Kenai River Anglers are allowed to catch and keep Kings of any size this month as long as they do so with a single hook without bait.
The Alaska Department of Fisheries and Game made the decision after analyzing race projections and the outcome of Kenai’s first Royal Race last month.
But sport fishing guides fear that removing the great kings from the river will harm people in the long run. They ask the fishermen to release the great kings they catch anyway.
Ben Mohr, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, said the State Department plan was legal under the management plan. But he thinks it’s too liberal given the current conditions.
“Of course, we won’t know more until the fish start arriving,” he said. “But taking a precautionary approach and wanting to invest in the river is something we take seriously.”
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The numbers for the first draws were better this year than last year.
Sonar at mile 14 of the river had over 4,130 kings at the start. This corresponds to the department’s optimum escape target of 3,900-6,600 kings.
At this same period in 2020, the department had 2,444 kings.
Colton Lipka, area management biologist for the northern Kenai Peninsula, said early run numbers partly determine Fish and Game’s management strategy for the late run.
“This year’s early run came back close to forecast, supporting conservative action in the late run fishery by banning bait, while allowing some harvest of larger fish,” he said in an e- mail.
But Mohr is concerned that projections for the late race may be on the low end of the scale.
Fish and Game estimates that 18,400 kings will travel up the river to spawn. This corresponds to the department’s optimum escape target of 15,000 to 30,000 kings. But that still puts the race well below average. Escapement numbers over the past two years have been among the worst on record.
“Even though the early comeback of the round has arrived and they hit their target, overall we’re still in a period of low abundance,” said Mohr.
The Kenai River Sportfishing Association – which Mohr says is not usually involved in in-season management – is not alone in asking anglers to take personal responsibility for the future of the fishery.
The Kenai River Professional Guide Association also asks guides to encourage clients to free great kings. The same goes for the local group Fish for the Future.
Last year, the Board of Fish introduced a new regulation that allows anglers to keep kings 34 inches in length or less. The state opened the first round with this strategy.
Mohr is an advocate of this rule, which he says strikes a good balance between conservative and liberal practices.
Lipka said the department would change its regulations if in-season projections indicate the river may not meet its breakaway goal.
“The ministry uses in-season projections to guide management actions to meet the escapement goal,” he said.
For now, advocates like Mohr are asking fishermen to think about the future of the species.
“We encourage fishermen to go out – fish, fish hard,” he said. “But we also encourage people to make sure the fish you catch, keep and throw on the barbecue are the smallest. And let the grown-ups go up the river.
The late rise of the Kenai River began on Thursday.