By Jenny Neyman
King salmon season on the Kenai River this year was a good example of why it’s called fishing, not catching.
“Yeah, it was ugly. It was a weak run and anybody in town will tell you that,” said Robert Begich, area management biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Division of Sport Fish.
Despite favorable fishing conditions, a low return of late-run kings that were smaller and younger than usual made for a slow July on the river, with even experienced local anglers and longtime fishing guides left with empty nets after full days spent on the water. Adding to the frustration of infrequent bites were sonar counts that were biased high, making it appear as though thousand-plus slugs of kings were entering the river a day, when in actuality, far fewer were making their way upstream.
This was the worst king season in 20-plus years of guiding memory for Reubin and Mindy Payne, of Alaskan Widespread Fishing Adventures. They estimate their Kenai king catch rate was about half what it would be in a typical season.
“I’ve never seen this poor fishing,” Reubin Payne said. “It’s not just me. Maybe I had a bad day, I couldn’t get in front of a biter. But my wife, Mindy, she grew up fishing on this river and it was bad for her, too. And it wasn’t just she and I — it’s across the board. There were some real concerns within the guide community and private fishermen.”
A low king run and resultantly slow fishing was compounded by higher expectations for a better season. Unlike last summer, when flooding events led to muddy water in the Kenai, which is not conducive to king fishing, this year there appeared to be no good reason why kings weren’t biting.
“As far as conditions go, water clarity and flow I’d say were favorable to good fishing, particularly when counts are high,” Payne said.
Sonar counts were high for much of July, but inaccurately so.
Payne said he has no doubt that Kenai River sonar king counts were inaccurate, as evidenced by a low harvest.
“I don’t know why the counts were skewed but I know that on days when I sit out there for 10 hours and see three fish caught out of 250 boats, and then I listen to the fish count and it says 1,400 kings came into the river, I know that when 1,400 kings come into the river I see more than three nets up,” Payne said.
Water conditions, knowledge, experience and just plain luck play a part in fishing, but not enough to explain this slow of a king season, he said.
“I consider the locals and the guides that pursue kings on this river as some of the best king salmon fishermen on the planet. I consider this the Super Bowl of king salmon fishing. I’m not saying I’m the best king fisherman in the world — far from it — but some of these boys out here, when there’s kings around, those kings get caught. So when the fish counts are 1,200 or 1,400 and I’m seeing three fish caught, then I become suspicious of the validity of the count.”
An average in-river late run of Kenai kings is about 43,000 fish, with an escapement goal range between 17,800 and 35,700 fish. This year’s preseason forecast was for a small run to start with, of about 32,000 fish. Biologists are still working out the final numbers, but the run likely ended up being smaller than that, maybe not even making escapement.
“We’re near the lower end of the goal range, so that’s 17,800 fish. That’s the escapement after harvest,” Begich said. “We were forecasting a well below-average run of 32,000 to the river, as opposed to 43,000, and it was probably less than 32,000, and we don’t know why that happened.”
Preliminary information collected by Fish and Game through Aug. 1 showed just 5,377 kings harvested by the sport fishery below the Soldotna bridge this year. That’s the lowest since 2002, down from 7,378 in 2009, 9,272 in 2008, 9,258 in 2007 and 13,190 in 2006. The Kenai in-river king salmon sonar estimate this year, meanwhile, was the second highest it’s been since 2002, with only 2004 showing a higher estimate.
Along with the overall late run size being lower than expected, the kings themselves were also smaller and younger than expected.
“It’s kind of startling. Something we haven’t seen before is in the first part of the run, about the first 10 to 12 days, there was very, very few large fish. And then as the run progressed, the size and age composition of the run changed dramatically to larger, older fish. That’s something we haven’t observed before,” Begich said.
Creel surveys and test netting pointed to a larger-than-expected proportion of jacks in the river early in the run. Jacks are 1- or 2-year old kings that can be less than half the size of full-grown adults. Begich said he doesn’t know why that occurred, but it’s a phenomenon Fish and Game will keep an eye on if it happens in future runs.
Payne speculated smaller, younger fish in the river might be a result of years of selective harvest, where anglers typically throw back smaller kings so as to save their bag limit for bigger fish.
“I think that’s a trend that’s occurred in the last four, five or six years,” Payne said. “Part of it could be genetics. We’ve continued to take the 70-pounders and throw back the 20-pounders, where you take all the big ones out of a stock and let the small ones go. People don’t want to punch in their two-fish limit with 15-pounders.”
