An increase in hatchery fish equals red hot king fishing!
If you are a long time visitor or resident to the Kenai Peninsula you can remember the Kasilof River back in the 1990’s when it was teeming with kings throughout May and June. Many of these fish were hatchery produced, originating from the Crooked Creek Hatchery which was first established in the early 1970’s. The initial smolt release occurred in 1975 and the planted fish were taken from wild Crooked Creek stock. Crooked Creek is a small tannin colored tributary to the Kasilof just above tidal influence. Since then, this stocking program has undergone a number of changes, the most notable being the number of smolt released annually.
For most of the years up to the late 1990’s, the smolt release averaged close to 200,000 fish. These numbers, combined with wild or naturally produced returns, created a robust road-side king fishery that rivaled any other in all of Alaska. As the Kenai drew more and more attention for its huge kings, the Kasilof always seemed to take a humble back seat and for many was a second option or plan B if the Kenai was restricted or unfishable for some reason. Eventually the Kasilof became more and more popular especially in the years when the Kenai was restricted due to low returns. During these years, it was common to see 75-100 drift boats a day during the peak of the run. Remarkably, the number of boats was hardly an issue since everyone was catching fish. I can remember seasons where I got a limit for my clients on every single early season Kasilof king trip. It was such good fishing that I could literally predict places in the river where I could guarantee a take down.
This all changed in 2000 when ADF&G decided to begin marking all Crooked Creek hatchery king salmon smolt by clipping their adipose fins. Amidst concerns over straying to other nearby river systems (primarily tributaries of the Kenai) and lack of funding to clip 200,000+ smolt, the department reduced stocking levels from 210,000 in 1999 to 105,000 in 2000. It did not take long before the reduction in smolt releases had an effect on fishing success. In a few short years the 50% reduction in hatchery fish resulted in noticeably lower catch rates on the river. New rules were put in place that limited the retention of wild or naturally produced Kasilof kings to certain days of the week while anglers could keep up to two hatchery fish seven days a week. The new rules and the two fish limit seemed a moot point during many subsequent seasons, as there were just not enough fish available to make a two fish limit a realistic goal. As expected the reduced catch rates eventually affected the overall popularity of the Kasilof early run king fishery and participation plummeted. Competent drift boat guides that were willing to work very hard for their clients still found adequate success and with fewer boats and less competition, the Kasilof was still a very enjoyable fishery and a quality guided trip.
Fast forward to 2016. After more than a decade of reduced returns, last year was a game changer. Fishing began and continued to be a bit more productive than we have seen in several seasons and there seemed to be a significantly higher number of smaller hatchery kings available. These 8-12 lb. kings are fish that have only spent two years in the ocean before returning to spawn. A certain percentage of the run always returns as two ocean but the majority return after three years in the salt. This means given the extreme abundance of 2-ocean hatchery fish in 2016, 2017 is likely to be equally productive with the bulk of the fish being larger 18-25 lb. kings! Why the additional hatchery fish? ADFG has begun to expand stocking numbers in recent years. Starting in 2014, the department has increased the smolt release from 105,000 to 140,500 and hopes to double the hatchery return in coming seasons. For a guide, that is music to my ears. Looking back on those many years of absolutely wide-open and incredible king fishing, I did not realize how lucky we were. In my youth, I assumed this was Alaska and this was just the way it is. Now I know just how important the hatchery numbers were to the overall number of kings and with those number now again on the rise, I feel we are in for some great early season king fishing over the next several years.