Warmer-than-usual water temperatures lured the salmon of Alaska back a little early this year, but no one was fishing for them on the fabled Kenai River in May. Few of the first salmon to return to that stream -- the big kings, or chinooks, for which the Kenai became famous -- are expected, and for that reason the season is closed.
Much has changed since May 1985 when the late Les Anderson dragged a 97-pound 4-ounce, world-record king out of the gray-green river coursing through the heart of the Kenai Peninsula.
The fish was a monster, but nobody at the time thought Anderson's record catch would stand for decades. Surely, the thinking went, if the early run to the Kenai can produce a 97-pounder, the late run -- which contains bigger fish on average -- could produce a 100-pounder.
These were the glory days of the Kenai. In 1989, a 63-year-old Minnesota angler named Bob Ploeger hooked a king salmon he played for more than a day. After 24 hours, the media descended on the river. Many thought this must be the proverbial 100-pounder.
But the catch was not to be. After 37 1/2 hours, the legendary battle between man and fish ended with one flap of a tail. As guide Dan Bishop went to net the salmon, it escaped.
Oh, but the one that got away only served to fuel passions more.
King salmon runs wane
Over the 20 years that followed, anglers interested in the ultimate Alaska trophy continued to flock to the Kenai from all over the world. And then the king runs began to falter and decline.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists are forecasting only 2,200 of the big fish will return in the early run this year. That's less than half of the minimum spawning goal of 5,300.
Because of the weak run, there will be no Kenai king fishing in May or June for the second year in a row. Those who depend on the fish for much of their annual income can only sit on the banks of the river and wonder what happened.
"Little by little, we're dying," said Greg Brush, a Kenai guide for 25 years. "I really don't have a fallback. I don't have a welding certificate. If I stop and think about this, it's scary. I have to keep treading forward."
In the local stores, he said, people stop him to offer a kind word of encouragement and, sometimes, curse the way things have changed.
"All the locals gripe about the out-of-state guides, which is ridiculous," he said. "It's a matter of economics. There's a reason that we have out-of-state part-timers. It's hard to make a living in two and half months."
Anglers vs. commercial fishermen
The shortage of king salmon has pitted guides against commercial fishermen more intensely than in the past. The commercial fishermen, who depend on still-abundant red salmon for their incomes, blame an increasing number of guides for destroying in-river habitat, which they say is undermining king runs.
That's a problem for the commercial fishermen because the kings, so far, are an unavoidable bycatch in the commercial red salmon fishery. Sockeye salmon setnetters have sometimes been shut down to eliminate that bycatch.
But there is no evidence habitat degradation is a problem, and the number of guides has been falling in recent years, down more than 20 percent since 2006. Neither habitat degradation nor commercial fishing is believed to play any role in the drastic decline of the early-run kings.
There is no commercial fishery in May, and most of the early run fish spawn in the Killey and Funny rivers, two major Kenai tributaries closed to powerboat traffic and protected within the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
The habitat there hasn't changed markedly in hundreds of years, and yet the early run kings are struggling even more than the late-run kings of July. The state's late-run forecast is for a total return of 19,700 fish.
If enough of them make it through commercial setnet fisheries off the mouth of the river, it is possible there could be a limited in-river sport fishery and still meet the minimum spawning goal of 15,000. But the state has already warned "there is some uncertainty in the 2014 forecast estimate. The 2013 forecast was for a total run of approximately 29,000 fish, while the preliminary total run is approximately 19,800, about 33 percent less than the forecast."
Another 33 percent shortfall would be a disaster.
"It's the managers' fault," Brush said. "They don't think about the balloon effects or the long-term effects. The scary thing is that in many ways it mirrors the failings up and down the Pacific Northwest. They've all been through this. Good habitat doesn't mean you can manage the fish until they're gone."
