Fishing the Kenai River these days is a little like throwing a party with an unpredictable guest list. You don't know when they're coming, when they're leaving or how big of a crowd they'll bring along. But you wait around anyway, because you know they'll be a blast when they show up.
The early run of Kenai kings lived up to its "early" moniker, and then some, hitting the freshwater in better numbers than expected, sooner than anticipated. So much so that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game issued an emergency order Thursday opening the lower Kenai — from the mouth to just downstream of Slikok Creek — to harvesting the big fish starting Saturday.
That will be the first time sine 2014 that kings could be kept in June in the Kenai.
"The early-run Kenai kings are looking really well. They continue to enter the Kenai in relatively good numbers," said Jason Pawluk, assistant area management biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Soldotna.
Catch-and-release fishing for Kenai kings, which opened June 4, has been hot, partly because fishing pressure has been light.
"The catch rates I'd have to classify as excellent. The people who were out participating (last) weekend did very well king fishing — I think a little less than four hours to land a king per rod," Pawluk said. "But it's kind of misleading to say fishing is awesome. It is, but only because there's like 30 boats out there and they've got the river to themselves. If you put out the normal fishing power that is on this river, the catch rates would drop dramatically."
As of June 13, the sonar counter at River Mile 13.7 estimated a cumulative 6,080 kings, compared to 4,057 on that date in 2015, 2,955 in 2014 and zero in 2013.
The early run of sockeyes, though, seems to be stuck in traffic or taking a pre-party nap, because they have yet to stage a feisty, full-force appearance at the Russian River.
The Russian River sockeye opener is usually a can't-miss early season fishing party, especially when the opening lands on a Saturday. This year, though, June 11 was a downer, with most of the anticipated guests missing.
"The reports we got back from anglers who were there indicate that the fishing was pretty slow. We got a phone call from an angler on Monday saying he went there on Sunday and said the parking lot to the Russian River Ferry was almost empty, so he was calling to make sure that the fishery was open," Pawluk said.
Pawluk walked the area June 10 to take a visual survey. About 200-300 sockeye were holding at the confluence of the Russian and Kenai, which is far short of the fin-to-fin crowd that tends to pool in that spot when the run really hits.
"Other than that, I walked the entire sanctuary and I didn't see a single fish. When I got to the ferry cable — they like to hang out there for some reason — there was maybe a group of only about 20 to 30 fish. That just told me the opener wasn't going to be very good," Pawluk said.
Water levels were high for the opener — 17 inches at Fish and Game's weir on the Russian River on June 3. By Wednesday, it was down to 15.3 inches and slowly dropping.
"It's still pretty high. When you're wading across the Russian, there are spots you probably can't wade across," Pawluk said.
With water conditions improving and a forecast for overcast skies and rain showers this weekend to break the sunny-and-hot trend of the week, sockeye fishing should improve. But it's still likely to be a slim crowd, both in the water and on the banks.
"Fishing's going to improve there, it's going to," Pawluk said. "Now, is it going to be, like, red hot? I wouldn't say so. I think what anglers should be prepared for is that it's probably going to be tough fishing again this weekend. It will probably be a little bit better than last weekend, but the main pulse of early run reds bound for the Russian might still be entering the lower river, so they're not going to be there yet."
The key so far is timing — hitting the river when the fish do. Fish and Game gets early warning on the Russian River sockeye run from the sonar counter in the lower river. Anything over 40 centimeters is counted as a salmon, with the larger ones likely to be kings. By Monday, about 52,000 targets 40 centimeters and above were recorded. Minus the 6,080 kings, that would leave about 46,000 sockeye. By comparison, 82,000 salmon-sized targets had been recorded by the same date last year.
Upstream at the Russian River weir, the count was 2,995 sockeye as of Wednesday, compared to 5,024 on June 15, 2015, and 5,998 the year before that.
"We're either late and they're just going to come in strong over the next week or the run's not going to be as big as last year — or as (big as) we forecasted," Pawluk said.
Short of timing, time on the water is the biggest factor in Russian River sockeye success.
"The anglers that were willing to move around the clear water of the Russian and try to find those pockets of fish, they could get their limits. But for the majority of anglers, it's been very slow," Pawluk said.
MJ Babcook and Brian Trask are visiting from Utah, so they don't have the luxury of fishing when the run finally arrives. They spent all morning and afternoon Saturday walking the cool, clear currents of the upper Kenai and Russian, with nothing but wet waders to show for their efforts, though they did see a few other anglers having success.
"Here and there people are getting them," Trask said.
"Just if you put in the time," Babcook added.
They spent an even longer day on the Kenai on Friday, with Trask landing two sockeye and Babcook one.
It's not exactly the party they'd hoped to find, but they weren't regretting it, either.
"God, no. It's still beautiful," Babcook said. "We're still having fun, absolutely."
And there are plenty of fishing opportunities while waiting for Russian River sockeyes to show.
- Trout fishing opened in the Kenai on Saturday and provides a consistent quarry.
- On the Kasilof River, early run king restrictions will end Saturday, with bait and multiple hooks allowed. Anglers will be able to keep hatchery-produced kings any day of the week, and one naturally produced king on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
- The Ninilchik River will open to the harvest of hatchery-produced kings Saturday. The bag and possession limit is one hatchery king 20 inches or longer, and 10 less than 20 inches.
Jenny Neyman is a freelance writer based on the Kenai Peninsula.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated which portion of the Kenai River is open to harvesting king salmon. It's downstream of Slikok Creek, not Skilak Lake.