By Jenny Neyman
Images courtesy of Debby Burwen, Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The dual-frequency identification sonar system being tested on the Kenai River creates images of fish on a screen, making it easier to count and size them, and differentiate kings from sockeye salmon.
Judging by the in-river sonar estimate numbers, this summer’s late run of Kenai River king salmon had the potential to be a smoking hot fishing season. The count started July 1 with 843, hit a high daily total of 2,654 on July 21, and finished strong with a 1,277 daily count Aug. 4, for a healthy cumulative total of 48,343.
But those numbers did not translate into bent rods, wet nets and happy fishermen. Far from it. Anglers on the river, harvest reports, creel surveys and test netting all tell a far different tale of Kenai king fishing this July. Fishery managers are estimating the run to be at the lower end of the escapement range, around 17,800 fish, with a weak run total in the 32,000 range, rather than the robust 48,000-plus indicated by the sonar estimate.
Kristy and Evertt McCullough, of Alaska’s Last Frontier Fishing Lodge, were two of many guides and private anglers left scratching their heads over the dichotomy between high expectations for a good season and the poor results that were actually netted. Sonar counts were good, water conditions were clear and favorable for king fishing, and boat traffic seemed a little lower than usual, Kristy McCullough said. But all that accounted for a big fat nothing of a season, as the kings simply didn’t show up.
“They weren’t there,” McCullough said. “River conditions were good. That is the scary thing. Last year we had flooding and very dirty water for a while there, but this year we had beautiful, clear-water days and still had very low catch rates. And that’s just the double whammy when fishing’s bad even with fewer boats out there. Even the drift-boat days. The very last drift-boat-only Monday, it’s usually just a blowout day, and this year we actually got one (king) on that Monday, but we only saw two others caught and we were out there that whole day.”
Low catch rates weren’t in the McCulloughs’ or anyone else’s imagination.
“It was a poor run. All indicators are it was a weak run,” said Robert Begich, area management biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Division of Sport Fish.
The older split-beam sonar system, right, results in dots on a screen.
All indicators, that is, except the sonar count, which clocked a healthy late-run king return. Debby Burwen, regional sonar biologist for Fish and Game, said the sonar was likely fooled by a combination of factors. The king run unexpectedly consisted of a lot of younger, smaller kings, which can be difficult for sonar to distinguish from sockeye salmon. And sockeyes, for some unknown reason, swam in the middle of the river more often than they usually do. Sockeyes usually tend to stick closer to shore, whereas kings are more often found midriver.
“We believe (the late-run king sonar counts) were biased high, and that’s no secret. We put it in the paper and on our website, everything like that. And the reason we think they were so biased high was because there was an extraordinary number of sockeye out in the middle of the river,” Burwen said. “Both the split-beam (sonar) and netting program (which is only operated midriver) showed we had more sockeye out in the middle of the river than prior years. We always get some sockeye out there, but this year was an extraordinary high number.” Continue reading