Judging from the nonexistent crowds at the mouth of the Kenai River this week, it's still early July — days before the personal-use dipnet fishery begins Sunday. But beneath the waves is a time travel portal to the future, with sockeye salmon streaming into the fresh water in numbers more akin to mid-month.
"We're really kind of surprised at the daily passage rates we're seeing in the Kenai right now. If these daily passage rates continue when it opens on Sunday, there could be some good dip netting on the Kenai," said Jason Pawluk, assistant area management biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Soldotna.
Opening week of dip netting on the Kenai tends to be hit-or-miss. You might hit some decent concentrations of fish here and there, but not the permit-filling slugs that tend to plug the river a few weeks later.
This year, however, the future is shaping up to be now.
Fish and Game's Kenai late-run sockeye sonar counts started off with a bang July 1, with 11,732 fish, and have continued to climb. Monday saw 32,648 fish, Tuesday posted a count of 35,652 and Wednesday was looking to be another 35,000-day, Pawluk said. Last year, it was July 19 before the sonar logged a 35,000-plus day.
Kenai River fishery
Even though the fish are there, dip-netters aren't allowed to be yet – remember, the fishery opens Sunday.
Kenai City Manager Rick Koch said the fishery will operate much the same as in recent years, with fishing open 6 a.m.-11 p.m. through July 31, and camping and parking at the beaches allowed for a fee.
There are two changes this year, though. The city has instituted a drop-off fee of $10. This allows a vehicle unlimited trips to drop off and pick up fishermen and supplies during a calendar day.
"Those participants do in large measure use the same services that are provided — bathrooms, solid waste pickup, the city raking fish waste on the beach,'' Koch said. "But in the past, the drop-offs didn't have a fee associated with the services that are provided."
The other change is a new access road on the south side of the river, off Cannery Road from Kalifornsky Beach Road. Access to the south shore used to involve a long drive down the beach, threatening sensitive habitat and infringing on neighbors' land.
"There is private property in the old access corridor and it goes all the way up to mean high water, so there was a trespass issue there,'' Koch said. "And there were habitat issues with another half a mile having to drive on the beach, people getting up close to the dunes and creating some issues there."
Through a state grant, the city extended the existing road system to bring traffic out on the sand much closer to the fishing area. It does still require driving on the beach. Four-wheel- drive vehicles, an awareness of tides and a healthy dose of common sense are highly recommended.
"Look at your tide book and plan your activity around that. I don't think there are any extreme tides this year, but you never know when there's going to be a southwesterly prevailing wind that will push that tide up on the south shore, and people need to be aware of that," Koch said. "Every year we generally see one or two vehicles go underwater because people get too far down the beach and get stuck and the tide gets them."
Be prepared to pass a fee station (credit cards accepted) on the way to the beach, and get familiar with the rules before arrival — no camping, walking, driving or parking on beach dunes or beach grass. Use provided restroom facilities and garbage receptacles. Fish waste may be disposed of in the water — the city rakes carcasses back below tide line at night.
The same goes on the north beach, accessed off South Spruce Street from the Kenai Spur Highway. No beach driving is required at that access location and it's closer to town, so it tends to be more popular – meaning bigger crowds.
Another option is dip netting from a boat. The city's launch ramp is off Bridge Access Road, with diesel and unleaded fuel sales available to the public from a commercial dock. Don't forget to check a tide book.
"When we get to really low tides — zero and minus — at our boat launch ramp we close it down, because of the challenge of working with extreme low tides," Koch said. "So if you don't have a tide book, get one, and plan your launch accordingly, so you're not sitting in a long, long, long, long line waiting for the tide to come back."
The city institutes a no-wake corridor along a residential subdivision on the south bank of the river. The area is marked with signs and buoys.
"We've found that to be pretty beneficial, not only to the habitat of the river during high tides but to the residents who have appreciated it — it makes it much quieter," Koch said. "And we've gotten a lot of compliments from the fishery participants themselves saying they enjoy being able to have a corridor to fish through that isn't shared by the high-speed boat traffic."
The city's fire department has a rescue boat at the ready, but hopes it doesn't have to use it.
"It's always kind of a rodeo out there, and every year we have a couple of mishaps that tend to take place any time that you throw so many boats, unregulated in a small area,'' said Koch. "And you've got several hundred large, power riverboats and essentially some folks out there with canoes. It's a touchy situation."
