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Calm before the storm: Kenai halibut anglers kick back in advance of Alaska’s most frenetic fishery

  • Author: Matt Tunseth
  • Updated: June 19, 2019
  • Published June 19, 2019

Shantel Wiley and Chris Neid of Soldotna fish for halibut on the north Kenai beach at the mouth of the Kenai River on Sunday, June 16, 2019. (Matt Tunseth / ADN)

KENAI — In the long, lazy days before Alaska’s most bonkers fishery brings bedlam and blood to the beaches of Kenai, one of the state’s least likely and most laid-back fisheries exists as an ephemeral prelude to the madness.

“Are we fishing?” asks a woman sitting in a lawn chair.

Good question.

As she tilts her head up from the book in her lap and squints into the high afternoon sun, Shantel Wiley of Soldotna smiles and says she’s as much into kicking back as she is catching.

“It’s just beautiful here. You can’t go wrong.”

Sitting next to her is Chris Neid, and between them is a cooler atop which sit two cold beverages. It’s about 60 degrees and the wind is blowing gently off the green-gray ocean water where the Kenai River meets Cook Inlet. Neid says they’re fishing for halibut -- a prized flatfish usually associated with the open ocean but apparently hauled onto the beach with enough regularity that a smattering of fishermen walk to the water’s edge daily to cast a herring into the surf.

“We just heard about it and thought we’d give it a crack,” Neid says.

In about 20 minutes of fishing the duo hasn’t caught anything, though Wiley thinks she had a nibble while she was reading.

“I did but I definitely wasn’t ready for it.”

An angler casts his line out into Cook Inlet at the mouth of the Kenai River on Sunday, June 16, 2019. (Matt Tunseth / ADN)

Simple and easy

Fishing halibut off the beach is about as simple as it gets, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game area management biologist Colton Lipka.

Lipka said the most technique is to cast a large, baited hook (herring is the most common) and a heavy (2- to 6-ounce) sinker as far out into the water as possible. A rod holder (or forked stick) also comes in handy. As the tide rises, anglers move up the beach in hopes a bottom-feeding fish will take the bait.

Though the Kenai beach is known for the thousands of dipnet fishermen who swarm the sand each July in search of sockeye salmon, Lipka said halibut are known to patrol the waters at the mouth of the river.

“They’re chasing hooligan first and they stick around feeding on carcasses and things flying out of the river mouths,” he said.

Lipka said the beach fishery is not all that popular, but there’s something to be said for sitting in a lawn chair in hopes of landing a tasty halibut. He’s even tried it a time or two himself.

“It’s something to do if you don’t want to fish in the freshwater or don’t want to deal with the crowds,” he said.

Catch rates are not particularly high, but “every once in a while people do catch fish,” he said.

“It’s definitely more of a social fishery.”

Lipka said he’s heard of people pulling 20-pound halibut off the beach and said he saw a photo of a 60-pounder purportedly taken up the beach toward Nikiski.

“It’s just fun to get out, be on the beach and have a chance to catch a halibut,” said Lipka, who added that people could also catch salmon, flounder, spiny dogfish or sharks off the beach.

A man's legs poke out of the front of a tent on the north Kenai beach on Sunday, June 16, 2019. (Matt Tunseth / ADN)

Calm before the storm

A valid Alaska fishing license is required to fish for halibut, which are managed by the federal government and subject to federal regulations. In Cook Inlet, anglers may catch up to two fish per day with up to four in possession.

Parking is plentiful at the beach, and there is currently no fee. However, that will change in July when the beach transforms from a sleepy niche fishery into a 24-hour carnival of carcasses as the personal use dipnet fishery unfolds. Tens of thousands of people are expected to participate in Alaska’s most popular fishery, with hundreds of thousands of sockeye salmon likely netted from shore and boats at the mouth of the river July 10 to 31. The massive fishery began in 1996 is open to all Alaskans and now includes everything from livestreams of the beaches to an app produced by the city of Kenai, which manages beach access and charges parking fees to pay for things like porta-potties and the post-fishery cleanup.

Once the dipnetting frenzy begins, it’s likely the halibut anglers in lawn chairs will have to go elsewhere for a while. But they’ll likely be back in August to try and catch the last few rays of summer -- and, maybe, something for dinner.

“There’s fish out there,” says a smiling Chris Neid as the sun reflects off his sunglasses.

Or not. Either way...

"You can’t beat this.”