Test net and sport creel seem to be the most reliable indices of assessing this year's late run. And smaller, younger fish appear to be the order of the day.
"Based on department inriver test net and creel survey data, many king salmon that entered the river are smaller and younger than the average."
The Chinese Zodiac may tell you this is the Year of the Tiger, but on the Kenai, it's looking more like the Year of the Rat.
If that trend is a concern to you, here's a bit of deja vu from 2007:
Age-class shift in Kenai River late run kings
In recent years, a disturbing trend has been observed in the age-class composition of late run kings returning to the Kenai River. Some time in the first week of July, large numbers of small 2-ocean kings (virtually all male) begin to enter the river. This phenomenon persists for two to three weeks during which 2-ocean males greatly outnumber 3-ocean kings, males and females combined. Some years they even outnumber the 4-ocean fish. What would cause this dramatic age-class shift where puny 6- to 12-pound bucks dominate the run in the first two to three weeks of July?
I suspect it’s because very unnatural selection pressures are affecting late run fish returning in the first three weeks of July. The sportfishery is now in its fourth decade of selectively harvesting the larger fish that historically dominated the run. As the fishery has expanded and matured, the focus on targeting the biggest kings has persisted. And because of several factors, more and more of the angling effort for king salmon has shifted from May and June over to July.
Compared to the late run, king salmon are considerably less abundant in the early run. The early run numbers have also been much more erratic from year to year. When the Killey River releases its annual mid-June mudflow into the mainstem Kenai, the river is much less conducive to angling success. With a prohibition on using bait, it becomes very difficult to entice a salmon to bite a plain artificial lure in these limited visibility conditions. Additionally, the early run slot limit requires anglers to release all kings measuring 44-55 inches. As if things weren’t tough enough, this means anglers will statistically have to release about one out of every four kings they are lucky enough to land in May and June. Many anglers elect to forgo king salmon fishing until a change in numbers, conditions, and/or regulations begins to better stack the odds in their favor. Not surprisingly, this occurs on July 1.
July offers a much more plentiful late run, the unrestricted ability to use bait, and the complete freedom to harvest ANY size king salmon. Throw in the bonus opportunity to catch abundant late run sockeye, and it’s easy to see why both resident and visiting anglers would rather choose to fish in July, particularly the last two weeks when both the king and red runs are at their peak.
What all that angling effort in July really means for late run kings is increased exploitation, especially so for the earliest returning fish. A late run king salmon’s vulnerability in the fishery is directly proportional to how early it arrives. Simply said, the earlier a king enters the Kenai, the more likely it is to perish in the fishery. A fish entering the river on July 1 will be susceptible to harvest for 31 days, while a fish arriving on July 31 will be susceptible for only one day. By the time the season closes on August 1, most of the late run kings harvested in July are in fact the fish that returned earlier in the month. Moreover, because the fishery is selective for large fish, it’s the biggest of the earliest returning late run kings that take the brunt of the exploitation.
After 35 years of targeting the biggest late run kings, is it any wonder that the unnatural selection pressures exerted by the fishery have preferentially depleted the older larger kings at the front end of the run? __________________
This old thread may give folks some additional perspective on a growing (or should I say shrinking?) problem.