The big school of sockeye salmon swarming into upper Cook Inlet in time for the last weekend of the state’s most popular personal-use dipnet fishery wasn’t quite big enough to punch its way through the commercial gillnet fishery in force.
But personal-use dipnetters at the mouth of the Kena River did get a Saturday of pretty good fishing before the commercial nets started to choke off the run, and the dipnet season sputtered toward today’s midnight end.
For commercial fishermen shut down for more than a week when the sockeye return stalled, the return to fishing Saturday turned out to be a good, but not great day. They caught 102,000 sockeye and a bonus 9,000 coho.
That was well short of the 142,000 sockeye on July 20 before the shutdown that had some commercial fishermen fuming. A number demanded closure of the dipnet fishery given commercial nets were out of the water. A handful of others grabbed dipnets and went to join everyday Alaskans in the state’s freezer-filler fishery.
The dipnet catch won’t be known for months. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game doesn’t require dipnetters to report harvests until after the end of the season, and then it can take months for the state agency to finish tallying postcards reporting the catch and sending out reminder letters to obtain catch postcards from those who forgot to report.
The dipnet catch last year was 259,000 for the season or about the equivalent of the last two commercial openings.
Despite a slow start to the season this year because of so few sockeye in the Kenai, most dipnetters appear to expect the 2017 catch to go higher than 2016.
Fair to good
Veteran dipnetter Al Grillo said it was “slow at first. The Wednesday two weeks ago, we got 19 with two nets. Thursday we were out all day and got three.”
Grillo fishes from a boat, and dipnetters in boats generally do better than those on shore. The slow fishing in mid-July reflected the few fish in the river. Once the numbers in-bound for the spawning grounds started to climb, the dipnetting significantly improved.
“Tuesday we got 19 with two nets. Wednesday we got 51 with three nets,” and at that point everyone in Grillo’s extended family of dipnetters had filled their permits and called it a year.
“All in all,” he said, “I would say fair to good. It picked up after the commercial guys got their nets out. Not the best, but not the worst.”
Timing is everything for dipnetters. The commercial drift gillnet fishery in the Inlet and the set gillnet fisheries on the beaches north and south of the Kenai mouth aren’t quite capable of creating the “curtain of death” of which dipnetters and Kenai anglers sometimes complain, but those commercial fisheries can cut off a lot of fish.
A Kenai sonar counter a couple of miles below the Sterling Highway bridge in Soldotna counted 57,000 sockeye on Saturday. Most of those were likely salmon that entered the river Thursday and Friday.
Once the commercial fishery opened Saturday, the flow of fish dropped sharply. The Sunday sonar count was down to 25,000 – less than half of the day before. The dipnetting deteriorated as the number of fish declined.
More than a few dipnetters suffered the agony of “you should have been here yesterday,” and there were some good yesterdays. Those able to sneak away from work last week and hit the Kenai while the commercial fishery was closed found a steady parade of fish.
Between July 24 and Saturday, a span of only six days, almost 360,000 sockeye – an average of 60,000 per day – stormed the river about 150 highway miles south of the Anchorage Metropolitan area.
Those fish are now spread out along the Kenai from Soldotna to Cooper Landing with anglers ambushing them wherever they can be found schooling. The number of the fish reaching the Russian River near Cooper Landing is building.
The Russian, about 105 road miles south of Anchorage, is the Kenai’s biggest sockeye-producing tributary. Rod-and-reel fishing there should only get better in the days ahead.
Commercial harvest climbing
Meanwhile, commercial fishermen had their nets back in the water today, and are expecting to get in even more fishing in the days ahead. Fish and Game has revised upward its estimated sockeye return to the Kenai.
State fishery managers now say they expect more than 2.3 million fish. They original forecast a return of about 2.2 million. The commercial harvest is concentrated largely on Kenai stocks and sockeye bound for the Kasilof River.
Those two rivers combined are expected to account for more than three-quarters of this year’s sockeye return to the dozens of rivers that drain into upper Cook Inlet. The anticipated commercial harvest of the fish was estimated at 1.7 million in the preseason forecast.
As of the end of the Saturday fishing period, about 1.4 million had been caught. Monday’s catch figures were not yet available.