Jake Lawrence of Rochester, Minn., hauls a stringer of red salmon to a cleaning table on the Russian River last summer. The Kenai River is a magnet to sports fisherman around the peninsula to around the world.
Clarion file photo
Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of stories examining how restrictions of Kenai River sockeye salmon fishing affect diverse user groups. Thursday’s story will look at setnetting.
During a typical summer day in late July, the elevated metal grates that line the Kenai River at Swiftwater Park in Soldotna hum with the clangs and thumps of hundreds of determined anglers hard at work.
On Tuesday during the historic peak of the river’s sockeye salmon run the banks of Alaska’s most popular sportfishing river were eerily silent.
It wasn’t just Swiftwater. At public campgrounds, private residences and secret fishing holes up and down the river, the banks were deserted and quiet, courtesy of an Alaska Department of Fish and Game emergency order that shut down the sockeye fishery at midnight Monday. The order was part of a series of restrictive measures taken by fisheries managers seeking to squeeze as many sockeye upstream as possible before this year’s disastrous run peters out.
Sport anglers from Alaska and Outside rely on the Kenai sockeye as a recreational and nutritional staple. Easy to catch and prized for its meat, the sockeye is the most harvested of any game fish on the river, with a couple hundred thousand fish taken annually from the Kenai.
From 1981 through 2004, sport anglers harvested an average of 162,370 sockeye, according to Fish and Game area management biologist Larry Marsh. In recent years, Marsh said that figure has been even higher, with the 2004 catch topping out at more than 250,000 fish.
But this year, sockeye anglers have had to turn away from the Kenai. As of Tuesday, only 270,990 sockeye had been counted by Fish and Game sonar still a long way from a lower-end goal of 650,000.
Despite decent returns of sockeye in recent days, Marsh said the restrictions won’t be lifted unless the goal is reached. He did, however, note that fishing for silver and pink salmon on the lower sections of the Kenai should be heating up in the next few days.
“I’ve been telling people to go down low,” he said, mentioning the Warren Ames Bridge and Cunningham Park as good fishing holes.
Fishing for pinks and silvers with spoons, spinners or salmon eggs is typically a good bet when fishing in the estuary section of the river.
Most visitors to the area aren’t having trouble finding other things to do around town, according to Soldotna Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Michelle Glaves. She said more people than usual have been coming through the Soldotna Visitor Center doors in search of information on recreational opportunities.
“They’re looking for other things to do,” Glaves said.
She said most of the visitors she’s talked to understand the closure is for biological reasons.
The confluence of the Kenai and Russian rivers is one of the most popular fisheries in the state.
Clarion file photo
“Nobody likes it, but they can accept it because they know it’s good for the run,” she said.
Glaves noted that king salmon fishing has been strong and said she’s been touting the area’s other salmon, trout and halibut fishing as alternatives to red fishing.
The chamber of commerce also has been educating people on the closures by having copies of Fish and Game press releases and emergency orders available at the visitor center.
Jeff and Andrea Marschall traveled by motor home from Florida to visit Alaska this summer. Although they said they would have liked to do a little sockeye fishing, they understand why the state was forced to shut the fishery down.
“If you don’t watch population this year, four or five years from now you’re going to have the same thing over again,” Jeff Marschall said. “And it can even get worse.”
Andrea Marschall agreed. She said she understands the importance fishing has to the peninsula’s tourism industry.
“Florida also relies on tourism, and part of that tourism is being able to fish there,” she said.
The Marschalls said they haven’t been turned off on the peninsula by the closure.
“Yeah, it bums us out, but maybe when I come back in a few years it will have helped,” Jeff said.
Local anglers used to hauling home stringers of sockeye are also grudgingly accepting the closure.
Soldotna residents Cameron Miller and Zack Bryant were camping at Swiftwater when the closure was announced. Both said they typically rely on rod-and-reel sockeye salmon fishing to fill freezer space, and they have been put out by the closure. In fact, with sockeye fishing closed, Bryant said he’s pretty much stuck high and dry.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Bryant said, standing just yards from the river’s deserted edge. “I haven’t thought that one out yet.”
In the meantime, Bryant said he’s planning to turn to other types of salmon fishing soon in order to get some fish.
“Last night I saw a bunch of really big humpies caught,” he said, pausing to reflect on the idea of spending the rest of his summer catching pink salmon.
“I’ll probably wait for the silvers to come in,” he said.
Matt Tunseth is a former Clarion reporter.
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