Russian River anglers cash in on huge return of sockeye salmon

Posted: Wednesday, June 27, 2001

COOPER LANDING (AP) -- The line for admission to the most popular attraction on the Kenai Peninsula in late June stretched out and around the corner of the access road to the Russian River campground.

All that was missing was a flashing neon sign to headline: ''Now appearing -- Return of the Red Swarm.''

Word was out that the early run of red salmon to the Russian River was shaping up as large. By the end of this day, there would be nearly 35,000 reds counted through the Alaska Department of Fish and Game weir on the river just below Lower Russian Lake.

That's more fish than returned in five of the past 10 years, and the run was just nearing the peak that normally comes between June 20 and July 1. All indications were that not only were there a lot of fish through the weir but that there were a lot of fish in the river or downstream on the Kenai River still making their way upstream from Cook Inlet.

Sport fishery biologist Bruce King in Soldotna wouldn't even ponder a guess at how big this run might turn out to be but noted ''there is precedent for these huge returns.''

Back in 1987, the number of spawners through the weir was pegged at 61,500. Fish and Game estimated about 200,000 fish returned that year. Anglers hooked, battled and landed the other 140,000.

From all indications, anglers might already have taken 30,000 or 40,000 this year. Fishing has been superb, said King, a participant in the salmon madness himself since the June 15 opening.

''That's why we're waiting in line,'' Meredith Plummer of Anchorage said as she sat with her family in the 16-car queue near the Russian River check station. Like hundreds of others, they could barely wait to pay their $6 for a place to park in one of the campground's two large parking lots.

A couple times each year, the Plummers make the pilgrimage to this salmon-filled, clear-water tributary to the glacial Kenai River 105 miles south of Anchorage.

''It's my third year since I arrived here,'' said Bill, who works at Elmendorf Air Force Base.

A couple cars behind them in line outside the check station, California tourists Kamla and Kumari Birusingh, ages 32 and 19, were just looking to score a fish.

The Birusinghs first learned of the Russian River last year on a camping trip to Alaska. This summer the sisters had driven down in a rental car and spent the night trying to catch a salmon. They saw plenty caught but landed nothing themselves.

''We were there until 1:30 last night trying to catch a fish,'' Kamla said. ''We saw a lot of fish being carried away.''

They saw fish in the river, too. They watched people catch fish. And they got plenty of free advice on how they too could catch red salmon.

''People were really nice,'' said Kamla, who figured it was just a matter of time before she and her sister pulled in their first Russian River reds.

As neophytes, they were struggling. But old-timers on the river were pulling in all they wanted.

By the time the Plummers finally got a noon ticket to the ''Pink Salmon'' parking area for Alaska's red-salmon theme park, 65-year-old Al Cross from Sterling was already calling it quits, having caught all the salmon one man could handle in a day.

''It was good,'' he said. ''We went way up the river. There's lots of fish up there.''

So many fish are returning this year that Fish and Game is pondering whether to up Russian River bag limits for reds. There is only one problem, King said.

Upping the bag limit means anglers need more time to catch their limit, and that slows the turnover in vehicles at the Russian River campground, making it even more difficult for people to get in to park.

So when bag limits go up, the line for admission to the river grows even longer. And nobody likes that. Everyone would rather be fishing or recovering from the effort of wrestling hard-fighting reds to shore.

Cross had the tailgate up on his minivan and was sitting in the warm sunshine pulling off his hip boots during the hiatus in his salmon battles. It was noon, and he had been on the river since 6 a.m. Beneath his broad-brimmed felt hat, he looked ready for a nap.

''I like to go way up the river and get away from the crowds,'' Cross said. ''It's not as easy as it used to be, but it can be done.''

Despite the Russian's reputation as an elbow-to-elbow combat fishery, it is often possible to find some space, particularly during the week, particularly on the upper river where the water is fast.

The wading there is difficult, and the fish are harder to spot, harder to catch and harder to land.

Not to mention some other distractions.

''I saw a (black bear) sow with a cub,'' Cross said. ''She came down, got a salmon and went back up on the bank to eat it. That's a bonus.''

Or at least Cross thought it a bonus. Not all anglers are as happy to fish around potentially problematic bears. That keeps some of them close to the crowds. Bears avoid mobs even more than old-time Russian anglers like Cross.

(Distributed by The Associated Press)


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