With relaxed regs, Cook Inlet saltwater-king anglers get a bonus

For king salmon anglers working Cook Inlet, the Alaska Board of Fisheries meeting last month in Homer offered some good news for salt-water anglers willing to brave chilly weather for a chance to catch beefy kings during what used to be the offseason.

The board now considers September a winter month, something that may help king salmon fishermen interested in bringing home more chinook filets while allowing the board, as it said in a press release, to provide "for additional sport fishing opportunity."

How? During the summer, anglers have a seasonal bag limit of five kings. But there's no seasonal limit on winter kings caught Sept. 1-March 31. The bag and possession limit is two kings of any size, and anglers need not record their harvests.

"We catch a ton of fish in September so that makes keeping a few extra fish possible," said Rudy Tsukada of Anchorage, an avid Cook Inlet kayak fisherman who has brought in kings every month of the year.

Harvest limit boosted

At the same time, the guideline harvest limit in Cook Inlet was raised from 3,000 to 4,500 kings as interest in saltwater king fishing has ramped up in recent years. The catch is estimated after the season ends and helps managers determine future actions, rather than as a way to manage the in-season fishery.

"The one thing that passed that makes me slightly worried is the new 4,500-fish guideline harvest level," Tsukada said. "That's up from 3,000 but I … am pretty sure that we are already up against the GHL if they counted every fish.

In fact, Carol Kerkvliet, a Fish and Game biologist based in Homer, said the Cook Inlet saltwater king fishery topped the 3,000-fish limit from 2013-15.

"It could be a combination of just the weather . . . and the word's getting out of something fun to do in the winter, to go fishing," Kerkvliet told The Peninsula Clarion.

Biologists say tagging studies have consistently shown that most Cook Inlet feeder kings do not spawn in Kenai Peninsula rivers, typically heading to Southeast, Washington, Oregon or British Columbia waterways.

"To say that these are somebody else's fish so why should we care — we should care," Fish and Game Deputy Commissioner Charlie Swanton said at the fish board meeting, according to the Peninsula Clarion.  "That's … not to say that there needs to be a numerical limit, but there needs to be some controls on this fishery relative to recognizing the fact that they are somebody else's fish."

Popular fish derby

There's little doubt that a Cook Inlet winter king salmon sport fishery is gaining traction. Its poster child is the Homer Winter King Salmon Tournament each March.

This winter's tournament saw a record 1,508 anglers on 448 boats (including Tsukada and 19 other kayak fishermen) landing 448 fish — short of 2015's record of 590 fish.

And the fishing fun can be lucrative for the best anglers. Homer's Eric Holland won nearly $32,000 for his 26.5-pound king that topped the field in March.

That's the biggest angler payoff of any fishing derby in Alaska, far more than the winner of the Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby, which used to hold that title, collects. This year, North Pole angler Austin Nelson collected $15,420 for his winning flatfish, a 252-pounder.

Contact Mike Campbell at mcampbell@alaskadispatch.com

Mike Campbell

Mike Campbell was a longtime editor for Alaska Dispatch News, and before that, the Anchorage Daily News.