The Kenai River sockeye and late-run king salmon runs are both off to optimistically large starts.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game began counting Kenai River sockeye salmon on July 1, ticking off 11,732 the first day, coming up to more than 105,000 by Tuesday. That’s more than three times the total on the same day in 2015, and is more than the department has ever counted at this time of the year, said Pat Shields, area management biologist for the Division of Commercial Fisheries in Soldotna.
It’s still early, but the passage rates so far for sockeye may mean a good season, he said.
“We’re seeing a very strong entrance of (late-run) king salmon, and we’re seeing a very strong entry of sockeye salmon,” Shields said. “That’s very good news for both stocks. The whole department … will be watching the numbers.”
Fish and Game forecast a large run of sockeye to the Kenai River this year — about 4.7 million, roughly 1 million fish more than the 20-year average.
The Kasilof River run is expected to be weaker than the 20-year average, predicted at about 861,000 fish, according to the Division of Commercial Fisheries’ 2016 commercial fishing outlook. Shields said the season may seem slow because so many sockeye returned into the Kasilof the last few years — Fish and Game overescaped the river by more than 100,000 fish last year — but the managers are comfortable with the number of fish returning so far, he said.
“We’re sitting real well on escapement this year,” Shields said. “We’re actually projecting that we’re going to be at the upper end of the escapement goal.”
The Kenai late-run kings are also returning in optimistically large numbers so far, said Jason Pawluk, the acting area management biologist for the Division of Sportfish in Soldotna. As of Monday, the sonar at river mile 14 has counted 1,923 kings, according to Fish and Game’s data.
“We’re very pleased to see these passage rates for this early in July, and we really hope they keep up through this week,” Pawluk said. “If this continues, then it makes the possibility of some liberalizations to occur or rescinding restrictions. We hope we can get there.”
Catch rates are improving on the Kenai as the water clarity has improved, and after an increase due to the rain in the last few days, the water levels are beginning to decrease, making fishing better, he said.
The Russian River’s low early-run sockeye salmon saw a second spike through the weir starting last Friday, pushing the cumulative count up to nearly 29,000. Pawluk said it looks like the run will meet its escapement goal, and managers will likely finish out the early run under current restrictions.
The personal use dipnet fishery has the beaches crowded at the mouth of the Kasilof River, with fishers from all over the state camping out over the holiday weekend for a chance at some of the sockeye now returning to the river. Though some dipnetters have been catching a fair number of fish, multiple fishers reported Monday that fishing had slowed down on the river over the course of the weekend.
The personal use harvest on the Kasilof River has been steadily growing over the past four years, reaching an all-time high of 89,000 fish last year, according to Fish and Game data. The Kasilof River dipnet, less crowded than the Kenai River personal use dipnet fishery and free to park and camp, has attracted more use over the years, inspiring the Alaska Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Mining, Land and Water to develop a plan to construct parking areas and dune fencing, among other improvements, to support increased use. Construction is expected to begin in the fall.
The Kenai River dipnet will open Sunday morning at 6 a.m., with new fees — dropoffs at the lot in Kenai will no longer be free, and the cost to park will increase to $20 for day-use parking and between $45 and $55 for overnight parking. Dropoff passes are good for the calendar day they are issued and will cost $10, according to the City of Kenai’s website.
The south beach also has a new access road — access will no longer be along Dunes Road. There will be two fee shacks on the newly completed Royal Street, which provides access to the south beach.
On the eastern side of the peninsula, anglers can head out to collect more sockeye salmon from Resurrection Bay — Fish and Game managers raised the bag limit for sockeye from six fish to 12 per day, with a total of 12 in possession. The escapement into Bear Lake is greater than usual, with more than 12,000 fish returning into the lake, according to an emergency order issued Wednesday.
“It’s been a healthy run,” said Jay Baumer, the Anchorage area management biologist for the Division of Sportfish. “It’s a hatchery run, and we’re seeing good fish keep on returning.”
Baumer cautioned anglers to be aware that the increased bag limit only applies to the saltwater fishery. On the Resurrection River, which empties into Resurrection Bay, the increased bag limit applies downstream of two Fish and Game markers; upstream, the bag limit remains at three sockeye. Anglers should look for the signs and make sure they are following all the regulations in the area for whether they are fishing in saltwater or freshwater.
The Seward Halibut Tournament wrapped up June 30, with the winning fish coming out of the bay on the last day. Jason Grieg of Ferndale, Wash., landed a 193.6-pound halibut, beating out the previous top fish by 2.4 pounds and taking home the $5,000 first place prize. Second place went to Pat Daniels of Big Lake, who landed a 191.2-pound halibut.
Halibut fishing near Homer is fair to good, according to the Lower Cook Inlet sportfishing report for the week of July 6. The average weight for fish sampled out of the Homer port was 10.85 pounds, ranging from 2.6 pounds to 86.6 pounds, according to the report.
The lower sections of the Anchor River, and Deep and Stariski creeks are open again to sportfishing except for king salmon, with gear limited to one unbaited single-hook artificial lure. The creeks will be open to sportfishing until October 31. Some Dolly Varden are beginning to show up in the Anchor and Ninilchik rivers and the Deep and Stariski creeks.
The Ninilchik River is open to king salmon fishing for hatchery-produced kings only, with gear restricted to unbaited single hooks until July 15. However, participation has been low on that river, said Carol Kerkvliet, the area management biologist for Fish and Game in Homer.