The Kenai River king salmon run opened to anglers on Wednesday.
But anglers won’t be allowed to keep kings. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game said recent estimates aren’t looking great for the run, and anglers will be restricted to catch and release only.
Fish and Game Sportfish Area Manager Colton Lipka said that, as of Sunday, only 72 large king salmon had passed through the sonar in Soldotna. That’s 200 fewer than the same time last year.
“Right now we’re looking at a very slow start,” Lipka said. “This is one of the lowest starts that we’ve had, similar to 2020 as far as counts and timing.”
2020 was one of the department’s lower years on record, with 2,444 total kings clearing the sonar.
And Lipka said most of the indicators this time around are suggesting a weak run this year, too. That said, it’s still early for the fishery. And there is time for the run to pick up.
“I mean, the fish will show up. It’s just a matter of how many,” Lipka said. “We could just be looking at a late year, so these numbers could increase in short order. But if they don’t, our next step would actually be closure of the fishery.”
The optimal escapement goal for the fishery is between 3,900 and 6,600 fish. The department is aiming for those goalposts when it’s determining how to open the fishery in a given season.
The catch-and-release limitation isn’t an unusual step for the department to take.
Lipka said the department opened under general regulations last year, allowing anglers to take one king a day, before switching to catch-and-release restrictions in June. Midway through the 2020 early run, the department closed the fishery altogether.
“This year, we’re being a little more proactive as far as recognizing this run is off to a pretty slow start,” he said.
Lipka said 2017 was the last time the department eased up on restrictions midway through the season amid an improved outlook.
He said the next step after catch-and-release would be the complete closure of the fishery. His department will be watching to determine if it’s needed.
Kenai River fishing guides who rely on anglers for business are also watching closely.
Ray DeBardelaben is president of the Kenai River Professional Guide Association and guides sport fishermen from his Soldotna business, Long Live the Kings. He said he’s grateful the department’s taking steps to protect the kings amid a downward trend for the species.
“It’s been ongoing statewide actually for many years now,” he said. “And so we’re kind of prepared to have plan B and plan C.”
DeBardelaben said most Kenai River guides have diversified their businesses to account for the change in kings.
He said halibut fishing, for example, is saving his business. He also takes anglers out on the Kasilof River, where they can catch and retain hatchery-produced kings this year.
And he said many other guides have taken similar steps. Others, he said, have given up on the fishery altogether.
“The guiding numbers are definitely way down compared to what they were,” DeBardelaben said. “Some people who just didn’t want to diversify, just quit doing it.”
DeBardelaben said he’ll be OK this year. He’s been in the business for three decades. But he said newer guides might feel the effects of limitations and closures much more.
The late Kenai king run, which is more popular than the early run, starts in July. That’s also slated to open up under catch-and-release restrictions.
Anglers under catch-and-release can use one single-hook, unbaited artificial lure to catch kings. Any kings they do catch must be released immediately.