An Anchor River king salmon lies on the bank Saturday, May 19, 2018 in Anchor Point, Alaska. (Photo by Elizabeth Earl/Peninsula Clarion)

An Anchor River king salmon lies on the bank Saturday, May 19, 2018 in Anchor Point, Alaska. (Photo by Elizabeth Earl/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai River closed for kings, anglers look to other species, rivers

Poor king salmon returns have prompted a complete fishing closure for them on the Kenai River.

As of Wednesday, the Kenai River downstream of Skilak Lake is completely closed to king salmon angling until June 30. After July 1, it is scheduled to open to fishing downstream of a marker that is about 300 yards downstream of Slikok Creek, subject to change by emergency order. That cuts off the fishing season for early-run kings on the Kenai River and limits the late-run fishing on the river upstream of Slikok Creek.

The intention is to protect the fish returning upstream and meet the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s escapement goal of between 3,900 and 6,600 large early-run kings. As of Monday, the department isn’t projecting the run will meet that goal, even with fishing restrictions currently in place forbidding harvest, according to the closure announcement Fish and Game issued Monday.

“The inseason inriver run projection ranges from approximately 3,095 large king salmon based upon average run timing to approximately 3,609 large king salmon based upon a run timing of three days late,” the announcement states.

King salmon fishing is a driving force in the tourism economy on the Kenai Peninsula, with anglers booking guide trips and visiting lodges and tackle shops specifically in search of Kenai River king salmon. June isn’t the busiest month, so there’s still some time for guides to work with their clients to get them on flyout fishing trips, said Ray DeBardelaben, owner of Long Live the Kings guide service and Kenai River Professional Guides Association president.

“The Kasilof (River) is still a fishery available,” he said. “You diversify … there’s trout fishing on the Kenai River.”

The closure certainly affects guides’ bottom lines, though clients can be understanding about fluctuating closures, DeBardelaben said. He shows up with a positive attitude and works with clients based on what’s available and tries to diversify the fishery as much as possible.

Monte Roberts, a guide and owner of All Alaska Outdoors Inc., said he books clients on a “what’s available” fishing basis and doesn’t guarantee a king fishing opportunity. Some clients cancel when they find they won’t have a chance to fish for kings, but he talks with clients about the options before they head out, he said.

Both DeBardelaben and Roberts have been guiding for more than 20 years and remember the complete river closure in 2012, when the runs were disastrously bad. Since then, guides have adapted their businesses and book clients for multi-species fishing trips or work with other services like flyouts.

The water quality took a nosedive over the weekend as well, with muddy, clouded water pouring out of the tributaries. That would have put the brakes on a king fishery for the remainder of June anyway, Roberts said. He estimated that muddiness would take at least a week to clear from the lower river.

“Even if they kept us open, we wouldn’t be king fishing,” he said.

As of Monday, 2,243 kings had passed the sonar on the Kenai River, as compared to 5,922 on the same date in 2017.

The Kenai River joins the Anchor and Ninilchik Rivers and Deep Creek for king salmon closures on the Kenai Peninsula this year. The Kasilof River is the only freshwater river anglers can fish for kings on the western Kenai Peninsula, and retention is restricted to one hatchery-spawned fish 20 inches or longer per day. Marine waters of Cook Inlet are still open, with the exception of the nearshore waters between Bluff Point and the Ninilchik River.

Though the king runs are doing poorly, the early run of Russian River sockeye salmon seems to be coming back just fine. Fish and Game issued an emergency order Monday opening the Russian River sanctuary area early, effective Tuesday through July 14.

As of Monday, 8,450 sockeye had passed the weir at Lower Russian Lake. With average run timing, about 15 percent of the run should have arrived, making it likely that the run will meet Fish and Game’s escapement goal of 22,000–42,000 sockeye, according to the emergency order.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at eearl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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