If you're planning on fishing the Kenai River for king salmon from now into June, you'll need near the luck of the late Les Anderson if you hope to bring home a fish. Anderson pulled a 58 1/4-inch monster of a salmon out of the river on May 17, 1985.
It turned out to a 97-pound, 4-ounce fish that became and remains a world record. Fisheries biologists say it was an oddity. They never expected to see such a big fish come from the early run of Kenai kings in May and June.
And there hasn't been anything like it pulled from the river in the 28 years since Anderson’s lucky day. But, if you're going to land a keeper this year, it will need to be almost as big.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has ordered trophy-fish rules in place for the river allowing anglers to keep only kings 55 inches or longer -- or under 20 inches. The latter are sexually precocious misfits called "jacks" that come back early looking to spawn. They are not considered trophies.
It's the wall-hanging-size, big-daddy salmon everyone wants, and there are likely to be very few -- if any -- exceeding 55 inches. A 55-inch Kenai king will usually be in the 70- to 80-pound range. Not many fish of that size have been pulled out of the Kenai recently.
Kings not returning
If you hook a 54-incher, a fish of child-size proportions, take lots of photos, because that's all your going to get. Biologists say they just can't allow anglers to keep anything short of a rare and unlikely catch because of the weak run expected.
The Kenai River Sportfishing Association doesn't much like the restriction, but endorsed it as the only prudent thing to do given an absence of fish.
Why Kenai kings -- both those in the early run and those coming in July and August -- are struggling these days is a mystery. Indications are that adequate numbers of young fish are going to sea, but they are not coming back as adults in nearly the same numbers they once did.
The early return to the river this year is expected to number only 5,300 of the big fish.
"If realized,'' a state press release said, "the 2013 run would rank as the lowest run measured, 28th out of 28 years.” That would make it similar to last year’s run and “less than one-half the 1986-2012 average run of approximately 14,000 fish."
It would also be right at the minimum number of spawners biologists say the river needs to maintain further runs. Biologists call that the "escapement goal."
Prudent to start with catch-and-release
Given the forecast salmon shortfall, the statement said, "the early run can sustain little harvest without jeopardizing the escapement goal. In 2012 the total run was 5,600 fish for the early run. There is little indication to date of a change in the low Chinook production trend observed statewide.
"It is therefore prudent to start the early-run fishery as catch-and-release until in-season data indicates some harvest can be allowed or, alternatively, further restriction is necessary to meet the escapement goal.''
Miracles do sometimes happen, but virtually no one familiar the trends for Alaska king salmon returns expects the in-season testing to discover more fish. And the only real "alternatively further restriction" available if the run is weaker than forecast would be to close the river to all king salmon fishing.
In a state where this winter has already stretched on too long for most people, this is not good news for Alaska anglers
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com