Photo by Elizabeth Earl/Peninsula Clarion Anglers line the banks of the Kenai River near the Donald E. Gilman River Center in Soldotna, Alaska on Thursday, July 7, 2016. Many reported good fishing for sockeye salmon that day in the river.

Photo by Elizabeth Earl/Peninsula Clarion Anglers line the banks of the Kenai River near the Donald E. Gilman River Center in Soldotna, Alaska on Thursday, July 7, 2016. Many reported good fishing for sockeye salmon that day in the river.

Despite better early king numbers, Kenai fishermen head for sockeye

Every square inch of shelf space is occupied in Ken’s Alaskan Tackle, and much of the walls, too.

Pegboards covered in different types of fishing flies, racks of lures and lines of hooks holding myriad different kinds of line greet the customers who drop in. Overhead hang reproductions of different Alaskan fish, the largest being a toothy king salmon that watches haughtily over the shop.

But most from the road recognize it for the enormous sockeye salmon that looms over the roof.

Though the Kenai River is famous worldwide for its king salmon, sockeye are increasingly becoming a target fish. Mary Glaves, an employee at Ken’s Alaskan Tackle, said most people who have come in this season are looking for sockeye, though the Kenai River is open for king salmon retention, albeit with no bait.

“Fishermen may just be out of the habit,” she said.

Part of it may be strategy. The Kenai River is wide and has had high water levels so far this season, making it difficult to bank fish for king salmon, which tend to run more toward the middle of the river. However, another part may be a set of years with weaker runs and more restrictions on Kenai River kings, some say.

For the past few years, poor counts on the early- and late-run kings have triggered management restrictions, either on bait or retention. This year, early signs show more late-run kings entering the river — 1,923 had passed the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s sonar at river mile 14, as of Monday — in addition to more than 9,800 early-run kings passing the sonar, according to Fish and Game’s data.

Though anglers could keep king salmon from the rivers after Fish and Game managers issued an emergency order June 18, participation has remained low. Catch rates have been low as well, possibly due to poor water conditions. Catch rates have been improving as the water clarity does.

A clear Thursday on the steep slopes of the Kenai River found a long line of fishermen standing waist-deep in the high water. Kasilof, Anchorage, Cordova, Idaho, California — they came from near and far to fish the Kenai. Around midday, many fishermen struck it lucky with sockeye, catching their bag limits from the bank.

Though he said he’d rather be fishing for kings, Bruce Tiedeman was flipping for sockeye near the Donald Gilman River Center in Soldotna on Thursday. Kings put up a better fight, but the expense and the chances of landing a king make it not worth it in the Kenai, he said.

Tiedeman, of Cordova, said he has been fishing the Kenai since 1959 and knows the river well. The guide boats that motor up and down the river sometimes land kings, but even they have seen their catch rates go down in recent years, he said. And with the cost of booking a guide and the slim chance of catching a king, fewer people may be jumping for it, he said.

“You see them out there, and they used to catch four kings to a boat — now they’ll catch one, if any,” he said. “That’s the way I see it.”

Dick Bowen, the co-owner of Gone Fishin’ Lodge on Funny River Road in Soldotna, said the reduced king runs have pared the lodge’s business in June to the quick. While visitors used to pack the rooms in June, these days most people wait, he said.

“They get the news in the Lower 48 — they read the reports, they know what’s going on,” he said. “People don’t come up for catch-and-release.”

He said the lodges and other fishing tourism-oriented businesses have felt the effects of the restrictions. Gone Fishin’ charters plans to take clients across Cook Inlet to fish and organizes charter trips through local charter businesses in Seward and out for halibut. During the off-season, when the owners are marketing the lodge, they have picked up other trips than just the kings to market.

Over the years as the restrictions have come down and the king runs have declined, tourism-oriented businesses have changed their tacks.

Lodges that once promoted trophy kings have added sockeye or halibut guiding services as well. Some guides have begun taking clients to different parts of the river and targeting coho or sockeye instead, crossing Cook Inlet to go clamming or changing to more experience-oriented eco-tourism.

Despite Fish and Game’s higher sonar counts so far, Bowen said he wasn’t confident in the data and was concerned about the overall care for the kings.

He said he didn’t agree with the decision to open the commercial setnet fishery as much as it has been because of the potential for the commercial fishery to catch king salmon.

Kings have far more value to the sportfishery and tourism industry than they do to the commercial fishing industry, he said — though kings are worth more per pound than sockeye or pinks, a single tourist could spend thousands of dollars on lodging, food and guide services for a chance at catching a king salmon. That lends more to the local economy than selling pounds of fish, he said.

More fishermen and managers should put the fish first, he said.

For instance, the guides at Gone Fishin’ do not fish for kings above the Sterling Highway Bridge in Soldotna because fish past there are headed for spawning grounds nearby — they should be allowed to have a chance to spawn, he said. If more people put the fish first, the population could have a chance to recover, he said.

People may fish for other kinds of fish during their visit to Alaska, but it’s the kings that bring people in the first place, Bowen said, nodding to an enormous mounted king salmon above the living room at the lodge.

“People come up first to catch a king,” Bowen said. “Then when they’re here, they book a halibut charter, they go fishing for sockeye. It’s good for the economy.”

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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