Category Archives: Kenai River

Kenai OKs plan for south beach road — City to purchase 7 lots for $1.6 million

Imagery from Kenai Peninsula Borough parcel viewer. The city of Kenai will purchase the highlighted seven lots in order to build a new access road to the south beach of the Kenai River.

Imagery from Kenai Peninsula Borough parcel viewer. The city of Kenai will purchase the highlighted seven lots in order to build a new access road to the south beach of the Kenai River.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

It was not their ideal solution, but members of the Kenai City Council did pass a solution at its Sept. 16 meeting to address the thorny problem of providing better access to the south beach of the mouth of the Kenai River during the July dip-net fishery.

“We have to think outside the box a little bit. This is a little different than normal but I believe it can work, I believe it’s the right solution with the options that were given us and I don’t think we need to delay any further,” said Council Member Tim Navarre, who voted in favor of the city purchasing seven lots off Drag Net Court for the purpose of constructing a beach access road.

The city only needs four of the lots for the road project, but negotiations with ARK Properties LLC resulted in only one deal — all seven or none. The lots include one with a mansion and various outbuildings with a borough assessed value listed at over $1.4 million.

Not liking that option, the city investigated skirting those lots to put in a road, but that placed the path through sensitive wetlands, which was another nonstarter.

So it was back to the purchase option. The city obtained a $1.9 million grant from the state for improved access and upgrade work for the dip-net fishery. The road project is covered under that pot of money, including the $1.6 million purchase price for the seven lots.

But there are a few strings attached. The city intends to sell the lots it doesn’t need for the access road. The state doesn’t want the city using grant money to buy the land then turn around and sell it at a profit, since the purchase price of the lots is below the assessed value.

As City Manager Rick Koch explained, if there is any profit from the sale of the extra lots, the city will be required to return it to the state, where it will go back into the grant and be available for the city to use for other dip-net access and improvement work.

“It’s the same grant money that’s been replenished. And we are able to use it for the same purpose that the grant was extended to the city in the first place.” Koch said.

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Crown jewel of king salmon sonar — Advancements make for best ever year counting kings in the Kenai

Image courtesy of Jim Miller, Alaska. Department of Fish and Game A screen shot of the ARIS sonar interface shows fish images picked up by sonar in the Kenai River and counted by technicians to track the king salmon escapement in the river.

Image courtesy of Jim Miller, Alaska. Department of Fish and Game
A screen shot of the ARIS sonar interface shows fish images picked up by sonar in the Kenai River and counted by technicians to track the king salmon escapement in the river.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

The black computer screen lit up with blueish flashes moving across the window. It looked like a maternity ultrasound, but the images weren’t depicting the developing limbs of a baby. Clear as day — or clear as night with a high-powered flashlight — the display showed fish swimming by.

“When we went from split beam to DIDSON it was like turning a flashlight on underwater because you could ‘see’ so much more. You could make out what was going on so it was more than just these funny squiggly lines,” said Jim Miller, Kenai chinook sonar project biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

The difference in the king salmon sonar program in the Kenai River 10 years ago to today isn’t quite “I-was-blind-but-now-I-see” biblically dramatic, but the advancement is revelatory.

When Miller started in Alaska’s salmon-counting sonar program in 1992 on the Nushagak River, Bendix sonar was the technology of the day. The interface spat out data on a paper tape and displayed the echoes bounced off the fish on a tiny oscilloscope screen.

“You could see the blips on the oscilloscope as the fish went by and that’s all you had — a blip on an oscilloscope and a tickertape,” Miller said.

On the Kenai, king counting used to be done with split-beam sonar. The echoes from the low-frequency sound waves appeared on a computer screen as a series of dots in patterns called fish traces. Technicians would count the fish traces to determine the number of fish passing by, and use the pattern of echoes to determine whether it was a larger fish — a king salmon — or something smaller, such as a sockeye.

“And then split beam, you had an echogram where you could see squiggles of fish going through. They were just squiggles, but you get the ‘S’ shape to them so they look like a fish swimming through,” Miller said.