Kasilof River fishery
For a quieter alternative to the Kenai, the Kasilof River is open to dip netting until Aug. 7.
Access to the north beach is off Kasilof Beach Road, off Kalifornsky Beach Road. To access to the south beach, turn off the Sterling Highway at Milepost 111 onto Cohoe Loop Road. Continue straight where Cohoe turns left, turn right on the beach and drive on the sand to the fishing area. A public boat is available at the Sterling Highway Bridge to access the mouth of the river.
As with the Kenai, stay off the sand dunes and beach grass, use provided trash and restroom facilities and stay off private property (much of the land surrounding the north beach is private).
The Kasilof doesn't see near as many sockeye as the Kenai, but that also means it sees fewer dip-netters. And there are fewer rules and restrictions under Department of Natural Resources management — for instance, no fees or night closures.
"It's free. I don't like to pay for Kenai, and I don't like that it's regulated by hours," said Rodney Burley of Anchorage. "The tides sometimes don't even work with the hours. And you have to jump swells (from more boat traffic)."
Burley and his fiancée, Emma McHugh, and two kids spent a few days at the Kasilof this week. Fishing initially was slow, but heated up around the afternoon high tide Tuesday. He likes to fish the outgoing tide, while McHugh was taking a shift on the incoming tide.
"Two hours before, two hours after — incoming and outgoing. It just depends on what's your preference,'' Burley said. "If you can do it all, then do it all, and stand there for four hours. If you can get 10 a tide, you're normally doing good. That's two hours, normally.
"If you get 10 fish, you can't beat that. It's free food, you know."
Late-run sockeye counts in the Kasilof River are lagging behind where they have been this time the last three years. On Tuesday, Fish and Game estimated 4,730 fish at its sonar site, for a total of 97,042 since June 15. There's still time for the rest of the run to arrive, however.
"The Kasilof late run is actually a little bit later run timing than the Kenai late run,'' Pawluk said. "Usually the late-run Kasilof fishing improves that last part of July."
Norlando Castillo was down from Anchorage with his wife, son and family friends. Monday was slow, he said, with five fish to show for three hours in the water. Tuesday afternoon was better, with 15 fish in three nets from 2-4 p.m.
"Looks like we're doing really good so far today," Castillo said. "This year we tried the Russian, Susitna and Copper (rivers) and nothing. So yesterday was my first fish I caught all year. It's fun when you catch them, just now I've got to go home and fillet them all."
Tracy Christal was at the Kasilof on Tuesday with her two daughters and boyfriend, John Wentworth. They drove about six hours from Talkeetna to fish the quieter shores of the Kasilof, rather than wait for the Kenai to open.
"We live on the Big Su River, right on the riverfront, but the fish are fresher here,'' Wentworth said. "They're right out of the ocean, and where we're at, they're 200 miles upland so they're a little redder and softer flesh."
Fishing on Tuesday morning was slow, he said, but by 3:30 p.m. he was averaging a fish in his net every five minutes in the water.
"We've got 17 so far,'' Christal said. "We bake 'em, grill 'em, smoke 'em, can 'em — pretty much everything."
Alisha Beach, with Alaska Wildlife Troopers, was out on patrol Tuesday. She said the Kasilof fishery was going pretty well so far, with a big crowd over the Fourth of July weekend, but fairly slow otherwise.
"People have been doing really well here, enjoying the fishing," Beach said.
She said the biggest violation troopers see is the failure to carry and fill out a dip-net permit. Dip-netters must be Alaska residents, have a valid state fishing license and a personal-use salmon permit. Any salmon kept must have both tips of its tail fin clipped off and be logged on the permit before leaving the fishing area.
In the Kasilof dip-net fishery, no king salmon may be kept. In the Kenai, one king may be retained.
Koch has one more reminder for anyone thinking about heading to the Kenai.
"Patience. Have patience for other fishery participants,'' he said. "Have patience for traffic on the way here. Have patience for the city employees, they're doing their very best to try and accomplish their task.
"And have fun. That's what these kinds of Alaska activities, at the end of the day, should be about. So have patience and have fun."
Kenai dip-net fishery fees
Drop-off fee: $10 per vehicle (good to come and go during a calendar day)
Day-use parking: $20
Overnight parking: $45-$55
Boat launch and parking: $35