Heading down to fish the Kenai this weekend? Catching might be slow

KENAI — Thinking about heading to the Kenai River personal use dipnet fishery this weekend? Don't bring high expectations.

"(Expect fishing to be) slow, slow and slow," said Jason Pawluk, assistant area management biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Soldotna.

Only two weekends remain for one of Alaska's most popular fisheries, where thousands of Alaskans swarm each year to catch sockeye salmon using long poles with nets, a technique more effective than rods and reels.

But lately, fishing has been slow.

Only 15,046 fish passed the sonar at river mile 19 on Wednesday, one of the lowest daily estimates ever, according to Pawluk. The optimal range for dipnetting success is 80,000 to 120,000 fish.

"We are definitely in a period where either one of those fisheries (dipnet and sportfishing), you might as well not participate in them, quite frankly," Pawluk said.

The run started off strong in early July with a steady stream of fish moving past the sonar at mile 19 of the Kenai River. Almost 600,000 sockeyes passed by sonar this season, more than double the fish that had passed through by the same time a year ago. Even last week between 40,000 to 50,000 fish were counted daily. But those have dropped in recent days.


Soldotna commercial fisheries biologist Pat Shields said data convinces him the sockeye run is late this year. Fish and Game projects some 5 million sockeyes are headed for the Kenai this summer, but only a third of them have arrived. State biologists want to put 1.1 million to 1.35  million reds in the Kenai by the end of the run in late August.

"There's still a lot of fish yet to come," he said.

But with escapement numbers already high, Fish and Game has added emergency openers to allow for additional commercial fishing from both the drift and setnet fleets, which tends to hamper dipnetters.

That's led to anger and concern from personal use fishermen — and at least one politician — that the commercial fleet is targeting salmon that should go to dipnetters and sportfishing anglers.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, sent a letter to Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten requesting the emergency openers stop for the next two weekends to give dipnetters a better opportunity to harvest salmon.

But Shields said he has to manage for passage goals, not individual users. Allowing 100,000 fish to enter the river over multiple days would be "irresponsible," he said.

But in an interview from the Kenai River on Thursday, Wielechowski said he had heard from constituents "furious" about the lack of catching — especially when the commercial fleet in upper Cook Inlet has already landed more than 1.62 million sockeyes this season.

"It's reaching a boiling point, people are frustrated," said Wielechowski, who caught 15 by Thursday afternoon.

Other factors beyond the run size may be playing into low catch rates. Pawluk said water on the Kenai is higher this year and more clear and making it harder to catch sockeyes able to see anglers in the river. Weather and the river water temperatures have also been warm, sending the fish into deeper channels seeking cool water instead of near the banks where they typically move.

Despite the frustration, most dipnetters enjoyed themselves earlier this week.

On Monday night, Karen Johnson carefully head and gutted her fish on the Kenai beach. She and friends had caught 19 that day — better than many others. Her secret?

"We ask God for fish," she said. "And then when we catch one we say: 'Stay in my net, in Jesus' name.' "

Vicky Mitchell was processing fish with six of her children on the beach Monday, carefully slicing bellies off the sockeyes to be saved for smoking later.

Mitchell and her family travel from Fairbanks each year to fish the river. With her children helping, Mitchell said the Kenai is a safer place to fish than the Copper River, even though it's closer to her Fairbanks home. An added bonus? She's able to spend time with friends who live on the Kenai Peninsula.

Fishing for Mitchell wasn't stellar Monday. The family had only caught 15 despite fishing all day — far from her family's allowable limit of 95.

But she wasn't worried about catching her limit Monday. Fishing "is what it is," she said.

"We have to look at it as we get to have fun with friends at the beach," she said, "and we get to fish as a bonus."


How many sockeyes Kenai personal use dipnetters catch won't be known for months, but last year they harvested 377,532, down from the all-time high of 537,765 in 2011.  About 35,000 permits are issued to residents.

The limit is 25 reds per permit-holder, with 10 more for each additional household member.

Suzanna Caldwell

Suzanna Caldwell is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch News and Alaska Dispatch. She left the ADN in 2017.