By Lee Leschper
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has legalized the use of bait for early run king salmon on the lower Kenai River as of today.
That means serious king fishermen can now start plunking big balls of salmon eggs and sweetening plugs with herring fillets and in generally getting more deadly tools for catching the biggest Kenai kings.
The question is why and whether it’s a good thing.
This year the Kenai River has been off to the best early king salmon run in many years. Even allowing for the count now of only larger kings, those more than 34 inches long, more than 6,000 early run kings have passed the ADF&G fish counter. Today it could surpass last year’s total escapement, and more than double the terribly low escapements of a few years back.
So is it time to start killing more kings?
Here’s the full release:
“The Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) manages the Kenai River early-run king salmon run to achieve an escapement goal of 3,900 to 6,600 large king salmon greater than 34 inches total length. In order to help achieve the escapement goal, bait will be allowed from the mouth to the markers ~300 yards below Slikok Creek in the waters of the Kenai River effective12:01 a.m. Wednesday, June 21.
“hrough Monday, June 19, with an average of 74 percent of the run past the sonar, the cumulative count is about 6,050 large king salmon, and the final projected inriver run is 8,240 large king salmon. Accounting for current harvest levels, the projected escapement on June 30 is 7,700 large king salmon, over 1,000 fish above the goal. Therefore, it is warranted to liberalize this fishery by allowing the use of bait to help achieve the escapement goal. The maximum size limit of less than 46 inches remains in effect through June 30. Upstream of the Slikok Creek markers anglers remain limited to unbaited, single-hook artificial lures with a size limit of king salmon less than 36 inches total length.”
Last week the size limit was relaxed, from 36 to now 46 inches.
For a variety of reasons, it’s been the best fishing for early run kings in a number of years.
Water conditions have been great–clear and relatively low, which dramatically improves the ability of kings to see and hit artificials. The number of fishermen, perhaps because of the new limits, and perhaps because the early run habit has been broken, have been down. And success has been relatively high, with most guides reporting catching and releasing several over-sized kings each trip.
So there are lots of fish, anglers are catching and releasing lots of big fish, and everybody fishing is happy.
So why do we need to add bait? Because we’ve always done it?
Here are several reasons why not:
Bait is not necessary to catch kings now. Both guided and unguided anglers are catching great fish, with regularity, on every tide, using only single hook artificial lures.
Hooking mortality probably will go up on kings that inhale a big gob of salmon eggs, which they do, and this includes oversized fish.
And with the larger size limit and now use of bait, more anglers set on killing fish will hit the river. It’s human nature and it’s understandable. This has been one of the great experiences in sport fishing and people still want to catch, and keep, big kings.
The timing just doesn’t make sense. Somewhat like recovering from a serious injury, having one day of physical therapy, then jumping right back into work. The risks are too high.
This is still a troubled fishery. A marginally better run, one year, doesn’t mean all is well. The Kenai king run has been depleted, both in number and especially size of the largest fish, for a decade. A few weeks of a few more fish does’t
There’s been a good bit of colloboration among user groups, to get to the new restrictions on the river
The good news, fishermen can still decide. You can still fish the river, still catch kings, and ultimately decide how to fish and what fish if any to keep.