May Fishing Report

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Its official, the kings are in the Kenai and entering essentially all of our cook inlet streams. The run timing looks to be consistent with more ‘normal’ years past. ADFG counted 36 large kings as of May 16th, so the fish ninja skills of Isaac and JP really came into play when they nailed a 40″ buck on Wednesday.

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The last time the early run started as “open” was three or four years ago, so its nice to at least be on the water in pursuit. Closing the Kenai early run puts additional pressure on the Kasilof during May and June, so we are hoping that leaving the river open will alleviate some of the traffic and spread out the fishing pressure. In years past we adapted as well or better than any lodge in coming up with things to do with river closures, but its always convenient to walk down the boardwalk, jump in a boat and go fish for kings on the lower Kenai.

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New early run fishing regulations made easy thanks to Gary at AOJ.

Today was opening day for the Anchor River king salmon season. This fishery is only open during weekends and Wednesdays for usually around 5 weeks (depending on how many fish arrive). ADFG has counted 380 kings as of May 3rd which puts this run on track for a good year. Its always possible that the run is front loaded and will end up short of the escapement goals, which also holds true for the Kenai, so we will see how it shapes up. As far as catch rates on opening day, the word is the bite was pretty slow, couple fish harvested, but nothing spectacular. I predict we will need some big days in the 200 to 300 fish per day before fishing becomes good because the weir marks the extent of the open area. Any fish you see in the fish counts are essentially “off limits,” so you gotta stay ahead of the counts and look closely at the trends. Water level is another important factor when fishing the Anchor. High water levels allow the fish to push through holes at their choice, whereas with low levels, they tend cross gravels bar late at night and early in the morning. This speed at which they move up the river then effects how you can use the fish count information to determine when those fish are moving through holes below the weir.

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Halibut fishing is now consistent and should remain so until the end of August. This time of year can be great for shallow water halibut fishing near the river mouths as hooligan migrate into the river and salmon smolt head out to the ocean. The guide crew went out this week and hit the hooligan “hatch” just right nailing four limits of flatfish in shallow water. There have also been reports of larger fish (150 lb class) being caught in Homer. As a reminder, charters vessels are only allowed one over 28″ and one under 28″ per client, and you are only allowed four halibut a year by use of a charter vessel.

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Guide crew nails on halibut during hooligan hatch.

Its shaping up to be a strong year at Tower Rock. The rest of the crew will be arriving this week and we already have some short time guests. Lately we have received inquiries about booking for this season (which is great!) and somewhere in the message it says something along the lines of “Are you still taking bookings for 2017?” or “I know it is late notice…” For those wondering, it is never too late to book a trip at the lodge! We will continue to book 2017 and 2018 trips throughout the season! -DJ

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Changes in Regulations and what it Means for Anglers Traveling to the Kenai Peninsula.

Whenever fishery managers place more regulations in a fishery, the initial reaction from all users is typically some type of panic. In general, people tend to fear change especially in things for which they are passionate and holds some sort of traditional value. Changes in fishing regulations for people in Alaska are pretty normal, especially when compared to other states. Alaska also has the reputation for doing a particularly good job at managing its natural resources, albeit some people would argue otherwise. While the individuals within the various departments “do a good job,” this is also partly the case because Alaska (as a whole) does not have to deal with as many of the environmental issues that plagues much of the lower 48 states: urban runoff, urban development, damming, big agriculture, etc. In this way resource managers are given a cleaner canvas to work with. Even though we call it “resource management” its actually people that need managing, not fish and wildlife–they would probably do just fine without us!

Cook Inlet Drift Fleet readying for sockeye season. Managing a limited resource with a theoretically unlimited amount of users and opinions can prove difficult.

As the population of Alaska continues to grow, we should continue to expect more regulations with our fisheries. At the same time, as we see more people becoming involved with fishing in Alaska we will likely (and hopefully) see additional regulations and changes to management that addresses the growth in the recreational, commercial and personal use sector. Recently passed were some changes to the Kenai peninsula recreational fishing regulations. Some of which will impact our day to day fishing excursions, others not so much. So I went ahead explained how each of these new regs could impact anglers traveling to the Kenai peninsula this summer. (Note: my comments on the regulation are italicized. Those regulations that show no comment are those of either little significance or were already in place for sometime with minor changes).

