For the second year in a row, the Kenai River will be closed to king salmon fishing in May and June because of expected weak returns -- the first time in half a century the river has experienced back-to-back closures for early-run kings.
"The last time the king salmon season was closedfor two consecutive years was 1964-65," Robert Begich, a state biologist in Soldotna, said Thursday. "And it hasn't been done preseason since 1965."
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game also issued a total of seven emergency orders Thursday alerting anglers to pending restrictions that limit retention of kings on the Kasilof River, Anchor River, the Little Susitna River, and the Susitna River and its tributaries.
Begich said the Kenai closures announced Thursday afternoon -- no retention at all from May 1 to June 30, and retention after July 1 limited to kings caught downstream of Slikok Creek -- are the same ones put in place last summer.
The difference is the state's Department of Fish and Game is shutting things down ahead of time, rather than making the decisions during the summer. This way, Begich said, people considering fishing trips to the Kenai Peninsula "can plan accordingly."
Last year on the Kenai River, the season started with a catch-and-release policy for kings but not even that will be allowed this year, he said.
The reason for the closure: no fish. Or at least not enough fish.
"We're trying to ensure we get enough to reach our spawning escapement goal," Begich said.
The goal is 5,300 to 9,000 early-run kings. The forecast is 2,200, Begich said.
Similarly low numbers of kings led to an early-run closing in 1964 and 1965, Begich said. In 1965, the closures were done before the season started, as is the case this time.
Forecasts are also low for the late run of Kenai kings, and management decisions for that run will be made as the summer progresses, Begich said.
If there is a silver lining for anglers eager to hook a chinook, Begich said, it's that those closures 50 years ago brought the desired results.
"The stocks rebuilt," he said.
On the nearby Kasilof River, meanwhile, the state is limiting anglers to hatchery fish only from May 1 until June 30. Other restrictions include no bait and single hooks, and a reduced bag limit of one hatchery fish, distinguished from their wild cousins by a healed fin-clip scar on the adipose fin near the tail.
The state announced restrictions for the Anchor River, Deep Creek and Ninilchik Creek drainages similar to last year's. They include no sport fishing on the Anchor on Wednesdays; single unbaited hooks; and a combined annual limit of two king salmon, 20 inches or longer.
Anglers in the Mat-Su can also expect fishing restrictions similar to last year's -- except they kick in May 1 instead of May 15.
That's probably not a big deal, given that few Valley fishermen head out that early, longtime Little Su guide Andy Couch said. Last year with that freak snow storm and chilly temperatures, both fish and anglers came late to the river.
But it's definitely not good news that the restrictions are back, Couch said.
"The department is still managing by emergency order," he said. "To me, that is the biggest deal."
Restrictions announced in Thursday's raft of emergency orders include no retention on easy-to-access Parks Highway streams like Montana and Willow creeks and single hooks with no bait everywhere.
Retention is allowed Saturday through Monday on the Little Su, seven days a week on the Deshka River and Friday through Monday on the Yentna River, the latter two more remote fishing areas that take some work to get to.
Anglers are limited to two kings 20 inches or longer out of the Susitna and Little Su drainages, five total.
Exempt from all restrictions: the Eklutna Tailrace along the Old Glenn Highway in the Butte, where anglers catch hatchery kings, sometimes from folding chairs or backed-up pickups along the bank.
It's possible the state could decide to allow bait on the Deshka as managers did last year, but only if the number of kings swimming past a weir look healthy enough as the season progresses, Palmer-based sportfish biologist Sam Ivey said. The forecast for the Deshka is about 19,000 fish.
It's possible a new weir on the Little Su could help add some fishing days if counts look good there, Ivey said.
The Alaska Board of Fisheries also announced shorter king salmon fishing periods for the Cook Inlet commercial drift net fishery to boost king returns to the Mat-Su during a meeting earlier this month.
Biologists in Palmer and Homer said their goal is to start the season with enough restrictions that they don't have to enact emergency mid-season closures during the summer.
"While there's some sweeping changes, we're hopeful that since we had this in place last year that folks will be familiar with it," Ivey said.
Dept. of Fish and Game sportfish emergency orders
By BETH BRAGG and ZAZ HOLLANDER
Anchorage Daily News