By Jenny Neyman
The good news is that the bulk of the Kenai River late run of sockeye salmon might finally be making its appearance. The bad news is it’s too late for a lot of fishermen who annually target the third week of July to do their harvesting — as that tends to be when a mass of fish makes a push into the river.
“I think I’m just going to head back tonight. If it was better I mighta stayed longer. I’ll maybe try later. A lot of construction, though (on the drive),” said Mike Baker, of Anchorage.
Baker was sitting on the cooler he hoped to fill at the north beach of the Kenai River on Monday evening, watching hundreds of his fellow dip-netters standing — and waiting — out in the water.
“It’s pretty slow, just kind of hit or miss,” he said.
Fish counts underscore that assessment. The sockeye sonar counter in the Kenai River posted unimpressive numbers over the weekend — 17,500 fish Friday and 20,000 Sunday. The number jumped a bit Monday to 49,000 fish, but that only brought the cumulative total of late-run Kenai River sockeye to just under 300,000 fish — not nearly as many as would have returned by this point in a more typical run.
“It’s no secret to most people here that are dip-netters, that are in-river fishermen, that are commercial fishermen, that our Kenai sockeye run is late,” said Pat Shields, commercial fishery area management biologist for the of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “We don’t know yet if they will return at forecast. We’re expecting about 3.5 million Kenai-bound sockeye to come back this year so it’s too early to say where we are with regard to how strong the run will be or how weak the run will be. But it’s most certainly going to be late.”
Managers are hopeful for the return, though. Other runs in Southcentral, including Chignik and Bristol Bay, are returning on a belated schedule but in good numbers. The same is expected for the Kenai.
“If we thought that the run was on time or early there would be no more fishing for anybody. There would be no personal-use, no sport, no commercial. We would lock this thing up and tell everybody to go home. We don’t believe that. We believe this run is late, so, yes, we’re watching it very closely,” Shields said.
A positive sign came Monday at Fish and Game’s test fishery off Anchor Point — a line
of six sites across Cook Inlet fished with a drift boat to estimate how many fish are entering the inlet. The test boat saw its biggest numbers yet Monday. Fish in the test nets are measured in index points representing catch per unit effort, which is later converted into an estimate of a passage rate to gauge how many sockeye have come by, and how many are likely still to arrive. Through July 19, the test nets had only logged 218 index points. By Monday afternoon, the test nets were on pace to get more than that in one day alone, with fish hitting all the sites stretched across the inlet.
“I don’t want to make too much out of one day of catch fish indices but it’s a very strong day,” Shields said. “That’s a good sign. When you’re looking at a large index and you see it spread across all the stations, that’s a good indication that you have had fish come into the inlet today.”
That’s what the dip-netters who were arriving for their fishing stint Monday are hoping, as opposed to the ones leaving after a mostly unproductive weekend.
Lynnette and Tim Blessie, of Eagle River, got to Kenai on Sunday but didn’t even bother getting their net down to the water until just about high tide Monday afternoon.
“It has been looking a little slow. We’ve heard that the run was slower getting here. We hope that doesn’t mean that there’s just not that many fish out there. We hope that it’s just because they’re late,” Tim Blessie said. “But I haven’t seen them pulled out at the pace I have in past years.”
They shoot for fishing the Kenai around July 18 every year. But just because that’s when they schedule to come fish doesn’t mean that’s when the fish will arrive.
“That’s why we stay a week,” Blessie said.
That’s also why they keep in mind that there’s value in the experience, too, not just the results.
“Either way, even if we don’t get our limit, it’s fun. It’s something we enjoy doing as a family every year,” he said.
Timing, as always, is crucial in fishing. In this case, rather than having the luck of timing a fishing trip when the sockeye are flooding the river, logging time in the water seemed to be the difference between catching and just fishing at the Kenai dip-net fishery. Those adding to their coolers were the ones with the patience, or family members with whom to trade off, to keep a net in the water.
Patresha Burnell was celebrating her biggest day yet Monday, with nine fish hitting her net. She and her family had been at the mouth of the Kenai over the weekend.
“Yesterday my brother had luck and my mom and my dad, so today’s my luck. Yesterday I was out from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and I got a rock, but today I’m glad I’m catching my share,” she said.
Those who had been targeting the Kasilof River report more luck than at the Kenai. Unlike the many seemingly late sockeye runs in Southcentral this year, the Kasilof’s return seems to be on time.
“Kasilof, it started out strong and has just stayed strong. So our assessment at this point in the season is Kasilof’s probably at or about forecast, and run timingwise it looks kind of normal, kind of average,” Shields said.
Shields didn’t hazard a guess why the Kasilof fish seem to be punctual and the other sockeye in the area tardy. His primary concern at the moment is slowing that return down. The biological escapement goal for the Kasilof is 160,000 to 340,000 fish, and as of Monday the escapement estimate was already at 300,000. The commercial fishermen have been deployed as much as possible in the Kasilof area under the current management plan, which limits options for commercial fishing when king salmon returns are low. But other than one solid day when the nets were kept to within a half-mile of shore, Shields said that the commercial fishermen haven’t been having red-letter days of lots of reds, either.
“The rest have been just steady fishing. No really, really strong day, but just a lot of steady fishing,” he said.
That’s been the case for dip-netters at the Kasilof, too — hit and miss, though perhaps hitting on more success than fishermen at the Kenai have so far seen.
Heather and Cody Sherman, from Palmer, spent Thursday through Saturday at the Kasilof and came to the Kenai on Monday. They caught 12 sockeye at the Kasilof and had caught two in about three hours at the Kenai.
“Thursday afternoon was pretty good. I caught three in the first 30 minutes, then it kind of slowed down from there. I was out 14 hours on Friday and caught one fish, so it was really slow. So we’re hoping for it to kind of speed up during the week when it’s not so crowded,” Heather Sherman said.
That’s a careful-what-you-wish-for scenario. It might not be a sure thing to predict when the fish will come, but one thing is for certain — when they do, the crowds of fishermen are sure to follow.
“They pay very close attention to the index points,” Shields said. “And many of them have their own little formulas for what an index point means to them in their fishery, be it a dip-net fishery or an in-river fishery or a commercial fishery. I’ll let everyone else determine what 200 index points means for their planning of their life.”