Russian River fishery reflects area changes

Posted: Thursday, July 12, 2001

As the 21st century begins, one of the most popular sport fisheries in the world is the confluence of the Kenai and Russian rivers on the Kenai Peninsula.

In the peak year of 1987, anglers took 195,000 sockeye salmon from the Russian. The state has counted 1,000 anglers in the four-mile stretch open to fishing.

But in the early days, trout, not salmon, were king on the upper Kenai.

As early as the 1920s, the Kenai Peninsula's fledgling tourism industry touted the Russian River as "famous."

One advertisement in the Seward Gateway in 1926 called it "... the best trout stream in the world, bar none ... ."

A 1927 article in the magazine "Hunter -- Trader -- Trapper" described a fishing trip for rainbow trout and Dolly Varden char there. Author Art Heaven told how they put multiple hooks on a single line.

"It did not matter, it seemed there were 20 fish for every hook. Imagine yourself with four fish ranging from 10 to 20 inches on your line all at one time," he wrote. "Some battle. It seems that the longer we fished the more fish there were in the hole."

The August 1944 issue of Alaska: The Territorial Life Magazine, extolled the virtues of the Russian.

"The Russian River country of the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska is destined to be one of the great resort areas of the world. It has everything -- fishing, hunting, mountains, trees, glaciers, lakes and rivers," it trumpeted.

Early tourists came from Seward and dabbled in activities such as big game hunting as well as angling.

But about the time of World War II, fish became more the focus.

Cooper Landing historian Mona Painter said the first people who promoted Russian River fishing were Luke and Mamie Elwell, who in the late 1930s started what they called "an airplane dude ranch" on Upper Russian Lake. Mamie, under the pen name "Niska" wrote stories with photos of smiling guests with big fish for the Alaska Sportsman, predecessor of Alaska magazine.

Rainbows ruled.

"They never talked about salmon," Painter said.

By 1939, territorial regulations limited the Kenai Peninsula trout catch, though not the catch of Dolly Varden, which were considered predators on salmon. Anglers killed as many Dollies as they could.

In 1944, Henry "Hank" Lucas opened the first Russian River ferry.

On the south shore of the rivers there, Fred Henton opened his Kenai Lodge in 1945. Painter recalled fishing at the confluence of the rivers during a visit with her aunt and uncle in 1949.

"We were the only people there," she marveled.

One of the first guides in the area was state Rep. Ken Lancaster Jr., who now lives in Soldotna. His parents, Ken Sr. and Pauline, opened the Our Point of View Lodge in Cooper Landing in 1955, shortly after the Sterling Highway was completed.

As a teen, Lancaster began casually taking guests to good fishing spots. Most of his clients were Anchorage business or military people. They explored Crescent Lake, the Russian River, Kenai River and Kenai Lake. There were no other guides in the area, and the lower Kenai River sport fishery was essentially nonexistent, he said.

"It was a good little business," he said. "It was a lot of fun. And about the most beautiful spot around.

"Salmon fishing was just starting. Trout was the big thing."

One reason was that salmon escapements were smaller, then. When the state started counting in 1963, the total run of sockeyes to the Russian River was about 70,000, of which anglers caught about 5,000.

People talked about the commercial fleet getting most of the fish before they entered the river, Lancaster said.

Residents fished salmon for personal use and did not consider that a sport. People ate lots of them and canned or smoked the rest. The most common way to catch them was snagging.

"Back then, we were trying to get enough to eat," Lancaster said.

The Alaska Sportsman magazine and word of mouth played major roles in developing the sport fishery, he said.

The Lancaster family sold its lodge in 1964 one day before the earthquake. A decade later, it burned to the ground.

Interest in sport fishing for salmon rose as new residents came to the peninsula in the 1960s and 1970s.

As the demand for Russian River salmon grew, so did attention to conservation. In 1965 treble hooks were banned to reduce snagging. In 1966 the area was designated for fly fishing only. Beginning in 1967, anglers could keep only fish hooked in the head, mouth or gills. Beginning in 1973, they could only keep fish hooked in the mouth.

The Russian River red salmon sport fishery grew so popular that in 1979, the Peninsula Clarion reported that 5,575 anglers had tried their luck in the first 10 days of the season.

By 1990, the Board of Fisheries had raised the minimum spawning escapement goals to a combined 46,000 for the early and late sockeye runs to the Russian River. The only recent change in Russian River management was a seasonal closure in 2000 of Upper Russian Creek to keep trout fishers from disturbing spawning salmon.

Management of the fishery is reviewed every three years and next comes before the fish board in February. Five changes have already been proposed, from closing the mouth of the Russian River to fishing, to opening the area to dipnetting June 1.

The Russian River supports two overlapping sockeye stocks.

An early run of about 65,000 fish arrives by mid-June. Anglers harvest about half that.

The survivors spawn in Upper Russian Creek, tributary streams and in upwelling areas along the southeast shore of Upper Russian Lake.

The early sockeyes average one year older -- and turn out larger -- than those in the second run, which arrives in mid-July and averages about 95,000 fish. The late run spawns along the shores of Upper Russian Lake, in the river between the lakes and in the Russian River itself, including below the falls.

After hatching, most fry spend two years rearing in Upper Russian Lake, perhaps because Lower Russian Lake is shallower and fish there are subject to winter kills.

Larry Marsh, a sport fish biologist with the Department of Fish and Game in Soldotna, said that in the early 1970s, biologists found a potential problem with the Russian River. During high water in early summer, the current grew so strong that salmon could not ascend the falls below Lower Russian Lake. About 100,000 sockeyes stalled below the falls, unable to reach their spawning grounds. Many died.

In later years, people used 5-gallon buckets and helicopters to move salmon over the falls during summer floods. That last happened in 1977, he said. During the winter of 1978-79, Fish and Game built a "fish pass" instead.

That is a tunnel 240 feet long, nine feet high and eight feet wide. During high water in 1980, more than 91,000 fish used the pass to reach the lake.

Marsh said biologists only open the fish pass if high water makes the falls impassable, since the falls are nature's way of culling weak fish. They do open the pass during extreme cases to avoid run fluctuations that would hurt the sport-fishing economy.

"It moderates the extremes," he said."It has been open more this year, probably more than ever before. I've never seen water levels at the Russian River like this year."

Better ocean conditions, the fish pass and restrictions on sport and commercial fishing may contribute to growth in the Russian River runs over the last 30 years. Through the 1990s the combined early and late runs averaged about 205,000 fish per year, up from an average of about 69,000 from 1963 through 1972.

Biologists do not expect further increases, Marsh said, but they believe Russian River fish habitat is in good shape.

"We have not witnessed or documented any loss of productivity. But that does not mean we are not concerned about habitat," he said.

The Chugach National Forest, which controls the river's east bank, and the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, which controls the west bank, have taken steps to limit and channel angler traffic to protect the riverbanks.

The agencies understand science and habitat needs, Marsh said, and management is easier because the land is public.

"We don't have a lot of conflicting opinions among landowners," he said.

The angler population may have maxed out as well. Angler effort seems stable on the early run and has actually declined for the second run, even though agencies added parking a couple years ago when they bought and developed the old ferry access.

"Part of that, I think, is you can only get so many people in there," Marsh said.

In addition, many anglers take their sockeyes in Soldotna, two weeks before the late run reaches the Russian.

"The Russian River late run is no longer the big game in town," he said. "We are at a plateau."

Even so, Marsh is upbeat about the future of Russian River sport fishing. Barring climate change or a downturn in ocean and river productivity, he predicts it will stay like it is for many years to come.

"It's an incredibly productive environment there," he said. "I am cautiously optimistic."

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