While S-shaped squiggles were an improvement, split-beam left a lot to be desired. It was difficult to differentiate kings from other fish, and to tell fish apart when swimming next to each other.

The sonar location, too, was a challenge. At River Mile 8.6, it was close enough to the river mouth that water levels were tidally influenced. At higher water fish could swim behind the transducers and be missed. It was assumed that kings stuck to the deeper water midriver while sockeye preferred to hug the shore, but biologists eventually realized that wasn’t always the case at that site, with water levels and currents being variable.

Plus, the site was continually plagued by debris.

“On the outgoing tide was the possibility of damaging your gear because of the big trees. At the end of last season we actually had a huge tree come down and hook onto this sonar and pull it downstream about a half mile and snap the cable. The only reason we were able to retrieve it is because the guy on shift saw it going down and so he jumped in the boat and followed it,” Miller said.

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‘Something fishy’ — Protesters sign their disapproval of Kenai River Sportfishing Association

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter Demonstrators protesting the Kenai River Sportfishing Association met outside the Soldotna Sports Complex on Thursday evening while participants of the Kenai River Classic held a banquet inside. Protesters also floated with signs outside the riverfront home of founding KRSA member Bob Penney during another Classic event Aug. 19.

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter Demonstrators protesting the Kenai River Sportfishing Association met outside the Soldotna Sports Complex on Thursday evening while participants of the Kenai River Classic held a banquet inside. Protesters also floated with signs outside the riverfront home of founding KRSA member Bob Penney during another Classic event Aug. 19.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

The hundred or so people holding signs outside the Soldotna Sports Complex on Thursday afternoon were demonstrating their opposition to the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, which was holding a banquet inside as part of its annual Kenai River Classic fundraiser. But their message wasn’t directed at KRSA. Neither were the similar signs displayed by eight boats and a kayak in front of the riverside home of KRSA founding member Bob Penney on Wednesday evening during another Classic event.

They hoped to reach community members — there were some honks and waves as cars drove by — who might not give fish politics much thought unless an issue is jumping up and wriggling in their face. And they particularly wanted to reach KRSA’s guests — the business executives, industry representatives, politicians and others who come to fish in the Classic and support KRSA with their donations.

“Awareness in our community,” said Dave Athons, a retired Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist and board member of the Kenai Area Fisherman’s Coalition — which organized the demonstration — regarding the purpose of the protest. “And what we would really like to do is have some of the folks that attend the Classic open their eyes and see that the community does not support this organization, and some of the signs point to that. So we would hope that they would question, ‘Why are we spending our money here if we’re really not doing what we think we’re spending our money to do?’”

Participants included private sport anglers, personal-use fishermen and some who don’t even fish much at all. No sportfishing guides were in attendance. Most of the participants had a commercial fishing interest.

“There’s no doubt about it there’s a fair number of commercial fishermen here. It may be the majority. But the Kenai Area Fisherman’s Coalition has no commercial fishermen on their board of directors and they organized this, so they’re getting support from a broad spectrum of people,” said Ken Tarbox, also a retired Fish and Game biologist.

Megan Smith is all of the above.

krsa protest group“We ice fish in the winter and we fish on the river in the fall and we set net during the summer, so I’m just like every other Kenai resident. You’ll find me behind a dip net every once in a while, too,” she said. “I’m a Kenai resident, and I feel like Kenai River Sportfish isn’t a good neighbor. And I feel like, as a Kenai resident, my voice is being drowned out by people who yell a lot louder and have a lot more money than I do.”

Demonstrators’ signs ranged from the obvious — Kenai River Sportfishing Association with a circle and over it — to more nuanced, the variety of messages speaking to the multiple complaints that motivated demonstrators to participate.

“Support Diverse Fisheries” and “We Support Our Set-Netters” references a ballot initiative to ban set nets in urban parts of Alaska — which primarily would gut commercial fishing in Cook Inlet, where there were over 730 active set-net permits in 2015.

“I like to support the diversity of fisheries, I think that’s a real good slogan. I don’t think KRSA represents me or a lot of people on the peninsula,” said Bruce Vadla, a private sport angler. “I’m totally against shutting down the set-netters just for an allocation issue.”

