Kenai rivers will remain closed to fishing by regulation until July 15. Due to a tremendous early run, the area opened early in the season last year, but Gamblin said that won't be the case this year -- at least for this weekend.
Gamblin said the weather-related water levels and color on the lower Kenai have created a bit more of a challenge for king salmon anglers.
"I suspect we're going to see success rates drop off a little bit," Gamblin said. "We're still looking for a normal to slightly above normal return. We're in good shape. I don't anticipate any restrictions being necessary."
Gamblin said he had received a few inquiries about opening the lower Kenai to bait fishing, but said it was far too early in the run to consider liberalizing the fishery.
Gamblin said that the percentage of fin-clipped kings in the Kasilof River catch had been increasing. Anglers on the Kasilof are restricted to harvesting only hatchery-reared fish which have had their adipose fin clipped.
"The good news is that harvest opportunities have been increasing," Gamblin said.
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