Looking for red redemption

Mike Campbell

Anglers interested in putting salmon on the dinner table this season have had more luck trolling the aisles of New Sagaya than in any Southcentral waterway.

The popular Kenai River? Closed to king salmon anglers for the month.

Mat-Su's Deshka River? Lame and, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, about to close too.

The Little Su? Very disappointing.

So it is not without some measure of anticipation that the Russian River opens to red salmon anglers at 12:01 a.m. Friday. Expect the Russian River Ferry to be moving anglers across the Kenai River until 11 p.m. tonight, resuming 6 a.m. Friday.

But anglers expecting a horde of reds in the Russian and the Kenai River it flows into should temper their enthusiasm.

"It's one of the few shows in town, but it's definitely not going to be as good as last year's opener," warned Jason Pawluk, the state assistant area management biologist based in Soldotna. "I would definitely expect it to be slower."

Pawluk walked the river banks Wednesday surveying rainbow trout after spending Monday and Tuesday installing the fish-counting weir above Russian River Falls near Lower Russian lake. Only a handful of reds were gathered in the pool below the falls, and he didn't spot many downstream.

"I only counted two down to the confluence," he said. "It's a pretty stark difference compared to last year."

On June 9 last year, the first day after the weir was installed, 334 reds were counted. More important, a huge slug of fish was moving upstream. Over the next seven days, 21,411 reds passed the weir -- an average of more than 3,000 a day.

Clearly, 2010 won't see a repeat. Pawluk said about 100 reds were at the Russian's confluence with the Kenai River on Wednesday, with perhaps half that many below the ferry dock.

But there are indications the reds are coming. Fish and Game's king salmon test net downstream on the Kenai was chock full of reds Tuesday. It will take five to seven days for those fish and others nearby to swim upstream to the Russian.

And if recent history is any indication, plenty will do just that.

Over the last decade, the river that sees the heaviest sport fishing pressure in Alaska has nonetheless has been a consistent -- and often superb -- red salmon producer in June and early July.

Never has the minimum escapement goal of 14,000 fish not been met.

In fact, the maximum escapement goal of 37,000 fish has been exceeded in six of the last 10 years. Three times it has been more than doubled.

No matter. The fish keep returning. Some years returns are merely OK. Other years are good. Still others are spectacular. None, seemly, are poor.

Forgive Southcentral anglers for wondering why their beleaguered king salmon can't mimic the early Russian River reds.

"Over the past 10 years," Pawluk said, "we've seen top escapements in the early run. I can't really explain it."

Before dying, female sockeyes deposit up to 4,500 eggs in a redd, the spawning area of a salmon. After hatching, young fish spend up to three years in fresh water before migrating to sea. There they feast, rapidly growing from a few ounces to 8 pounds or more in their one to three years at sea before returning to the natal streams.

And the cycle repeats -- apparently with some success.

Deshka bait ban starts Saturday

Beginning 6 a.m. Saturday, bait will be banned on the Deshka River, which is struggling amid a miserable king salmon return. Bait will be banned from the Deshka mouth upstream to a Fish and Game marker near Chijuk Creek and in the Susitna River within a half-mile of its confluence with the Deshka.

State biologists are worried they're facing an awful king return and many expect the Deshka and other Cook Inlet streams will be closed or restricted further next week.

Only 544 kings have been counted past the Deshka weir. Typically, 12 percent of the king run -- or about 3,500 kings -- is past the weir by June 9. State biologists want at least 13,000 kings spawning upstream to maintain the run. They've fallen short of that goal the past two years.

Rainbow trout fishing resumes on the Kenai

While some salmon anglers may be bound for the Russian this weekend, Friday morning marks a resumption of rainbow trout fishing on the Kenai River, one of the finest trout fisheries in North America. For nearly six weeks, rainbow fishing has been off limits to allow the fish to spawn. And with the recent king salmon closure on the Kenai, the most popular sport fishing river in Alaska has been oddly silent this week. Expect many guides who'd been taking clients king fishing to move over to trout.

Anchorage king derby kicks off Friday

The 10-day Ship Creek Slam'n Salm'n Derby kicks off 6 a.m. Friday with David Edmonds as defending champion with a 48.4-pounder. Grand prize is a Klamath aluminum boat with a trailer and outboard motor. Tickets are available at the derby shack across from the Ulu Factory. It's open 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Reach reporter Mike Campbell at mcampbell@adn.com or 257-4329.

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