Jesse Villarreal holds up a king salmon he landed from the bank at Centennial Park in Soldotna.
The Kenai and Kasilof river king salmon fisheries are in their final throes, but surging numbers of fish may make for fishing that is as hot as any day this summer until the closure at midnight Tuesday.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game's sonar counter, 8.6 miles from the mouth of the Kenai River, has been recording solid numbers of kings entering daily. More than 1,500 kings a day have been swimming past the counter since July 18, and on Tuesday a whopping 3,008 kings were counted — one of the highest daily king counts recorded since 1999.
As of Tuesday, 26,606 kings had cumulatively entered the river in the late run. This has produced catchable numbers of fish for boat fishermen and even a few bank anglers, such as Jesse Villarreal of Fort Collins, Colo., who landed a king from the bank at Centennial Park in Soldotna on Saturday.
"My arms were burning — that was a big fish," Villarreal said.
Villarreal began targeting kings after making friends with a few other anglers at the Centennial campground, he said. While others were using spoons with good success, Villarreal tried some corkies. He said he had hooked and lost nine fish before he was able to reel in a nice king that measured just shy of 50 inches, with a 29-inch girth.
It took 15 to 20 minutes to bring the fish to the bank, Villarreal said, and the assembled anglers cleared out of his way and gave him plenty of room to land the fish. Villarreal also got quite a bit a coaching and some help from a gentleman from Germany and one from Japan, with whom he had become friends.
"They were telling me, 'Take it easy,'" Villarreal said. "Finally, I had to walk it to a place I thought I could land him, where it was shallow."
Just before he got the king on land, Villarreal said his line snapped, but after such a long struggle with the salmon he wasn't about to concede the battle. Rather than watch the fish swim away, he jumped on it and wrestled it the rest of the way to the shore.
"This is my first time (in Alaska), and that was my first king," Villarreal said.
After weeks of lingering in Cook Inlet, the sockeye salmon also began entering the Kenai and Kasilof en masse this week. The Kasilof has been steadily receiving counts of 10,000 to 20,000 fish per day since Saturday with 22,008 sockeye entering the river Wednesday for a cumulative 246,922 fish so far this season.
As Fish and Game's in-river goal for the Kasilof is 150,000 to 250,000 sockeye, two emergency orders have been issued to liberalize fishing. The sport fishing bag limit has been increased from three per day to six sockeye per day and 12 in possession. The personal-use fishery area has also been increased and shore dipnetters can now wet their nets from the river's mouth to the Sterling Highway Bridge upstream, while boat dipnetters can catch fish from the salt water to a Fish and Game marker upstream at river Mile 3.
The story is much the same on the Kenai, but with even better numbers of sockeye storming into the river. No less than 30,000 sockeye a day have entered the river since Saturday. On Wednesday, 34,069 sockeye swam in for a cumulative 335,034 sockeye so far in the late run.
Due to this high number of sockeye arriving in the Kenai, and Fish and Game projecting 2 million fish will enter the river, fisheries in this waterway also have been liberalized. The sport fishing bag limit has been increased from three per day to six sockeye per day and in possession, but this increase does not include the Russian River and the Kenai River "fly-fishing-only" waters. The Kenai personal-use fishery hours also have been extended and dipnetters can now fish 24 hours a day through 11:59 p.m. Tuesday when the fisheries close for the year.
Anglers tired of seeing red may opt to search for a little pink instead, as fishing for rainbow trout in the Kenai River is reported to be good right now. Several anglers have found fishing the upper Kenai between Skilak and Kenai lakes productive, and Fish and Game is predicting the rainbow bite will remain good for the duration of the summer.
Silver salmon fishing is not far away. Nikki Szarzi, a fisheries biologist with Fish and Game in Homer, said silvers are arriving at the Nick Dudiak Fishing Lagoon on the Homer Spit, and that the water there should be boiling very soon.
"Fishing should be hot and heavy there next week," she said.
Three times as many silver salmon smolt as usual were planted into the lagoon last year, and an estimated 18,000 are expected to start arriving back there around Aug. 10, Szarzi said.
Clarion reporter Will Morrow contributed to this story.
Joseph Robertia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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