Voices of Alaska: A visit to the Kenai, without a fishing pole

  • By ISRAEL PAYTON
  • Wednesday, August 3, 2016 9:27pm
  • Opinion

My recent trip to the Kenai Peninsula was very different then trips of past. I left the fishing rods and waders behind. The goal of this trip would not be to catch fish, but to interact and observe as many different fisheries and user groups as possible. Having been born and raised in Alaska I am pretty familiar with some of the Kenai fisheries but not all. I am a new member of the Board of Fisheries and wanted to get a boots on the ground observation of some of the fisheries before this winter’s board meeting.

I arrived midday Friday and was able to spend a few hours at the ADF&G Soldotna office. I was shown the sonar counting office and how they count fish and differentiate between king salmon and other salmon. I also met with both the commercial fish and sport fish division managers.

After leaving ADF&G I met up with my host who I would spend the night with. We spent the evening driving around to the popular areas and fisheries and he pointed me in the right direction to explore more on my own.

The next day I went to visit a setnet site in the Kasilof section operated by a 4th generation family that lives in the Mat-Su Valley. I spent half the day with them. I was able to ride along watching them pick fish, move nets and re-set. Launching the boats in the surf seemed to be quite a precarious task but it was old hat for them. Each set only produced about 6-8 sockeye, pretty slow fishing. After coming back ashore they loaded the fish into a tote of early caught fish and invited me to follow along as they went to a remote buying station.

The family of Kasilof setnetters said I should go visit Salamatof Beach if I wanted to see sites that use tractors and catch more fish. So I headed north and found a road that dead ended at a bluff over looking the beach. I made my way down a steep embankment and found myself in the middle of a busy setnet operation with two tractors driving around and about half a dozen young adults on foot following. I introduced myself to the owner of the site and he was more than happy to have me shadow the operation. The owner explained how the tractor, lines, pulleys and nets all worked together. I was able to watch them pull 3 nets. It was a very efficient, safe, and organized operation.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work out for me to get out on a driftnet boat. However, I did catch a water taxi out to a drifter that was on buoy. I visited with the owner as he was repairing his net and equipment. He explained the inner workings of his boat and fishery to me. His buoy was positioned not far from the public small boat launch so while I was on his boat many dipnetters were driving by. I recognized the distinctly blue boat of one of my neighbors and waved him over to see how the dipnetting was. They had caught 18 reds in about 3 hours.

After leaving the driftnetter I spent some time at a processor and watched them off load brailer bags of fish. It was very interesting to watch how the fish are sorted and weighed. I’m sure I was in the way and asked too many questions, but all the workers were very friendly and responsive to my questions

I had heard from numerous people about the Kasilof shore dipnet fishery and how it is was the wild, wild west, out of control with no regulations, and a different scene of people that don’t want to pay the fee at Kenai. My anticipation built as I parked and started walking to the beach. What would I see? Piles of trash, shirtless drunks shooting guns, raging bonfires? Well, it was quite a let down. I saw rows of very organized camps, people of all different cultures and ethnicities enjoying time with friends and family.

As I made it to the mouth of the river I saw fathers and mothers teaching sons and daughters how to dipnet. Although no one was really catching any fish the place had an atmosphere of community and inclusion. Nearly every camp I walked by said “hi” and everyone seemed to be in good spirits despite no fish. During this time many driftnet boats were making their way back into the river, and some people did mention they thought those boats might be the reason they weren’t catching any fish. Since I had knowledge that the drifters were not doing well I explained the fishing was slow for them as well. This seemed to be met with surprise and understanding.

One of the camps I walked by randomly invited me to dinner. They consisted of a 3rd generation Alaska Native family from Anchorage, by way of King Island. They had a very large, well stocked, camp and had plans to stay 4 days. Midway into the dinner they started asking why I was down here by myself with no plans to fish. I explained I was on the Board of Fisheries which was met immediately by an animated loud response about how I was the “blankety blank” that was causing the lack of fish. They said this in good humor and jokingly but I could tell they believed it as well. None the less it was still a very enjoyable dinner and visit.

Early the next morning I went out for a couple hours on a boat of king salmon fishermen on the lower river with a local resident of the area. There were a good number of boats on the river, even with it being a non-guide day. The boat hooked 3 kings, landing 2 of them, a 35 pounder and the other about 55 pounds. Both fishermen chose to release their kings. We saw other boats hooking kings but ours seem to be the only boat with multiple hook ups. It was a great morning of visiting and seeing people catching kings.

In my 3 days I was able to observer or interact with multiple users and fisheries, to include: Kasilof setnet, Salamatof setnet, Kasilof beach dipnet, Kenai beach dipnet, Kenai river boat dipnet, commercial driftnet boat, king sport fishery, and sockeye sport fishery.

The Kenai River and Peninsula always amaze me; so much opportunity and fish all easily accessible from the road system. For all the contentiousness that sometimes comes with the management and allocation of this resource we should remember that there is no other place like this in the world and we are very lucky to live near and utilize these abundant fisheries. I would encourage anyone that participates in a fishery on the Kenai Peninsula or elsewhere to reach out and visit a different user or fishery that you are not familiar with. You might just be surprised what you learn. I would like to thank all the people that hosted me and let me intrude into their fishing times and jobs.

Israel Payton is a member of the Board of Fisheries.

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