• Fishermen thrilled by record historic runs of sockeye salmon on two rivers
By Randi Somers
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is opening extra fishing days for commercial fishermen to harvest the record flow of red salmon headed for the Kenai River to spawn.
Dipnetting on the Kenai River also was opened through July 31, the department announced.
The Kenai River personal use dip net fishery will be open 24 hours per day, beginning
at 11 p.m. Wednesday, July 20, through 11:59 p.m. Sunday, July 31.
A record number of sockeye salmon, 231,000, passed the counter Sunday July 17, followed by another big surge, 177,000, Monday. On less fortunate years, the peak totals don’t rise beyond 100,000, meaning this is a banner year on the Kenai Peninsula for sports fishermen, dipnetters, set-netters, subsistence and commercial fishermen alike.
“The fishing was phenominal, the best I have ever seen it,” said Homer resident, John Otness after returning from the Kasilof with a load of reds. “I’ve never been involved in such an experience while living in Alaska – fish were every where. They were bouncing off our legs. I wish everyone could see this.”
Pat Shields, acting area management biologist for the Upper Cook Inlet commercial fisheries, said it’s not considered an over escapement yet, but is fast on its way to becoming one.
“The escapement goal for the whole season is 1 million to 1.2 million, so by the end of the year when we’re done counting, that’s how many we plan to let escape past the sonar. We look at what percentage we have counted by this date, July 18, in previous years, and the average 1979 thru 2010 was 30 percent of the desired escapement,” Shields said. “That’s one of the tools we use. We’re way past that, about half way to our minimum goal already this year, so we adjust, and open more days to commercial fishermen.”
It is always a risk trying to guess what the run will do the rest of the season.
“Are they going to quit or will more flood in?” is the quandary, Shields said.
Drift fishermen captured an estimated 700,000 fish Thursday (one of their regular opening days), but too many were still escaping to swim up the Kenai River and spawn.
By opening the corridor to commercial fishing over the weekend, Fish and Game attempted to diminish the flow. Too many spawning fish in the river taxes the food supply, causing a die off of juvenile salmon and hurting the future runs.
Even with the corridor open to setnetters and drift fishermen Saturday, dipnetters were capturing thousands and the rod and reel sport fishermen had a bonanza weekend. The previous biggest one-day total was 218,000 salmon, back on July 21, 1987, according to a newly revised figure from Fish and Game. The state began compiling its database on Kenai salmon counts in 1978.
This year, it began using a new kind of sonar that essentially takes in a bigger area and counts more fish in certain rivers, including the Kenai. The state ran the two sonar systems side-by-side for three years and found that the new system registers roughly 40 percent more fish. The state converted past counts to be comparable to this year’s numbers.
While Sunday’s record surprised state biologists, they knew going into the weekend that salmon were piled up in Cook Inlet waiting to push into the rivers. If you missed the great fishing last weekend, no worries. There’s more to come.
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