Cars packed the parking lot at Cunningham Park in Kenai on Tuesday just after noon. Down on the muddy bank below the stairs, fishermen in lawn chairs and perched atop buckets and coolers chitchatted like old friends. In fact, some of them were.
Below some of the poles mounted into the bank floated silver salmon strung through the gills. Readily recognizable by their black mouths and silver color near the base of the tail, silver salmon are some of the most sought-after sport fish in Alaska, and this year, the runs seem to be hitting hard all over the Cook Inlet drainage.
John Riggins of Kenai brought in a girthy male silver salmon Tuesday afternoon, which he estimated at close to 12 pounds. The fishing wasn’t as good Tuesday as it had been Monday, he said, but several of the anglers on the bank still had at least one to show off by early afternoon.
The silver salmon fishing has been reportedly good up and down the Kenai River for the past few weeks, though there are no specific metrics for the size of the run. Anglers have been reporting good success, especially in the lower river between the mouth and Slikok Creek, but also in the waters around Soldotna.
Catch rates have improved in the last several days, said Alaska Department of Fish and Game sportfish assistant area management biologist Jason Pawluk. People are catching silver limits in most areas of the river, he said. The Kasilof River, which is less popular for guided trips and for fishing in general than the Kenai, reportedly started off slowly for silver salmon but has picked up as well, he said.
“Coho fishing in our area in general is good,” he said.
Coho salmon are notoriously aggressive and will strike at many different kinds of gear. Up and down the Kenai, anglers are using a wide variety of different types of gear, with some opting for heavier weights and simple spinners while others use eggs and Spin-n-Glo rigs, and still others use dry flies.
Upstream, near Kenai Lake, it’s less about salmon and more about trout. Tyler Gottfredson, an owner and guide at Alaska River Adventures in Cooper Landing, said the business’s guides are still heading downstream for silvers, but trout fishing is great in the river upstream of Skilak Lake right now.
“Trout fishing is excellent because of the awesome return of kings we had in the Kenai this year,” he said. “It’s super fun right now.”
Rainbow trout and Dolly Varden are the major resident species in the upper Kenai River and its tributaries. The fish feed on salmon eggs as the salmon spawn, which brings them out and biting during the fall. Anglers often target them using bead arrangements meant to resemble salmon eggs.
Rainbows can grow to enormous sizes on the Kenai River, but per regulation, anglers can only keep trout smaller than 16 inches long — anything larger has to be released. The bag and possession limit is one per day with one in possession on the Kenai River drainage. The same is true for Dolly Varden.
Gottfredson said Alaska River Adventures’ flyout trips to Cook Inlet’s west side for silver salmon had also been doing well, with plenty of fish returning to those streams.
Sockeye were also late to return to the Kenai River this year. Usually, Fish and Game has stopped counting sockeye in the Kenai with its sonar because the counts have petered out by now. However, over the past week, the counts have stayed relatively high for August, and the sonar was still in the river on Wednesday.
From Aug. 17–19, more than 30,000 sockeye passed the sonar at river mile 19 each day, dropping down to just over 12,000 fish on Tuesday. The total cumulative count is approximately 1.28 million, nearing the upper end of the inriver escapement goal of 1 million – 1.3 million fish for the Kenai River when the total run is predicted to be greater than 1.8 million sockeye. The run was significantly later than usual and without a major peak day, with the greatest daily passage topping out at 71,000 fish. Early in the season, many were asking if Fish and Game would meet its inriver management goal, so the consistent passage of sockeye throughout August has pushed up the total count.
That meant that the few anglers left targeting sockeye from the banks were doing well for the past week, Pawluk said.
“People who were flipping for sockeye from the bank did really well,” he said. “It’s just now starting to slow down … but I would say sockeye fishing was excellent this week.”
With the trout fishery heating up, the silver fisheries in all the drainages of Cook Inlet doing well and the sockeye still around, fishing conditions are good right now, Pawluk said.
Halibut fishing has been better this season than in the past few years, said Art Charles of Reel ‘Em Inn Cook Inlet Charters in Ninilchik. After a rough start with poor weather keeping many charters on the beach in May and early June, the weather patterns leveled off and made for a summer of good consistent fishing, he said.
The fish clients have been catching haven’t been as large as in previous years, but they’ve been healthy and in the 50–100 pound range and plentiful, he said.
“I would rate this season as one of the best in the last 10 years,” he said.
In Homer, the halibut derby has about two more weeks, winding down on Sept. 15. The current leading fish, caught July 27 by Sam Milles of St. Maries, ID, weighed in at 240 pounds, with a number of tagged fish also having been caught.
In Seward, the annual Seward Silver Salmon Derby wrapped up Sunday with the winner — C.H. Schroeder of Big Lake — taking home the prize with a 15.2-pound coho salon. Of the top 10 heaviest fish, only one was not from Alaska, and four were from the Kenai Peninsula.