August is finally here and Kenai king fishing is done, hopefully for the season and not forever. July 31 was the last legal day of sport-fishing chinook on the Kenai River, and anyone who was out there the last week can tell you that this day sadly reflected a season, and a fishery, that might be on the cusp of really being “done.” Never in my life have I hoped to be so wrong.
In over two decades of guiding full-time on this incredible river — a river that prompted me to move here — I have never seen such good fishing conditions, such as low and clean water, yet such poor catching. King numbers overall were down, as was the average size, again.
Bury your head in the sand like a frightened ostrich if you must, but no long-time local, veteran sport angler, experienced guide or honest Fish and Game biologist can deny that our king runs are struggling.
Who’s to blame?
Sport anglers and Kenai River guides are quick to finger-point. It’s always been that way, and likely always will. So lets start at the top: blame me, the typical Kenai guide that has a fancy website, posts hero-shots of giant five-ocean salmon, books as many charters as possible and spends eight to 12 hours a day chasing, catching — and killing — the biggest Kenai kings he can find.
Sure, I try to promote catch and release and even let about 25 percent of my catch go, but day in and day out, my guests and I pound the river with hook and line. Multiply that times 300 plus guides and maybe we better look in the mirror before pointing at “the other guy.”
How about the local private angler, who fishes hard until he lands the two biggest kings he can luck into, killing his annual limit despite having an abundance of Kasilof hatchery kings, reds and silvers to fill his freezer with.
What about the tourist, who doesn’t understand that we are intercepting these genetically unique salmon just prior to them reaching their spawning grounds and passing on their special genes. While on the topic of tourism, the local business owner who capitalizes on big June and July totals yet refuses to take a stance or become active is also guilty.
And how about the fools at last winters Board of Fish meetings who squabbled over whether a half-mile stretch at Eagle Rock should be mandated as drift or back-trolling, all while truly important biological issues like higher escapement goals, July slot limits, a horribly inaccurate sonar counter, and the fallacy of over-escapement went largely ignored.
Shame on you guys, and the Board of Fish, for even allowing such nonsense.
Speaking of politics, our local sport fishing organization, that seems intent on hob-knobbing with big wigs, hosting fancy king tourneys and remaining politically correct is also to blame. Isn’t it time they did a membership drive, educated locals and played hardball with Fish and Game, actually taking the gloves off?
Let’s not forget those nets, the easy target that us guides love to point fingers at. They stretch mile after mile and kill Kenai kings by who-knows-how-many, then simply call them “incidental by-catch” like they don’t matter.
In sum, we are all at fault. But let me tell you who really is to blame — the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
They are the entity that is charged with rising above our childish antics and adequately managing our resource to ensure sustainability for the future, not for guides, locals, tourists or commercial fishermen. Their job is supposed to be to see through personal agendas, ignore selfish proposals, avoid politics and manage on biology, making the tough and unpopular decisions that guarantee giant Kenai kings for our kids and grandkids.
Instead, Fish and Game continues to speak out of both sides of their mouth while largely ignoring the cold, hard fact that it is the resource that suffers the most.
This July was a perfect case in point. In mid-month, managers reported that weak returns and inadequate numbers of late-run kings in-river had them “concerned” to the point where they ultimately restricted sport anglers to “no bait” in order to cut harvest and allow more Chinook to reach their spawning beds. In the same breath, Fish and Game claimed that too many reds were entering the river, so they liberalize the commercial fishery with numerous emergency openings, allowing more netting and quite effectively stopping the majority of Kenai kings from even entering the river.
The bottom line: if managers were truly concerned about Kenai king numbers, they needed to restrict all user groups. In simple terms, cut back on anything that prohibits them from doing so. Put the fish first with equal restrictions or complete closures, if necessary. Do whatever it takes. That is your job.
Of course Fish and Game always has an “out” handy. Year after year we hear comebacks like “The management plan says…” So what? Change the management plan, grant an emergency closure, file an injunction if you have to. Do whatever is necessary to protect our resource.
“But the over-escapement of reds…” Bologna. This year’s massive return of reds comes from an over-escapement parent year, blowing Fish and Game’s smoke-and-mirrors theory of over-escapement out of the water. Besides, pink salmon aren’t managed with over-escapement goals or increased netting to limit their numbers, yet we all know they return in extreme excess every other year. Mother nature did a fine job of sustaining all our salmon runs prior to arrogant humans coming along and re-allocating the fish with fallacies like over-escapement.
What’s the answer? Continue complaining amongst ourselves while it slips away? Point fingers at the other guy? Harvest every last king we can get our hook into or our net around? How about we treat the Kenai king like the special fish that it is, elevating it to the trophy status that it deserves.
Let’s try getting active, organized and on the same page with the same goal — more Kenai kings on our spawning beds. Lastly, lets demand change from our governor, our upper fishery managers and our local biologist — before Kenai kings really are “done.”
Greg Brush is a Soldotna resident who has been a full-time guide on the Kenai River for 22 years.
This commentary first appeared in the Peninsula Clarion and is republished here with the author's permission.
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