Early-run Kenai king fishing opened for first time since 2012
After years of depressed stocks and depressed fishermen, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has opened the early king salmon sport fishery for the first time since 2012.
This accompanies several other early king runs throughout Southcentral and in the Arctic, correlating with warmer marine temperatures.
“We’re seeing stronger numbers of early-run kings returning to the Kenai,” said Robert Begich, the area management biologist in Soldotna, in a release. “This has allowed us to ease pre-season restrictions, and provide opportunity for anglers to fish for early-run king salmon.”
Sport fishing for king salmon in the Kenai River will be from its mouth up to an Alaska Department of Fish and Game regulatory marker at the outlet of Skilak Lake. Fishing will be restricted to catch-and-release from June 4 through June 30 using only one, unbaited, barbless, single-hook, artificial fly or lure.
Numbers for the early run have been promising.
On the Kenai River, sonar has counted 3,658 fish as of June 6 — nearly double the 2,068 fish seen at the same time last year.
ADFG closed the Kenai River early king salmon run to sport fisheries on Feb. 18 due to a low forecast. Only 5,206 fish were expected, which would rank 29th of the last 31 years ADFG has been counting. The optimal escapement goal for early-run Kenai River king salmon is 5,300 to 9,000.
“Things are looking very promising right now,” said Jason Pawluk, Kenai area assistant management biologist, in a May 29 interview.
“The question is it a really early, below average run, or is it a big run? That’s the ultimate question right now.”
Other oddities are popping up with the early run. Pawluk said the returning fish are younger than usual. ADFG uses size measurements as a proxy for age. By these measurements, Pawluk notes more two-ocean and four-ocean fish than typically return this early.
On other rivers, king salmon have seen promising numbers.
The Deshka River’s weir counted 7,822 king salmon by June 6, an improvement over the 4,149 and 1,903 counted by the same date in 2014 and 2013, respectively.
On the Anchor River, video weirs counted 2,326 by June 6, slightly less than last year’s measure of 2,728.
Kings and chums are also coming back early farther north on the Yukon River, according to Kwik’Pak Fisheries sales manager Jack Schultheis.
“We’ve been catching fish here for the last two weeks,” Schultheis said.
Environmental changes accompany, and may explain, the early runs. In the Gulf of Alaska, surface temperatures average one degree Celsius above the average temperature. This is a leftover effect of the Gulf’s infamous Blob in 2015, which warmed Gulf of Alaska surface temperatures two degrees Celsius and ushered in a red tide of toxic algae.
On the Yukon River, ice floes have vanished already with the same early run effects as in Southcentral, as predicted by ADFG in an earlier forecast.
“This is a very unusual year, for the ice to go out as soon as it did,” said Schultheis.
In 2013, for example, he said ice was still present on the river on July 10.
“Then we got into this pattern lately when it would go out the 27th or 28th of May,” he said. “Now it’s going back to earlier breakups. Fish come in right after the ice goes out.”
At the Pilot Station sonar counter on the Yukon River, 8,408 chinook have passed, nearly four times more than the amount passed the year before by June 6.
The fish could be returning earlier to beat the heat. Anecdotal evidence of warming trends adds up.
“We monitor Hidden Lake when the ice goes out,” said Pawluk. “This year, we went on April 7, but it was completely open. Jean Lake was open. It went out between April 1 and April 7. Typically it goes out the first week of May.”
Pawluk said ADFG has been monitoring stream temperatures as well. On the Russian River, he said temperature readings in April read between eight and nine degrees Celsius instead of the typical five degrees.
For other Southcentral rivers not so sensitive to environmental changes, runs are decidedly slower.
On the Copper River, sockeye returns are only a third of what they were at the same point in the last two years, and the early king salmon run is lackluster as well.
“Our king salmon harvest was low,” said Jeremy Botz, the Copper River area management biologist. “Through Tuesday (May 31), we’ve got close to 9,000 harvested. The last five years we’ve had really small runs. Typical for this time period we had twice that. We would’ve wanted 13,400 by this time.”
The Copper River, however, lacks the same environmental vulnerability its sister Southcentral rivers display. Glacial runoff forms the Copper River. When waters warm, the glacier simply pours more cold water into to the river to correct the imbalance.
“That’s why the Copper River runs are so consistent,” said Botz. “A lot of it has to do with that regulation.”
The boost in king salmon performance is not consigned only to Upper Cook Inlet, though Southeast kings have yet to come back in force.
Further south, Kodiak’s chinook runs are performing better than the last two years.
The Karluk River counted 315 by June 6, up from the 100-odd kings counted by the same time in 2015 and 2014. On the Ayakulik River, 597 kings have returned as of June 6, three times more than each of the preceding three years.
Southeast Rivers have different timing than Southcentral’s. According to ADFG Division of Sportfish director Tom Brookover, chinook in Southeast rivers like the Taku and Stikine rivers are returning more slowly than their northern brethren.
Unlike the Kenai River, Southeast Alaska managers have restricted king fishing on the Taku River, citing below average catches.
“These regulations are in place because Taku River king salmon production is low at this time,” reads an ADFG report. “More liberal regional bag limits, set under the Southeast Alaska King Salmon Management Plan are not appropriate in areas where local king salmon stocks are in a period of low productivity.”
DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected].