Guides initiate rise of sport fishing

Posted: Thursday, July 12, 2001

In 1970, Bob Chenier and his 14-foot Smoker Craft created a wake that signaled the beginning of Cook Inlet's saltwater charter fishing. Chenier had seen king salmon jumping off the shore near Happy Valley while he was commercially fishing for halibut.

"One day I brought my fishing pole, threw a line out there and caught two kings on two casts and I thought, 'This is beautiful,' so I went to Anchorage and got a little sport boat," said the 80-year-old Chenier. "I don 't think there were any sportfishing boats on the peninsula then."

A far cry from the 100-horsepower engines on today's boats, Chenier had a 9.5-horse outboard motor.

Then Chenier happened to cross paths with Air France flight crews that were traveling through Anchorage and wanting to see Alaska. In the 25 years that followed, he introduced some 300 crew members to salmon and halibut fishing on Cook Inlet, an effort for which he was richly rewarded.

"I used to get some nice bottles of wine and some good Roquefort, Brie and Camembert cheese," Chenier said. "I was well supplied."

That was then. Today is another story.

According to the 1999 Alaska Division of Sport Fish harvest survey, saltwater charter boats in the area Chenier fished between Anchor Point and Ninilchik River accounted for 21,324 anglers. They fished a total of 28,279 days and harvested 40,321 fish, including 2,682 king salmon and 35,545 halibut.

Saltwater is half of the story.

The public was captivated with photos of Spence DeVito, of Kenai, on the cover of Alaska magazine and Alaska Airlines magazine, holding a Kenai River king salmon that he caught in the early 1970s. When Les Anderson, of Soldotna, caught a record-breaking 97-pound, 4-ounce king on the Kenai River in 1985, media from the West Coast, the Midwest and Canada scurried to hear his story.

"I was the original fishing guide on the Kenai," said DeVito, who began guiding on the Kenai River in 1971.

But he doesn't make that claim with pride.

"I started that whole mess, but I don't fish the river anymore," DeVito said. "It got extremely crowded, noisy, congested. There was an awful lot of ill-feeling among residents and a high amount of pressure on the river. Just too much of a crowd and not enjoyable. Had I known it would turn into what it's turned into, I wouldn't have guided one day."

DeVito, who worked as a fishing guide outside of Alaska before moving to the Kenai Peninsula in 1970, reported seeing similar situations in other parts of the country.

"It's a people problem," DeVito said. "Money and greed seem to take over."

Although he says there are "a lot of excellent guides out there and a lot of good people," DeVito blamed the current condition of the Kenai River fishery on agencies responsible for making regulations and enforcing them.

"They let it get out of hand and they can never bring it back," he said.

Data supplied by Larry Marsh, assistant area management biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, reported that in 1981, guided angler hours on the Kenai River totaled 36,727, or 25 percent of the total 149,296 angler hours recorded there. During those guided angler hours, the king salmon catch was 48 percent of the total number of king salmon harvested downstream of the Soldotna bridge.

In 1999, guided angler hours on the Kenai totaled 118,196, an increase to 47 percent of the total 252,460 angler hours. King salmon harvested during guided angler hours were 7,605, or 63 percent of the 12,027 king salmon caught downstream of the bridge.

In 1982, there were 217 registered guides, according to a report prepared by Jeanne Camp, economic analyst for the Kenai Peninsula Borough. That number now stands at 368, said Suzanne Fisler, permit coordinator for Alaska State Parks.

Joe Hanes, past president and a current board member of the Kenai River Professional Guides Association, attributed that increase to part-time guides.

"There's not too many like me that are out here every day from May until October."

On Tuesday, Hanes was guiding a family on the river.

"I had a 15-year-old boy that caught a 60-pound king," he said. "The Kenai's one of the few places where you can have things like that come true."

Having guided on the Kenai River since 1969, Hanes said it's not like it used to be 30 years ago.

"It's awesome, amazing how few people are actually out on the water, even in July. I fished on Sunday, and it was good fishing, and I was surprised that there weren't that many boats out there," he said.

Hanes said with the river use declining, other fisheries are increasing.

Ed Dersham, of Anchor Point, has been saltwater guiding since 1984 and is a member of the Alaska Board of Fisheries.

"I guess if you went back to the late 1980s, when regulations started tightening things down on the Kenai River, you could say there probably was a growth in both the guided and unguided effort on saltwater," he said.

However, Dersham said, restrictions placed on the early king salmon saltwater run have caused a reduced effort and harvest of that fishery over the past five years.

Halibut harvest, on the other hand, has increased.

"I don't know how much of that could be attributed to restrictions on the Kenai or any other rivers," he said, "But that effort has continued to grow."

Facing its own restrictions, the Board of Fisheries is limited to issues of time, area, methods and means.

"So anything else, such as limiting the number of guides, is out of the realm of the board," Dersham said. "For the state to do that through limited entry would require a constitutional amendment similar to limited entry in commercial fishing. That's been talked about it, but it just hasn't gotten very far."

The board can, however, impose more restrictions.

"Every time the board has met on the subject of Cook Inlet in recent years, there have been additional restrictions placed on fishing in the Kenai River," Dersham said. "A lot of those restrictions have been directed at the guide. Some are directed at guided and unguided anglers, but quite a bit of the recent year's restrictions have been placed on the guides."

Tim McKinley, fishery research biologist with the Alaska Sport Fish Division, said restrictions have included bag limits specific to species and location, area closures and limitations on guides as mentioned by Dersham.

When the Board of Fisheries meets this winter, Dersham said, it will address some 350 proposed changes to commercial, sport and subsistence fisheries.

"A fair number are directed at the Kenai River," Dersham said.

George Pollard is miles away from the rule-makers. But the changes in sportfishing he's seen during the 65 years he's lived and fished along the Kasilof River cause him to wonder if the resource can withstand the increased pressure. He said additional restrictions are inevitable.

"And if that doesn't work, they'll have to shut (fishing) down and let it rebuild itself," he predicted.

Pollard used to fish at his boat landing. Then a guide drift boat appeared near his landing about eight years ago.

"Since then, it's gone from zero to combat fishing in boats and on the riverbank," Pollard said.

This year marked another first.

"I just about fell over the other day when I went across Kasilof River Bridge and saw people lined up on both sides of the river, fishing," he said. "It was unbelievable."

"I'm glad I'm as old as I am, because I remember having fishing holes to myself," said Pollard, who hasn't fished at his boat landing for several years. "I could never fish elbow to elbow like people do today. I just wouldn't go fishing if that were the only way I could go fishing. I just wouldn't do it."

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