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First 'unrestricted' king season in years

The Kenai River king salmon season closed at the end of July, and by all accounts, both the early and late runs were successful for both anglers and escapement.

"Actually it may be that the early run king salmon may have slightly exceeded the goal. It just depends on what the final harvest estimate will be. We don't have that finalized yet," said Brian Marston, the Fish and Game sport fish area manager for the Northern Kenai. "Both fisheries were both reportedly very good. We haven't had an unrestricted king salmon fishery since 2009, so that was a good change on the king front."

For the late run, an average of over 900 king salmon over 34-inches in length passed the fish-counting sonar each day of July, with a cumulative count for the month of 13,916. Based on historical run-timing, the total escapement is projected to be about 21,000 Chinook over 34-inches, which is above the midpoint of the desired escapement goal range of 13,000 to 27,000 fish.

This year, at the direction of the Board of Fish, the department began basing Kenai River escapement only on larger king salmon - those over 34-inches. Marston explains it was done for a couple of reasons.

"Mainly we focused on that because the smaller fish tend to go through big population swings and makes it difficult to manage for those. And also with the sonar estimate, it's hard to differentiate between a small king from a large sockeye," he said. "And that requires some analytical methods to do that, which just increases the possibility of error in counting. So if we focus on large fish, we're getting the fish we want upriver, and we're also kind of improving our analytical methods for doing that."

Marston said the early run sockeye fishery was very good on the Russian and Kenai rivers, but the late run is lagging behind.

"The early run Russian River sockeye was quite good. We ended up liberalizing bag limits and opening up the sanctuary early for that run. There's also a late run for the Russian River and of course the late run, the larger run, for the Kenai. Right now the Russian River late run is a little behind anticipated numbers," he said. "We're not at the point where we need any restrictions yet, and we're actually getting a good push of fish at the weir site, so that's looking better. But we're not anticipating any liberalizations to the sockeye fishery, and we're still projecting to hit the bottom end of our goal on the Kenai run and the Russian River run."

And since it's August, anglers are now gearing up for silver salmon.

"We're starting to see a few coho coming into the Kenai, being caught in our netting projects, and also in the sports fishery, especially some of the guided anglers are starting to get a few," Marston said. "That's probably the next thing being an issue on the Kenai in the Kenai area is how many coho salmon there are. We're just at the beginning of that. They're just starting to show up now. We've had some higher counts of coho in some of the commercial fisheries out in the inlet, and that, you know, is a good sign. We'll just have to see if that transfers into a lot of fish in the river."

And though the run has tapered off from a string of five-digit days the last week of July, the sockeye escapement on the Kasilof River is running well ahead of last year, with 314,402 passing the sonar through August 7. The run is closing in on the upper end of the Kasilof escapement goal, which is a range between 160,000 and 390,000 fish.

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