Even guides complaining about too many Kenai guides

Posted: Sunday, June 30, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Kenai Peninsula residents and recreational fishermen have complained for years that professional fishing guides were taking too many fish. But this year is different.

Even guides are complaining about each other.

Guide numbers have slowly crept higher since 207 registered in 1982. Last year, 335 guides registered to fish the Kenai River, and this year looks about the same, according to the state Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation. The high was 354 in 1997.

Complaints from guides themselves are increasing, made worse by a monthlong closure on the famed early run of Kenai River kings that sent hundreds of guides scurrying for fishable waters.

''There's a lot of guides. You're hearing that from the president of the guides association,'' said Joe Connors of the Kenai River Professional Guides Association.

Though guides historically account for about 55 percent of the Kenai's king harvest, their portion of the catch is increasing. Guided anglers bagged about 90 percent of the early king run and 60 percent of the late run in 2001, according to the state Department of Fish and Game.

The state Board of Fish has tried to restore some balance by capping the number of clients per boat, reducing guided fishing hours and barring guides from the Kenai on certain days of the week.

But Ted Wellman, chairman of the Kenai River advisory board, said more needs to be done. Wellman grew up fishing the Kenai and is a vocal proponent of uncommercialized sportfishing.

The state needs to put sportfishing guides into the same limited-entry program created in the 1970s to bring stability to Alaska commercial fisheries, Wellman said.

Guides describe their fellow fishing pros as good people on the whole, but when there is a lack of elbowroom, it creates problems. The June Kenai fishing closure led dozens to jostle for space in the shallow, rocky Kasilof River, and nerves were frayed.

''We have too many guides for the water available,'' said Mark Reilly, a Kasilof fishing guide. ''If we're all going to pack onto one river, it just doesn't work.

''It gets kind of mouthy out there. ...You're crowded, you're fighting for water.''

The Kasilof River was one of several small fisheries that have been safety valves for frustrated Kenai River guides trying to satisfy their customers this summer. Many have ventured into Cook Inlet or across Kachemak Bay for salmon and halibut. Some are leading paying clients on bank-fishing trips for red salmon.

The trend toward guided bank angling runs the risk of displacing even more resident anglers, said Mark Conway, a former Kasilof guide who says he quit after summer 1999 because he believed guides were ruining the experience for the public.

For the past couple of years, the Kenai guide association has been developing a plan that would require prospective Kenai River fishing pros to take an exam and undergo an apprenticeship aboard a registered guide boat. Connors said the program may stabilize the industry.

''We're not saying you can't become a guide, but we are saying if you want to become a guide, it has to be in an orderly manner,'' Connors said.

The Kenai River advisory board is scheduled to consider the idea in the months ahead.

It has merit, said Suzanne Fisler, Kenai River permit coordinator for state parks.

''I think it's worth looking at, only because we're interested in ensuring professionalism,'' she said. ''We want to avoid bad experiences for clients and other guides.''

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