If any of these factors are to become the norm — a weak return with small, young kings — it could have drastic ramifications for the economy of the central Kenai Peninsula, with its summer tourism industry driven in large part by the July Kenai River king fishery. Guides, in particular, can’t afford to have too many clients who don’t have a good trip.
“Return clients have become our base here,” said Kristy McCullough, who runs Alaska’s Last Frontier Fishing Lodge with her husband, Evertt. “We’re trying to push more folks to come up in silver season, but, really, kings are what make this area famous. That’s what everyone wants to try for. It’s kind of once in a lifetime to get a really big king. That’s the driver for them coming to this river. And we definitely left with some unhappy customers that were expecting better king fishing.”
This year’s poor king season comes on the heels of a slow season last year, with the national recession taking a hit on tourism and muddy water slowing fishing for those who did make the trip to the Kenai.
“Last year we were off about 30 percent, but this year we were off about 40 percent of even last year, so less than 50 percent of where we were two years ago,” McCullough said. “So, definitely, we were way down.”
Payne said his number of fishing trips was about the same this year as last, but he is set up to fish the Kasilof River, as well, so his guides could take clients there when the late-run Kenai king fishing was slow, and even when the early run of Kenai kings was closed to fishing briefly in June. But on the Kenai, his trips only landed about half the kings they normally would, he said.
Return customers account for about 25 percent of his business, with about 40 percent of his clients either being direct repeats or referrals from previous clients. Word of mouth accounts for a lot in the fishing guide business, and if clients talk about long, boring days of fishing with no action in sight, that can have a negative impact on bookings.
“They want to have a good time, but they want to catch fish. And if they’re not catching fish at least they want to have a realistic shot of catching fish,” Payne said. “When they go out there and see 30 fish caught for 300 boats, then they can say, ‘Well, it’s like Vegas — my number didn’t come up.’ But when they see three fish caught, then it almost becomes like they lose faith in the river.
“And it doesn’t help when Fish and Game does something as drastic as shutting fishing off completely (in early June), not just going to catch and release or to a bait closure. I received dozens of e-mails from people that were coming in July. When they heard the Kenai was shut off in June they were saying, ‘Hey, are we still on?’ It sends the message that the river’s unhealthy. Something as drastic as a complete closure of the fishery that early in the season has a ripple effect,” he said.
Payne said he thinks it’s time to re-evaluate the impact commercial fishing has on the Kenai king fishery. Commercial sockeye fishermen in the area had a better season than anticipated. As of Aug. 30, the Upper Cook Inlet commercial salmon harvest was estimated at 2,783,384 sockeyes, compared to a 2 million UCI sockeye harvest in the 2009 season.
A forecasted weak run of Kenai-bound sockeye ended up hitting the 2 million-plus mark, which means fishery managers could offer more commercial openings. Nets targeting sockeye near the mouth of the Kenai River are thought to intercept kings also swimming to the Kenai to spawn, which is why commercial fishing is opened and closed in set time periods, to allow fish a chance to make it into the river for the sport and personal-use fisheries.
However, even with liberalized commercial sockeye openings during the Kenai king run, commercial set-netters harvested a smaller number of kings than usual, as well — an estimated 5,753 kings through Aug. 1, which is the lowest since 2002 except for last year, with 5,097 harvested.
Begich said the Kenai king sport fishery and commercial sockeye fishery are managed independently, so there’s not a way to restrict commercial sockeye openings if the king run is weak.
“They both have separate management plans. The only link from the sockeye plan to the king plan is that if the in-river sport fishery closes, the east side set-net gillnet fishery closes. There’s no middle ground,” he said.
Maybe there should be, Payne said, referencing the economic impact the king sport fishery has for the area.
“I think we should be taking a look at the commercial fishery in Cook Inlet from an economic and not a social standpoint,” Payne said. “It’s a really politically charged discussion. If somebody said we shouldn’t have fishing guides I would say, ‘Doggonit, man, that’s how I make my living. I don’t want to stop doing this,’ especially if I’ve been doing it for generations. But my great grandaddy shot buffalo, and that had to stop, too. This king fishery is a very fragile fishery. There were a lot of kings caught in gillnets this year.”
Begich said the set-net fishery on the east side of Cook Inlet logged 6,835 king salmon overall this year, with a projected in-river sport and personal-use harvest of 7,000 kings.
McCullough said she doesn’t advocate for closing down any fishing groups, but thinks the overall Kenai River fishing picture needs to be considered in light of this year’s king season.
“I’m just concerned about the resources here. I don’t expect to kick out commercial fishing. I just hate to see us sacrifice this resource. I see the big draw for tourism for it,” she said.