Though sport fishing for king salmon on the Kenai River has been slow, sonar counts indicate the early run already has met the lower end of its escapement goals.
'Tourist effort is way, way down. It's been going down quite a bit in the last few years. People aren't coming up in June when they can have bait in July.'
--Bix Bonney, Northstar Adventure guide
As of early Monday afternoon, 13,396 salmon had been counted by Alaska Department of Fish and Game sonar at Kenai River Mile 8.6.
They are not all kings, however.
Based on test fishing, there is a strong component of red salmon mixed with the kings, skewing the results high by as much as 25 percent. In that case, the king count would be closer to 10,047, which is right in the middle of the early-run escapement range of 7,200 and 10,400.
Fish and Game sonar specialist Debbie Berwin said the department's sonar is set to filter out red salmon that swim closer to shore, and concentrates on kings, which swim in the deeper mid-river channel. But problems arise when there are a lot of reds not staying near the banks.
"When we have an extremely strong early run of sockeye, we get an erroneous classification of chinook," she said. "Usually the reds are a little better behaved."
Berwin said the department uses nets to verify the count when there are a high level of reds in the river.
But 25 percent of the sonar count -- 3,349 -- is not all the reds there are.
"We can't extrapolate what the sockeye run will be so far, but we can't assume it's only 25 percent of the chinook count," Berwin said.
She said much more than that already has passed the Russian River weir.
Some sport anglers had hoped reaching the lower escapement goal for kings would have liberalized fishing.
"If you can believe the sonar count, and it's backed up by netting, the fish are there," said Northstar Adventure guide Bix Bonney of Soldotna. "If they let us have bait, we'd have a chance."
King fishing restrictions prohibit bait in June except by emergency order.
Bonney said there is a large volume of stringy algae in the river that is fouling spinners and lines, and the smell of bait could give fishers an edge. So far, effort has been low, along with success.
Bonney said he doesn't know what to attribute the low effort to except past restrictions on the fishery discouraging anglers from wetting their lines.
"Tourist effort is way, way down. It's been going down quite a bit in the last few years," he said. "People aren't coming up in June when they can have bait in July."
He said the river level is up, which has increased the cloudiness of the water and is washing trash and algae downstream. He hopes it clears up soon.
While Bonney said he would like the department to loosen up and allow bait by emergency order later this week or early next week, he understands why they are being cautious.
"I'd rather see tight management than hurt the fish," he said. "We'll see what happens."
The large number of reds in the Kenai River has prompted Fish and Game to open what is known as "the Sanctuary," at the confluence of the Russian and Kenai rivers, to sport fishing a month earlier than normal. The escapement goal above the weir there is 16,000. Department counts indicate 17,773 sockeye had passed the weir as of Monday.
Clarion reporter Carly Bossert contributed to this story.
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