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Kenai River Classic approach to future of fishing — Forum brings together leaders in recreational fishing industry

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Sen. Lisa Murkowski speaks at the Classic Roundtable on National Recreational Fishing put on by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association on Wednesday in Soldotna.

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Sen. Lisa Murkowski speaks at the Classic Roundtable on National Recreational Fishing put on by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association on Wednesday in Soldotna.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

Don’t let the term “recreational” mislead you, sportfishing is serious business, and panelists at the Classic Roundtable on National Recreational Fishing made the case for it to be taken more seriously in public perception and federal fisheries management.

“We think there’s a pretty compelling case, particularly if you look at economics, as to why we need to elevate the focus on recreational fishing within our federal fisheries management system,” said Mike Leonard, policy director of the American Sportfishing Association. “If you look at finfish harvested in the U.S., there are actually more jobs supported and more of an economic impact by recreational fishing than commercial fishing. However, recreational fishing is only responsible for 2 percent of finfish harvested.”

The roundtable was put on Wednesday at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association as part of its annual Kenai River Classic fundraising event. The panel consisted of various national leaders in the sportfishing community, representing Yamaha Marine, the National Marine Manufacturers Association, Center for Coastal Conservation Board of Directors, American Sportfishing Association, Alaska Oil and Gas Association, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and the Coastal Conservation Association.

Alaska’s congressional delegation participated (Sen. Lisa Murkowski in person, with Sen. Dan Sullivan sending his chief of staff, Joe Balash, as Sullivan was unable to attend), and of the 30 or so people in the audience, several were state politicians, though no elected or governmental officials representing the Kenai Peninsula were in attendance.

The two-hour presentations tackled the 20-year future of recreational fishing, with a look at current challenges and how to meet those challenges in the future to ensure that recreational fishing and its contribution to the economy and conservation continue to grow.

Martin Peters, manager of government relations for Yamaha Motor Corp., USA, and moderator of the event, detailed some of that contribution.

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Can catch, release catch on? Guides advocate for voluntarily avoiding harvest

Photo courtesy of Greg Brush. Kenai River fishing guide Greg Brush and a client pose with a 55.5-by-34-inch king salmon, estimated at 80 pounds or more. Brush will no longer allow kings in his boat. His Kenai king trips are catch and release only.

Photo courtesy of Greg Brush. Kenai River fishing guide Greg Brush and a client pose with a 55.5-by-34-inch king salmon, estimated at 80 pounds or more. Brush will no longer allow kings in his boat. His Kenai king trips are catch and release only.

Editor’s note: Mark Wackler was misnamed in the original version of this story. The Redoubt Reporter apologizes for the error.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

For a sportfishing guide on the fabled Kenai River, having a client wrestle a monster king salmon to the side of the boat — one of the 50-, 60-, 70-pound or bigger fish for which the river became famous — is a dream scenario.

These days, though, it’s much more frequently a dream than reality, as Kenai king salmon runs have struggled in low abundance in recent years. And for an increasing number of guides concerned about the shrinking number and sizes of kings in recent years, that dream scenario becomes a nightmare if the king is then bonked to kingdom come and hauled into the boat.

Catch and release king fishing is nothing new for kings on the Kenai. Some anglers prefer the fish’s fight to its flesh. Some guides throughout the years have counseled that choice to clients, as well. And the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has the ability to make that choice for all anglers as a conservation-minded management strategy to restrict harvest without completely shutting down fishing. But compared to what has been the norm — boat ’em and bonk ’em, and post pictures of exultant, exhausted fishermen straining to boost their massive king carcass up for the camera — catch and release is the quiet, uncelebrated outlier.

Fishing guides Mark Wackler and Greg Brush are trying to turn up that volume. They’ve both enacted catch-and-release-only policies for any Kenai River kings and are agitating for other guides to do the same.

“The last couple years I’ve taken a hard stance of educating the people prior to the charter and saying, ‘Kenai kings are struggling right now, we’re in a period of low abundance and there just aren’t as many as there used to be, and if you king fish on the Kenai with me or my guides, we do nothing but catch and release,’” said Brush, owner of EZ Limit Guide Service.

