Most locals are aware that our first run of Kenai kings (commonly called the early run) has been less than stellar this year as well as the past few yeas. I've only lived here about 20 years, but even I remember when we had healthy ER king numbers and good fishing in May and June. In addition to the poor returns lately, many would agree that some of our ADF&G's recent decisions have been "questionable" for lack of a better term!
Yesterday (Saturday), the first day that bait could legally be used on the Kenai River, was "interesting" to say the least, as angling effort seemed to double, possibly triple compared to the "no bait" regulations previously in place. As in other years, it was clear that anglers much anticipated large numbers of fish "stacked up" and the excellent catches that the first day of bait can sometimes provide.
I fished the lower river from Stewart's Landing to Sunken Island, and it appeared to me that there were no big groups of "holding" fish in this section, since nearly all kings I saw were relatively bright and full of dark-brown sea lice. In my opinion, the first day of bait on the lower river provided "slow to fair" fishing at very best and I saw and heard of no spots where large numbers of kings were "stacked and whacked." I got very lucky and stumbled into a few fish, but looking around, I was apparently at the right place at the right time, got lucky, and intercepted three brand new traveling fish. Other boats didn't fare quite as well, and I interpret what I saw on the lower Kenai yesterday as no big groups of holding fish in the lower river.
However, those anglers who fished above the Soldotna bridge reportedly did very well, getting 4-10 strikes per boat. I have several friends who fished there yesterday and they limited-out early. This is not surprising, as often ER kings "zip" through the lower river and don't seem to slow down much until they reach the rocky areas between Centennial Park and Moose River, which is classic "holding" water. Some of those fish may have been new, bright fish from the last few days, but I also know that many were/are fish that entered the river several weeks ago, during the total closure of the river where no king fishing was allowed!
Which leads me to my point: how in the world can the Alaska Department of Fish and Game make the statement, in early June no less, that "we cant even afford to kill one Kenai Early Run king" (i.e. no catch-and-release allowed) and supposedly attempt to protect those ER kings with a total fishing closure and then, a bit later in the month, turn their management philosophy 180 degrees, operate some bogus project like "cost recovery" netting, open sportfishing with bait, and even allow fishing and retention of the very kings we protected above the bridge? This is crazy, and a bit akin to a married couple saving hard for retirement for 25 years and then spending it all on exotic meals, a fancy car and a big vacation. Why bother saving at all?
I suspect ADF&G's answer to my question would be something to the effect of "we reached our escapement goal and it's in the management plan" which of course is somewhat of a cop-out and pretty ridiculous, if you think about it. Returning to my savings analogy once again: its kind of like hitting 62 years old and telling your wife "we reached out savings goal but lets forget why we saved and just blow it all now on a whim!" A simple Emergency Order (which they seem to be handing out like Halloween candy lately!) that restricts king fishing above the bridge would have been simple, reasonable and effective in protecting our "savings."
Looking towards the future, and considering our ER low-end escapement goal of barely over of 5,000 fish, the common practice of issuing bait early, allowing netting near the mouth while hook and line are restricted (lets not even go there!) and of course the issue of sockeye contamination of our sonar counts, myself and other locals believe that the department has been managing the ER on a very precarious razors edge! Perhaps this winter, at the Board of Fish, our entire community needs to finally stand up for wise management of our fisheries, demanding consideration of a total revamp of our ER management plan, where we show some guts, ban all netting of ER fish, return to the previous larger escapement goal (thereby creating more of a cushion for sockeye contamination and not allowing the use of bait in years of weak returns of ER kings) but also establish a reasonable in-river finish line for these kings, where targeting the very fish we previously protected is not allowed.
There is no doubt that our community revolves around our fish, and whether one has ties to sport or commercial, is a local or a visitor, it just makes good sense to manage our fisheries wisely. Even if you don't fish, you should be aware that we all benefit from healthy runs of salmon, so write your Governor, your representatives, and the Board of Fish, asking them to make sure that ADF&G starts managing our fisheries in a reasonable and prudent manner!
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