Anglers from all over were trying their luck Saturday on the Kenai River, after bait use became legal at 12:01 that morning.
In an about face from the beginning of the season, the Department of Fish and Game allowed bait after the dismal-looking run picked up within the last two weeks. A slot limit of 46 to 55 inches is still in effect, meaning anglers can keep anything outside of that range.
As of Friday, 7,386 kings passed Fish and Game's sonar since counts began last month, a healthy amount within the department's escapement goal between 5,300 to 9,000 salmon.
Emily Wideman, 14, of Grapevine, Texas, caught one of those kings hook, line, and sinker. She landed the 45-inch salmon, her first king ever, Saturday morning using roe.
"A lot of people out there were catching," she said, while filleting a salmon at a table at Centennial Park.
Her mother, Kathy Wideman, said using bait improved her family's fishing success.
"We were out here evenings before it was open to bait but we didn't get anything," she said. "This morning we went out at 4 a.m. and all three of us caught fish."
"We had bait and Kwikfish out and the Kwikfish weren't getting anything," she added. "It was definitely the egg-loops."
But the luck could have also came from Emily's handmade Spin-N-Glo earrings, Wideman said.
Hooking kings was like shooting fish in a barrel for some other anglers that had a similar ease catching.
Vince Pennino of Anchorage said his boat had luck fishing the Sunken Island and Harry Gaines holes with bait.
"We caught four fish today between the three of us," he said, adding that the fish ranged from 15 to 30 pounds and were "small for the most part."
"It was good early. It kind of died off around 8 a.m.," he said. His crew launched at about 4:30 a.m.
Jason Pawluk, assistant area manager for Fish and Game in Soldotna, fished with Pennino.
"There was a good bite right before the guides got out," he said. "We saw a couple boats release some big ones."
Tim Howes of Anchorage had an "amazing" 37th birthday when he was the only one on his boat to catch a 45-inch king.
"I fought for it for quite awhile actually," he said. He did not use bait.
Howes and his friends went out fishing with Soldotna guide Tim Hiner, owner of Tim Hiner's Fishing Alaska.
Hiner said he disagrees with the use of bait.
"I'd like to see bait not allowed in the river ever. It kills too many rainbow trout," he said. "You can catch kings without bait."
To Hiner there's little difference to catching fish with or without it.
"Yesterday we limited out without bait," he said.
Lynn Keogh of Anchorage and owner of Key-O's Guide Service seemed indifferent to the opening of the river to bait, at least catching wise.
"First day of bait is better than normal but then you'll get back to reality again and have to work," he said.
He said it is easier for him to sell trips now with bait open but "the damage has been done" with cancelled reservations because of the Kenai's temporary closure.
Other anglers, like Jim Evans of Kenai, were feeling like fish out of water even with the bait liberalization.
"I've been here 30 years trying to catch a king and today I caught a banana peel," he said. For those in the know, bananas supposedly bring bad luck to fishermen. Around the Kenai Peninsula, some boats even sport stickers of banana peels with slashes through them, as in no banana peels.
"I'm the lucky guy who caught the unlucky banana," he said. "If you catch the banana peel you might as well give up the day."
But, Evans said, the banana would not stop him from fishing in the future.
Over at the Pillars, fishers seemed to be in the same banana boat as Evans.
"It wasn't real great for us," said Marty Day of Soldotna. "It's obviously not the right kind of bait."
Joe Deveaux of Soldotna pulled out at the Pillars with one king. He said the bait allowance was the only reason he went fishing Saturday.
Kenai guide Jack O'Neil of Alaska Pacific NW Fishing Adventures did not catch anything with his clients Saturday regardless of bait.
He said he saw few fish being caught on the river because the "run is late and the fish are moving faster than normal."
At least there are other fish in the sea.
Since June 8, anywhere from 381 to 687 kings swam upriver daily, a significant increase from the double-digit and low triple-digit counts that came in early on and prompted biologists to close the river due to the lowest estimate for early-run kings during that time period.
"We're happy that the run materialized to a level that allowed us to liberalize the fishery to put bait in and provide that fishing opportunity," said Robert Begich, area management biologist for Fish and Game. "The run is still below average in its total run strength but it should provide some good days of fishing ahead for the rest of June."
Bait can be used from the mouth of the Kenai to a point 100 yards downstream from the confluence of the Moose and Kenai rivers. Per state regulations, bait is typically allowed as of July 1 in many different areas.
Brielle Schaeffer can be reached at email@example.com.
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