With the 2016 season officially behind us, it’s time to take a look back on yet another epic summer of Alaska Fishing. Without a doubt the most memorable aspect of this past season was the stronger king salmon returns. After three relatively dismal seasons and numerous restrictions, the more “normal” numbers of king salmon were a welcome sight on both the Kasilof and the Kenai in 2016.
The Kenai began the season closed to all king salmon fishing and the Kasilof opened with no bait and single hook along with no retention of wild king salmon except for Tuesdays and Saturdays. We started fishing the Kasilof in earnest beginning in mid-May and there were good signs that fish were already in the river in fairly decent numbers. Fish could be seen rolling in the larger holes and given ample effort, anglers were being rewarded with a mix of both wild and hatchery king salmon. As the season progressed into the first week of June, fishing pressure increased but so did the numbers of fish. A very high number of two ocean hatchery kings (kings that return after just two years in the salt) were present in the Kasilof this season and these fish in the 12-15 lb. range provided some outstanding action. There were also a good number of nice wild or naturally produced kings arriving with each tide as well. Indeed the Kasilof was off to a banner start!
On June 4, ADF&G revealed larger than expected numbers of Kenai Kings were being recorded and there was enough fish already in the river by June 4 to reopen the Kenai to catch and release fishing. This was welcome news and along with the strong numbers on the Kasilof, many were optimistic we may finally be on the leading edge of a rebound with our king stocks. Fortunately, the strong numbers of kings continued and along with it, fishing success soared. On the Kasilof we saw some of the best fishing for king salmon we have seen in over a decade. In the past few years, stocking numbers have been increased on the Kasilof by over 50% so perhaps this bump in numbers, particularly hatchery fish, will be the trend for several years. It has been over a decade but this river once hosted one of the most prolific roadside king salmon fisheries in all of Alaska and some of the best king salmon fishing I have seen in 27 years of guiding. I am very optimistic that this year’s numbers are evidence we can get back to those peak returns.
On June 16th, ADF&G announced the Kenai numbers were holding strong and the lower river a few miles below the Soldotna Bridge was open to harvest of kings. Additionally, on the Kasilof, all restrictions were lifted and bait was allowed along with multiple hooks and retention of wild fish on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. With fishing already what I considered good, the addition of bait was like a match to a powder keg.
Meanwhile on the Kenai, while most of the fishing effort focused on the lower Kenai where retention was allowed, we stayed in the section just above the Soldotna Bridge which remained open to catch and release fishing only. It had been several seasons since we were able to fishing for kings in these “home” waters and this section definitely held some of my favorite king water on the entire Kenai. With the strong numbers and steady pulses of fish still arriving with each tide, fishing was remarkable. It was really gratifying not only to see the Kenai mirror its former stature, it was especially rewarding to see the numbers of big kings present. In a nutshell, mid to late June had an entirely different feel to it this year with the choice of great king fishing on both rivers!
The only ingredient missing from this June jubilation was the sockeye. Normally by this time, we are seeing limit catches of sockeye both on the upper Kasilof and in strategic locations along the Kenai. This year neither river really offered consistent sockeye fishing in June. It just goes to show; you never really know what mother natures has on tap.
As June passed and we moved into July, the regulations changed on both rivers. On the Kenai, despite the early run exceeding the pre-season forecast, the department elected to stick with their modest pre-season forecast for the late run and begin the season July 1st with no bait. This move seemed prudent given the low returns we have seen in recent seasons. Unfortunately, they elected to allow harvest upstream of the Soldotna bridge instead of limiting harvest to the lower river. Allowing retention river wide, even with a slot limit above the bridge through July 14th, seemed excessive. Conversely, the numbers of fish entering the river seemed to justify their actions and as the numbers grew with each passing day in July, it seemed clear we would be seeing another liberalization. On July 9th the river opened river wide to the use of bait. This made very good fishing great for a few days before things stabilized and remained consistent.
