Sportfishing group asks anglers to release big Kenai kings, even though Fish and Game says run is strong

Kenai River anglers are allowed to catch and keep kings of any size this month, as long as they do it with a single unbaited hook.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game made that decision after analyzing the projections for the run and the outcome of the early Kenai king run last month.

A red salmon as seen from underwater
King Salmon in Ship Creek (Ryan Hagerty/USFWS)

But sport fishing guides say they worry that taking big kings out of the river will hurt the population long term. They’re asking anglers to release the large kings they catch anyway.

Ben Mohr, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, said the state department’s plan is legal under the management plan. But he thinks it’s too liberal given current conditions.

“Of course we won’t know more until the fish start to come in,” he said. “But taking a precautionary approach and wanting to make the investment in the river is something we take seriously.”

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Early run numbers have been better this year than last year.

The sonar at mile 14 of the river counted over 4,130 kings in the early run. That falls within the department’s optimal escapement goal of 3,900 to 6,600 kings.

In that same period in 2020, the department counted 2,444 kings.

Colton Lipka, area management biologist for the Northern Kenai Peninsula, said the early run numbers, in part, determine Fish and Game’s management strategy for the late run. 

“This year’s early run returned close to forecast, supporting conservative action in the late-run fishery by prohibiting bait, yet allowing some harvest of larger fish,” he said in an email.

But Mohr worries that projections for the late run are on the low end.

Fish and Game estimates 18,400 kings will make it up river to spawn. That falls within the department’s optimal escapement goal of 15,000 to 30,000 kings. But it still places the run well below average. Escapement numbers in the last two years have been some of the worst on record. 

“Even though the early run return came in and they made their goal, overall, we’re still in a time of low abundance,” Mohr said.

The Kenai River Sportfishing Association — which Mohr said doesn’t usually involve itself in in-season management — isn’t alone in asking anglers to take personal responsibility for the future of the fishery.

The Kenai River Professional Guide Association is also asking guides to encourage clients to release large kings. So is local group Fish for the Future.

Last year, the Board of Fish introduced a new regulation that allows anglers to keep kings that are 34-inches long or smaller. The state opened the early run with that strategy.

Mohr’s an advocate for that rule, which he said strikes a good balance between conservative and liberal practices. 

Lipka said the department will change its regulations if in-season projections indicate that the river might not reach its escapement goal.

“The department utilizes in-season projections to guide management actions in order to achieve the escapement goal,” he said.

For now, advocates like Mohr are asking anglers to think about the future of the species.

“We’re encouraging anglers to go out — fish, fish hard,” he said. “But we’re also encouraging folks to make sure the fish you catch and keep and throw on the barbecue are the small ones. And let the big ones get up the river.”

The Kenai River late-run started Thursday.

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