Anchorage — When Valley fishing guide Andy Couch talked to prospective clients at recent sportsman shows in Anchorage and Wasilla, he got the same question again and again.
"They were asking, 'Is there even going to be a season for king salmon?' " Couch said.
The short answer is, yes. The long answer is, yes, but numerous and sometimes severe restrictions will be in place when the season begins for anglers hoping to catch Alaska's official state fish, the cherished chinook.
Citing below-average king salmon runs in recent years and more of the same expected this year, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game on Thursday announced a slew of restrictions that will be in effect when the king season opens May 1 on the Kenai Peninsula and May 15 in the Valley.
The most severe will affect Valley fisheries. They include:
- A ban on bait, treble hooks and other multiple hooks on the Deshka River.
- A two-fish total limit for kings from the Little Su and Susitna River drainage, half the number allowed last year.
- A four-day stretch each week in which kings cannot be harvested from the Little Su. You can keep kings on Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays, but it's catch-and-release the other days, and even then the fish can't be taken out of the water. Last year, you could harvest kings four days a week.
- A ban on keeping kings from the Parks Highway streams in Unit 2 except the Deshka, as well as from the upper Susitna, Talkeetna, Talachulitna and Chulitna rivers.
Last year, poor runs resulted in the midseason closure of some fisheries, including the Little Su and Susitna River drainage. The Little Su closed one month into the two-month opening, and the Deshka closed not long after that.
This year's restrictions are aimed to ensure a full season of fishing, Fish and Game biologist Sam Ivey said.
"This season we're trying to get a full season, so we're going into it in consideration of what happened in 2012," he said.
A guide for more than 30 years, Couch said he had to return $10,000 to out-of-state clients last year when the king season ended early, so he is supportive of the idea of starting conservatively with the hope of keeping fisheries open all season.
"From a retailer or guide or lodging business prospective, you can't do the same amount in two weeks as you can from May 15 to July 15 -- there's a big difference there."
Weaker runs in recent years have meant smaller harvests and increased regulations. From 2003-07, Ivey said, an average of 25,000 kings were harvested from the Little Su and Susitna River drainage.
"This year we're looking at 5,000," he said. "The reduction we had last year wasn't enough for the run we had. We needed to make more of a reduction this year."
Both Couch and Joe Wright, president of the Deshka Landing Outdoor Association, support Fish and Game's conservative approach.
"I don't fault the department," Couch said. "I was encouraging them to be a little more conservative so we could have a whole season."
Wright said his group welcomes the restrictions, because the number of kings has been diminishing for years.
Of the 24 streams monitored by Fish and Game in the Northern Cook Inlet Area, 17 have escapement goals. Last year, 13 of those 17 failed to meet those goals, meaning fewer salmon than hoped for reached spawning grounds.
"I want the fishery to be there down the road for my grandkids," Wright said. "My kids got to fish on the Deshka with their grandfather, and I want to see that." He just wishes Fish and Game didn't wait so long to announce restrictions that people have been talking about and anticipating since last fall.
"Here we are, the 18th of April, 30 days out from the start of the season. Maybe they shoulda released those restrictions a little earlier for people planning trips to Alaska," Wright said.
The restrictions were announced Thursday in a string of emails from Fish and Game, and although the sheer volume of emergency orders was daunting, it was better than last year, when each week seemed to bring a new emergency order.
"You had to be a lawyer to stay on top of it," said Tony Weaver, a guide who works in the Valley. "A heads-up is always better. If you get ahead of the problem, it kinda puts a buffer on it."
Wright said the limits will force anglers to make choices that might take them somewhere besides the Valley.
"Do I want to come to Mat-Su where I can get two (kings), or maybe spend more money to go to Bush Alaska, or even come to Alaska at all?" he said.
Bonnie Quill of the Mat-Su Convention and Visitors Bureau notes that there's more to do in the Valley than fish -- her organization also promotes Denali National Park and other attractions along the Parks Highway. But the prospect of hooking a mighty king draws plenty of people to the Valley.
"When things like this happen it disappoints the visitor who comes to fish for world-class salmon," Quill said. "We want to make sure we are delivering the experience we are promoting.
"But we need to have a sustainable fishery."
Restrictions for the lower Cook Inlet fisheries run from May 1 to June 30, and the Northern Cook Inlet Area restrictions begin May 15 and extend to the July 13 season closure. Ivey said the Fish and Game could relax restrictions during the season based on the size of the runs.