For the first time in a year, anglers will be allowed to seek one of Alaska's most-prized trophies, a hefty Kenai River king salmon, and bring home a fish if successful.
Starting Tuesday in the lower section of the river, from the mouth of the Kenai to its outlet from Skilak Lake, anglers restricted to unbaited single hooks will be able to catch and keep a king. That's good news for sportfishing guides who work the Kenai, according to Ricky Gease, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association.
However, king salmon fishing remains closed in the upper river from markers located approximately 300 yards downstream from the mouth of Slikok Creek upstream to another marker at the outlet of Skilak Lake.
"That's great news that it's going to open back up," Gease said. "We were supportive of the department's conservation measures in closing the first run, but this is good to hear."
King salmon returns to the Kenai have plummeted since 2009, bottoming out last year. With king salmon angling banned during the entire first run, "it's been really quiet here," Gease said. "It's critical for the Peninsula economy, and when it's closed, that's a big hit."
Perhaps no group was hit as hard as fishing guides. Gease estimated that five years ago about 400 fishing and sightseeing guides worked on the Kenai River. That went down to 280 after restrictions to Kenai fishing began, Gease said, and so far this year, most guides who once fished the Kenai have had to find other work -- or pursue other fish in other places.
While not strong, this year's early run lit a flicker of hope for a king turnaround on the Kenai. As of Monday, 4,585 of the prized salmon have been detected in the river, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's sonar estimate, putting the department's minimum escapement goal of 5,300 kings within reach. The early run ends Monday night.
At the same time last year, only 1,343 kings had been counted. This year's return was running ahead of 2012, too.
The second run, beginning July 1, is the bigger of the two. Biologists are forecasting a late run of 19,700 -- above the minimum escapement goal but still well under the average total run of 57,000 kings over the past 27 years.
If the second run turns out to be weak, state fisheries biologists could still shut the Kenai down to protect spawning fish.
"We'll manage it in season as we always do," said Robert Begich, the state's area management biologist, who called the return "insufficient to provide for harvest in an unrestricted fishery" -- that is, allowing bait and fishing throughout the Kenai.