HOMER — After six months away from riverbanks, away from the sight of writhing silver-bullet salmon, deprived Alaska anglers began making their way to some of Southcentral's most productive salmon waters this week.
Few poles were bending. Few coolers were full. Few prime holes were vacant. Hey, it's early.
But there was a whiff of something new in the air, a scent so rare the last few years that some considered it extinct. Optimism.
Why wet a line this early in the season, even before Memorial Day weekend?
"Because it's open," said Derek VanHatten, who drove south from Anchorage with buddy Garrett Abbott on Wednesday. "I'm out here today and I'll be down here all weekend."
On the lower Kenai Peninsula, the Anchor offers the first crack at freshwater king fishing after a long quiet winter. The river opened May 21 and will remain open for kings on Saturdays, Sundays, Mondays and Wednesdays through June 22, unless closed by emergency order.
For VanHatten, the drive will become a habit — and not just to the Anchor, but to the Ninilchik River and Deep Creek when they, too, open for king fishing this weekend.
"Every weekend it's open," he said, shrugging off the seven-plus hours of travel time per round trip. "I used to come from Fairbanks."
Stronger runs forecast
And for the first time in years, conditions are suggesting king fishing may be good. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is forecasting stronger runs to Kenai Peninsula rivers this year than in recent seasons, and the early numbers are bearing that out. Weir and sonar stations on the Anchor tallied a cumulative 750 kings as of Wednesday, compared to 409 by May 25 last year, and a mere three fish by the same date in 2013.
VanHatten was optimistic as he and Abbott waded into the shin-deep current Wednesday night, starting at the Old Sterling Highway bridge and planning to work their way downstream.
"I fish a lot down here," VanHatten said. "The last couple years have been pretty healthy numbers, more so than the last five or six years. And it all depends on the water and clarity. It looks pretty good." He pointed out rocks visible under the wader-clad feet of another angler some 20 feet downstream. "Anything more than 6 inches, 8 inches, a foot, that's pretty good clarity."
That wasn't the case May 20, just before the opener, when rain boosted the water level and the turbidity.
"It was chocolate, nasty," said Grant Anderson, owner of The Fly Box tackle shop in Anchor Point and a fly-fishing guide on the river. But by May 21, "it cleared up like you wouldn't believe. It cleared up really nice, the water dropped, and it's actually quite clear and more of a normal level right now."
Plenty of kings were hooked during last weekend's morning tides, Anderson said. Fly-fishing worked, as did spoons, spinners, Spin-N-Glos and bait — particularly herring and king salmon eggs.
So far, Anderson said, it was the best opening weekend he can remember on the Anchor.
"Normal years have been high water and poor visibility conditions, so this is good. And the weir count of fish is way ahead of last year, so I hope it will continue," he said.
Just don't expect a solitary experience.
On Wednesday night as low tide neared, one of the five campgrounds strung along the lower river in the Anchor Point State Recreation Area was full, and the others were dotted with tents and RVs.
Anderson said the number of visitors will build through Memorial Day — and afterward.
Pat Buckman and his son, Mike, were up from Green Bay, Wisconsin. Mike works for a halibut charter out of Deep Creek. His dad usually visits later in the summer to fish for sockeye and silver salmon, but this year they decided to try early- season king fishing. That meant fishing the Anchor, along with every other angler unable to resist its early season allure.
"But the holes that we found had five, six fishermen in each one," Pat said.
"I don't think I saw a fish in the river or the bank," Mike added. "None caught or on shore."
They both had higher hopes for the upcoming weekend. Tides look promising, with highs of 15.6 feet at 6:36 a.m. Saturday, and 14.8 feet at 7:49 a.m. Sunday and 9:15 a.m. Monday
"We want high tides. They push more fish into the river when you have more water to swim in. That's what we're looking at now, a series of high tides coming up," Anderson said. "And this weekend we have some more coordinating tides around daybreak, so you can get out there early and catch that two hours before high tide. So it should be a good weekend."
Fish and Game predicts good water conditions in the Anchor and Ninilchik rivers this weekend — less so on Deep Creek — and advises fishing near river mouths around high tide.
Unless closed by emergency order, king fishing will be open on Deep Creek and the Ninilchik River on Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays through June 13. All three southern peninsula streams are open from their mouths upstream about 2 miles to Fish and Game regulatory markers. Read Southcentral Fish and Game regs.
On all three waterways, the limit is one king per day more than 20 inches, one in possession. And there's a combined seasonal limit of five 20-inch-plus kings from Cook Inlet saltwater, Kenai Peninsula rivers, the Susitna River drainage, Knik Arm and the Anchorage Bowl. No more than two of those five kings may be taken from the Anchor River and Deep Creek combined.
And if you take a 20-inch-plus king from the Anchor, Deep Creek or Ninilchik, you're done fishing in any of those streams for the day.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game's weekend fishing report
As always, review Fish and Game regulations first. More information is at www.adfg.alaska.gov.
Are kings finally rebounding?
Last year, Alaska anglers saw promising flickers suggesting that years of weak Southcentral Alaska king salmon returns may be turning around.
* The Kenai River saw some 22,600 of the big fish reach their spawning grounds. That's 60 percent more than the 2014 total of 14,134 and 36 percent above the 2013 total of 16,645.
* The Deshka River escapement reached 24,316, the most in a decade and a whopping 48 percent above the previous year.
* Some 10,000 king passed the Anchor River sonar outside of Homer, more than four times the previous year and the most since 2005.
— Mike Campbell