The one unfortunate consequence to a large early return and all the restrictions being lifted is this also unshackles the commercial fishing fleet and they were now being delivered their maximum fishing time in pursuit of both the late run kings and the more abundant late run sockeye. Once their presence (both the shore-based set nets and the drift fleet) was in full swing, it became much less predictable on the river.
This year’s sockeye return was very sporadic. We never saw that big 2-3 day push of fish where numbers spiked considerably. On the contrary, this year’s return came in slow and steady and the fishing had an understandably similar pattern. While we certainly had many of what I would consider extremely productive days for sockeye, we did have a lot of trips where we had to really work hard for the fish. Sometimes having to exert that little extra effort makes the final result all the more rewarding. In any event it was a very successful late run sockeye season on the Kenai and we saw catchable numbers of reds up until around the 10th of August. King salmon fishing stayed consistent through the third week in July, but then fell off considerably in the final week of the season.
As always, this late July, early August time period is always a great time to seek out giant rainbow trout. Well-fed from the flash flood of sockeye carcasses, this stretch of the season always congregates the trout in certain sections of the river and it’s a lot of fun to catch and release that many big, wild rainbows in a day. We fish a number of trout enthusiasts annually that could travel anywhere to fish for wild bows and time after time they flock to the Kenai.
Although reports were still sporadic, by August 10th it was time to transition from the waning sockeye run and looks to the next final phase of our salmon season…silvers. After what I consider to be some of the best silver returns we have experienced in many seasons, this year’s Kenai silver salmon runs were mediocre at best. Typically by August 15th, the run is in full swing and limit catches are the rule. This year we did find silver limits on a regular basis but it took time and persistence as the fish were there. They were just not there in the strength we had seen the few years prior. This lower abundance can be attributed to a number of things but it is certainly a normal swing for Kenai silvers, which like all the salmon runs, are very cyclical in nature.
Despite the lower numbers which also carried over into the late run in September and October, we still saw some great coho fishing and the fish on average were larger in size. This was also an even year so it was a pink salmon season and they arrived on cue in late July and early August. Regularly returning by the millions, this year’s pink or humpback salmon run was much like the silver return, below normal in numbers, but the individual fish were above average in size. The pinks were so big this year that in fact the state record was broken twice in the same day. The new record Alaska state pink salmon is now 13 pounds, 10.6 ounces, claiming the record over a 12 pound, 9-ounce fish caught on the Kenai in 1974.
We had a very warm fall here on the Kenai Peninsula with relatively mild temperatures throughout September and October. This made for a very enjoyable late season on the Kenai chasing trophy trout amidst the autumn backdrop of changing leaves and new snow in the mountains. With fewer silvers spawning this year, the trout were a little less selective and pounced on our offerings. Both flesh patterns and single eggs were effective. We also enjoyed good fishing on the lower Kenai Peninsula streams like Deep Creek and the Anchor River for steelhead this fall and the warmer weather and favorable water conditions both contributed to this success.
Overall the 2016 season will be best be remembered for the bump in king salmon numbers and a return to more normal management actions regarding king salmon Peninsula wide. After going through a number of seasons where we saw little to no king fishing, seeing the rebound in king numbers on both the Kenai and the Kasilof was definitely a welcome change. We will remain cautiously optimistic that this trend will carry over to upcoming seasons and that our king salmon fishing will return to what many refer to as the “good ol’ days.”
Conversely, salmon are notorious for being predictably unpredictable so just as we saw a dip in silvers runs this year, you just never know from year to year what will come back. We are fortunate to have such a productive and resilient river with a diverse array of wild stocks. Despite the ups and downs, one can always rely on the Kenai and Alaska in general to provide a viable option and to make sure there is always something to catch. As we enter our 28th season, we are more excited than ever to see what Mother Nature has in store for us. We wish to thank everyone that helped to make 2016 such a great success and we look forward to sharing the 2017 season and many new adventures with friends both new and old.