Both came to their policies over years of guiding on the Kenai, having pursued kings the same way many do.

“I went 15 years of guiding king salmon and killing 99 percent of them. There seemed to be plenty of fish, and I think I’m in the majority,” said Wackler, of Alaska Fishing with Mark Wackler, who started guiding when he was 16 and has been at it about 20 years now. “It’s been advertised as a meat fishery. You see everybody’s website, they’re holding up a 60-, 70-pounder on the front of their boat, dead as can be. That’s just what we did and we never really thought about it, unfortunately. In hindsight, I wish we did think about it and realized just how precious these really big ones were.”

The more the kings have struggled, the more he’s struggled with the thought of any of them landing on his boat. Midseason three years ago Wackler decided things had to change.

“I remember killing three 35- to 40-pound hens and looking at them in the box and just having this sick feeling and not happy with myself. I remember it like it was yesterday, I remember that moment thinking, ‘I’m not going to do this again. There’s no way,’” he said.

Brush has guided on the Kenai for 26 years, having moved to the area sight unseen just for the opportunity to do so.

“We were young and naïve and it was great fishing for the biggest kings in the world, and we took it for granted. We bonked them and pulled them out and said, ‘This is what the limit is? OK,’” he said.

He reached his limit slaying kings about five years ago, after seeing the fishery dwindle.

“There’s guides out there and sportfishermen, laypeople that will grumble for 10 hours straight about what it used to be and how bad it is and, ‘I can’t believe it,’ and yadda, yadda, yadda. And they finally catch one and what do they do? Pull it right out of the gene pool. It’s ludicrous craziness,” he said.

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Kenai red fishing blues — Sockeye run slow to return but picking up

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Mike Baker watches dip-netters at the north beach of the Kenai River on Monday evening, waiting for a sign that the fishing is picking up.

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Mike Baker watches dip-netters at the north beach of the Kenai River on Monday evening, waiting for a sign that the fishing is picking up.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

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.

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Fishing for a smooth season — Dip-net prep starts long before the fish, people show up

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. City of Kenai workers were busy last week preparing for the start of the dip-net fishery Friday. The crowds of dip-netters show up overnight, but the services needed to manage them take considerable time, money and planning to put in place.

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. City of Kenai workers were busy last week preparing for the start of the dip-net fishery Friday. The crowds of dip-netters show up overnight, but the services needed to manage them take considerable time, money and planning to put in place.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

As sockeye salmon return to the Kenai River in July, so, too, do crowds of dip-netters seeking to catch their share. But while the people show up overnight, the fishery doesn’t come together that fast. Prep work begins before the first late-run fish hit the fresh water.

Come the 6 a.m. July 10 opening of the Alaska resident dip-net fishery on the Kenai, the place was humming with hundreds of boats, vehicles and people, seeking their share of the tens of thousands of sockeye salmon that pass through the sandy, silty, windy transition of Cook Inlet and the river each day.

“On our busiest day we’ll see up to 15,000 — that’s in boats and on the north beach and south beach,” said Kenai City Manager Rick Koch. “You think, ‘Gosh, that’s just an incredible number,’ but you think of 600 boats out there during the course of the day, you put four people in a boat, that’s 2,400 people already.”

Kenai has the dubious honor of managing the most popular location of the state’s personal-use dip-net fishery.

“Things have become significantly more routine as it relates to keeping beaches clean, making sure we have enough portable toilets, Dumpsters, parking spaces are well defined, trying to moving people through — those things over the last five to six years we’ve got handle on, being event people. It’s sort of like Wrigley Field and 40,000 of you and your closest friends show up for a few hours. We’ve become event coordinators, and I think our personnel have done a very good job at undertaking those responsibilities, but every year there’s always something new,” Koch said.

Work began far in advance of the Friday opening. On Thursday, the beaches were busy with city workers doing last-minute preparations.

“Restroom cleaning, putting up fence to keep people off the dunes, picking up trash, cleaning up, whatever needs doing,” said Larry Hull, with the Kenai Parks and Rec Department.

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