The worst return of red salmon to the Russian River in 33 years has convinced Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists to shutter the popular sport fishery the rest of the season and try to unravel how one of Alaska's most consistent fisheries suddenly went belly up.
As of Monday, just 15,519 reds have been counted swimming past the fish-counting weir below Lower Russian Lake.
So, beginning Thursday morning, all red salmon fishing in the river as well as the fly-fishing only area in the Kenai River at the confluence will be closed to all fishing, including catch and release.
Unless a surge of salmon appears in the final days of the fishery, this year's return will be the worst since 13,926 fish came back in 1977.
"It's been a ghost town," said guide Fred Telleem of Mystic River Fly Fishing in Cooper Landing. "There hasn't been anybody in Cooper Landing since the first run."
Each year, the Russian sees two red runs -- an early one that ends July 14 and the typically larger late run that can see as many as 157,000 fish pass the weir.
Just last year, when 80,000 reds returned, there were 31 days when at least 1,000 fish moved upstream. This year there have been two.
"It's surprising based on the number of sockeye passing through the (Kenai River) sonar," said Fish and Game area management biologist Robert Begich. "Generally when we get this many sockeye in the drainage, we have no problem achieving the Russian (escapement) goal.
"We've had weak, weak production for whatever reason. We just don't know."
The Russian's dismal return stands in sharp contrast to prosperity surrounding the scenic stream that draws some of Alaska's biggest crowds of anglers.
Clear water of the Russian flows into the bigger Kenai River, which is headed towards a return of nearly a million reds. A sonar 19 miles upstream of the river mouth had counted 880,000 as of Monday.
That's the most since 2006, and more than last year, when the Russian enjoyed a banner red run.
Last week, Pat Shields of Fish and Game's commercial division, predicted the total red salmon run to upper Cook Inlet would top 5 million fish -- nearly 40 percent above the preseason prediction. Shields credited the boost to a better survival rate than expected for brood years of 2004 and 2005.
But some guides and anglers wonder how many Russian River-bound fish ended up in commercial nets. Alaska's Board of Fisheries has given commercial fishermen the priority in harvesting late-run Kenai reds.
"Fish and Game is not managing for specific runs," Telleem said. "When they put the nets out, they can't distinguish between lower Kenai fish, upper Kenai fish, Moose River fish, Quartz Creek fish. It's just fish in the net."
Complicating management of the Russian River is its position at the end of a chain of salmon catchers -- commercial drift fisherman and set netters in Cook Inlet, personal use dipnetters at the mouth of the Kenai and anglers all along the Kenai River.
"It's hard because on this late run, we can't account for it very well," said Jason Pawluk, the Soldotna-based assistant area management biologist. "There are a lot of fisheries below the Russian."
Reds returning to spawn are 5- and 6-year-old fish, the product of the 2004 and 2005 runs, which saw outstanding returns of 110,000 and 59,000 respectively.
Both were well above the river's minimum escapement goal of 30,000 fish needed to sustain a strong population -- a goal state biologists expect this run to miss.
But well before Fish and Game issued its emergency order Tuesday afternoon, most anglers had decided the Russian wasn't worth their time.
"I was out there yesterday," Pawluk said. "I sat at the ferry and watched a few people catch fish. Both were as red as tomatoes. Anglers were letting them go. I didn't see a single bright fish caught."
Tuesday wasn't much different.
"I can count one, two, three, four, maybe seven people across the river," said Dianne Owen Tuesday evening. She's the general manager of Alaska Recreation Management, which operates the Russian River Ferry.
"I don't know how (a closure) could even impact this run," she said. "There's just not that many people here. It looks like the end of the season, and I guess it is."
Other years, however, have seen a late red surge to the Russian. Just last year, some 20,000 fish passed the weir after Aug. 12. Hopeful of a rerun, state biologists delayed their emergency order as long as possible.
"Some years you get a late push of reds," Pawluk said. "We were just waiting for that wall of fish to move up. Water conditions are good for fish getting through the falls.
"But the sanctuary should be loaded by this time if that was happening, and there's no indication that it is."
But not everyone is giving up.
"I personally think the fish are just late," said Colin Lowe, the owner of Kenai Cache Outfitters. "It's not unusual for fish to hold below the river. I'm confident they're going to get their numbers."
Reach reporter Mike Campbell at email@example.com or 257-4329.
By MIKE CAMPBELL