By Naomi Klouda
When snagging at the Nick Dudiak Fishing Lagoon opened at midnight on Friday, a swarm of fishing-pole wielding enthusiasts lined the banks of what’s known locally as the “fishing hole.”
Jumping silvers had teased and lured, showing off chrome so bright hardly a motorist passing failed to feel tugged to the once famous lagoon that might just become famous again.
Rod-fishing had gone well indeed. But when snagging opened, fishing turned from sport to harvesting.
“This year was really remarkable. I had not seen that many fish in more than five years,” said Louis Krivitsky. “I was amazed.”
Krivitsky caught 20-some silvers, 19 kings and six jacks (smaller kings) between May 26 and Aug. 14 out of the fishing hole. Some of the kings were caught on proxy tickets. All without driving a highway or taking out a boat. “I did it all right here in town. It’s been fantastic. Absolutely fantastic,” he said. All of his fish were caught by rod, since he doesn’t go in for snagging.
This year’s return of silvers and kings is the result of more than good kismet. The lagoon’s revival comes thanks to the funding to dredge silt in time to let in fresh water and diffuse spiney plankton that lacerated fish gills – all coinciding with an especially healthy stock of 5-6 inch smolt release.
Several issues at work in the demise of the fishing hole were solved with cooperation between the city of Homer and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, with a lot of cheerleading tasks on the sidelines from the Homer Chamber of Commerce and local businesses.
Now, the famed fishing hole is experiencing an ecological revival that could be repeated next year if kismet continues. Biologist Carol Kerkvliet explained how dredging the silt caused fresh water to flow.
“The lagoon was filling in with silt, so the water quality was suffering as a result,” she said. “Conditions were right for a spiney plankton to grow, and lacerate the gills of smolt — especially pen-reared smolt. They can’t avoid the bloom levels or even high concentrations of this chaetoceros plankton.”
Fresh water flushed the lagoon after the dredging project scooped out hundreds of tons of silt to restore the man-made lagoon to its 11-foot water level at a zero tide. This means at high tide, the lagoon floods to a 30 foot-depth or whatever the tide. That diffused the plankton blooms, confirmed through near-daily water tests.
“We’ve modified our stocking methods as well,” Kerkvliet said. “We’ve put in a lot of time and energy into making it the best rearing environment that we could – not only do we have smolt that are more robust from the new hatchery, the depth of the lagoon and the subsequent rearing practices that we’ve worked toward, everything seems to be increasing the survival of the return of smolt.”
Look for a good return next year – but perhaps not quite as good. Alaska Fish and Game released 216,000 kings and 132,000 coho smolt in 2013, Kerkvilet said. This year, the agency released just over half that amount at 76,500 silver smolt, but 207,000 king salmon smolt. The improved smolt stocks came from the newest state hatchery, out of Anchorage, the William Jack Hernadez Sport Fish Hatchery.
Fish and Game also opened a subsistence gillnet fishery on Monday to allow locals a chance at a freezer full of silvers. Snagging, meanwhile, will be allowed at this tail end of the run, Kerkvilet said. The actual harvest numbers revealing how many salmon returned won’t be known until next year at this time.
There’s no doubt the Lagoon’s revival has meant an economic boom for Homer – and a lot of fun for visitors, said Homer Chamber of Commerce Director Jim Lavrakas.
“I anticipated this. I knew what it meant when fish and game released the emergency order (that allowed snagging,)” Lavrakas said. “I thought, ‘the fishing hole is back!’”
A packed fishing hole visited by curious and serious alike helps the local economy. It means people stick around Homer rather than passing through, Lavrakas said. This could help in a year when disappointed anglers came hoping for a halibut charter seat and had to be turned away due to the moratorium on half-day only charters.
And it used to be a given for Homer summers, Lavrakas notes. The lagoon was a good place to teach children to catch their first salmon. It was a good place for family fun.
“I always thought that when I was just visiting Homer back in the early ‘90s,” Lavrakas said. “This was where my boys caught their first salmon. A lot of people say that’s where they taught their kids to fish.”
When it grew clear the lagoon suffered under environmental issues that meant dead fish or uninhabitable waters fish wouldn’t return to, Lavrakas and many locals worked to bring it back. They mourned that a vibrant Homer attraction had died in the demise of the hole.
“They were putting smolt in and nothing was happening. Returns didn’t work, because the numbers never got out of the lagoon in enough abundance to survive the harsh year they live out in the ocean,” he said. “I would drive by and absolutely no one was there anymore fishing.”
At that time, Lavrakas was a member of the chamber board, and he saw the lagoon as offering an economic engine that gives visitors a lot of potential joy and helps businesses.
If the fishing hole is truly back, as Lavrakas hopes, a maintenance plan in place offers some assurances. But Harbor Master Bryan Hawkins said there’s no revenue stream to pay for regular dredging.
When silt had clogged the lagoon, the estimated cost was $250,000 to remove it, requested from the Alaska Legislature. The combined City of Homer-Alaska Fish and Game request was granted only in portion, at $100,000.
“But there is something we are doing to keep materials out of the entrance and moving it further down the beach,” he said. “The route the sediments traveled is (detoured now) to keep it from the entrance. We’re moving it further west past the entrance.”
At the outside of the lagoon, rock “groins” or jetties help prevent infill.
“If you stand at the entrance, you see that to the east, you can barely see the rock groin because it is causing the silt to spill around it,” Hawkins said.
A maintenance item for now is to move materials before it gets a chance to fill the lagoon, Hawkins said. This is meant to ward off costly dredging.
Meanwhile, chrome-fresh fish continue to jump in the lagoon, fishermen Krivitsky said.
“If anything, snagging might have been allowed a little too early – these fish are still coming in bright. Good fish for rod-and-bait fishing,” he said.
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