Columbia River rebound
The biggest and best salmon system in the Pacific Northwest is the 1,243-mile Columbia River that flows through British Columbia, Washington and Oregon. Once written off as lost to hydroelectric dams and habitat degradation, the Columbia last year saw the largest return of fall kings in recorded history -- 1.2 million fish. Even more -- an estimated 1.6 million -- are forecast to return this fall.
"Those fish, most of which are destined for areas above Bonneville Dam, are the foundation of the in-river recreational salmon fishery," notes the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Columbia managers have learned from the lessons long ago taught by Alaska salmon managers: To generate big returns of salmon, adequate numbers of spawners must be allowed to escape to spawning grounds, even in years with weak runs.
Only it isn't always that simple.
Kenai salmon managers would love to hit the upper end of the Kenai late-run king goal of 15,000 to 30,000 fish, but is it worth closing both the commercial and sport fisheries to do that, given a projection of 29,000 kings?
After years of bounty, Alaska seems to be on the wrong side of what scientists call the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, a shift in water conditions in the North Pacific. Historically, a "warm regime" benefited Alaska salmon while Northwest salmon struggled. A "cold regime" benefits Northwest salmon while Alaska salmon suffer.
The changes are believed to be linked to food availability in areas of the Pacific where salmon feed.
The theory here is simple: When conditions lean one way, the pastures used by Northwest salmon are green and lush, while those favored by most the Alaska salmon are dry and brown, or vice versa.
"The listing of several (Northwest) salmon stocks as threatened or endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act coincides with a prolonged period of poor ocean conditions that began in the early 1990s," notes the Northwest Fisheries Science Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Those runs are now on the comeback trail while many Alaska runs struggle. In some respects, some Alaska biologists believe the state's fishermen -- both sport and commercial -- are lucky it isn't worse. What was expected to be a "cool regime" benefiting Northwest salmon from 2000 to 2010 broke into a warm phase in the middle of the decade, benefiting Alaska salmon.
Alaska guides make adaptations
As someone dependent on a natural resource for his living, Brush said, the vagaries of nature are just something he's learned to endure.
"It makes it physically easier," he said. In a good salmon year, he'd be working 18-hour days by now, guiding clients during the day, repairing boats and fishing gear late into the evenings, and then rising at 3:30 a.m. to go meet new clients.
"But (the closure) makes it harder because of the stress," he added, as his EZ Limit Guide Service struggles to find fishing opportunities.
"'People still want to go fishing," Brush said. "We have a handful of people going down on the Kasilof (River). That's bleak. I do not want to try to deceive. I will paint an uglier picture, and then if they want to go, that's OK. It looks better if you tell them that (instead of) fishing nine hours and maybe get a strike."
The other alternative is to turn to saltwater fishing for halibut -- now down to a limit of a fish and a half for anglers on charter boats to make more halibut available for the commercial fishery -- and a possible salmon.
"It varies a lot day to day," he said. "One of our (halibut) is going to be a 10-pounder" or smaller by federal regulation, "and then maybe a 25-pounder. King trolling can be good, but it varies a lot day to day. With five or six people trolling, one or two might get a bonus salmon. It's sort of a halibut charter with a possible bonus salmon.
"We've adapted. Our business has adapted. We've moved to the Nushagak" River in western Alaska for two to three weeks of king salmon fishing in June, he said. Over the last two years, the Nushagak has seen the strongest king returns in Alaska.
Nobody knows why, but it may be as simple as some twist of nature that directs the Nushagak salmon to the same pastures used by the salmon from the Northwest.
The adaptations extend beyond finding more bountiful waterways.
"I've made changes,” Brush said. “Now I'm a sockeye guide on the Kenai in July. You make changes and adapt. That's what a businessman does. A lot of Kenai guides don't think outside the box."
Or they give up and move on to another fishery somewhere else or another line of work. There were close to 400 guides registered to fish the Kenai in 2006, according to the Alaska Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation, the state licensing agency. The number was less than 300 by last year. More are expected to drop out this season.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com