New Sport/personal Use Fishing Regulations For Kenai River And Northern Kenai Peninsula Area In 2017

All Kenai Peninsula Freshwaters

  • Bench Creek fishing closure from May 1 through June 10. 
  • Swanson River fishing closure from May 1 through June 10. 
    •  This regulation has been in effect for a number of years as to protect spawning rainbow trout. 
  • In the Kasilof River drainage, retention of rainbow trout/steelhead is prohibited, and the entire drainage is closed to fishing for rainbow trout/steelhead from May 1 through June 10. 
    • This is actually a new regulation that none of us saw coming. Retention of rainbow steelhead trout on the Kasilof had been prohibited for a number of years and most of the fishing pressure took place at the Crooked Creek campground. And yes, I admit, I bare witness to many a steelhead drug up on to the shore while shooting eggs everywhere only to be kicked back into the water by other anglers. I imagine that some of the hardcore fly guys lobbied fort this regulation which is fine with me despite having a lot of fond memories of catching steelhead in the spring. The upper Kasilof in May is the the most technical float on the peninsula and provided good rowing practice in the early season. All in all, if it helps our fall steelhead fishing, and takes pressure off the river, I support this new regulation. 
  • In the Kasilof River, a person may not fillet, mutilate, or otherwise disfigure a king salmon in such a manner that prevents determination whether the fish is a wild or hatchery fish until the person has stopped fishing in the Kasilof River drainage for the day and has moved more than 100 yards away from the Kasilof River.
    • This regulation has been in effect for a number of years as to prohibit people from “filleting and release.”

Kenai River Drainage

  • Only king salmon less than 36” may be retained:
    • This one is a biggie for many people but not really for us. Previous years, when we could fish the early run, a 42″ to 55″ inch slot limit was in place (any fish caught between these lengths had to be released). Now anything over 36″ will be released and we are okay with that. A majority of the early run fish we catch are under 36″ anyway, so this will allow guests to harvest some fish while protecting the bigger fish that carry the genes the river needs so badly. 
  • January 1 through June 30 downstream of Skilak Lake,January 1 through July 31 downstream of Skilak Lake to ADF&G markers located approximately 300 yards downstream of Slikok Creek. Bait is prohibited in these waters during the time the size limit is in effect.
    • We are in support of any regulation that prohibits bait. It’s simply not necessary to catch fish on the Kenai and bait openers bring a lot of people from Anchorage to the river. Bait also kills a lot of rainbow trout and dollies that are inadvertently gut hooked. It also makes cleaning the boat a pain!
  • From July l – August 15, additional Kenai River shoreline will be closed to fishing on the north bank near Honeymoon Cove at river mile 13, upstream to approximately river mile 14 near Stewarts Landing.
    • This is another interesting one. The shoreline here is eroding and it looks rather bare with little to no woody debris or vegetation, which is important salmon habitat. This is a popular sockeye spot and this limits the available space for sockeye fishing. 
  • Coho salmon season shortened upstream of Bings Landing to the ADF&G markers at the outlet of Skilak Lake, closing on November 1. 
  • Gear restricted to only one unbaited, single-hook, artificial lure upstream of Bings Landing to the ADF&G markers at the outlet of Skilak Lake from November 1 through December 31.
  • Size limit of rainbow trout/Dolly Varden reduced to one less than 16” in total length in the entire Kenai River drainage.
    • We are in support of making the whole river catch and release for rainbow trout and Dolly Varden. There typically plenty of salmon in the river to put in the freezer or throw on the campfire. 
  • Waters of Kenai River closed to all fishing from May 1 through June 10.
  • King salmon sanctuaries in effect from May 1 through July 31.
  • See regulatory map in Southcentral sport fish regulation summary book.
  • All Kenai River tributaries, except for the Russian River:
    • closed to fishing for salmon, only one unbaited, single-hook, artificial lure, with a gap between point and shank of 3/8 inch or less is allowed.
    • have new periods closed to all fishing (see 2017 regulatory summary).
  • All king salmon sanctuaries and fly-fishing areas (except for the Russian River fly-fishing only area) now changed to artificial fly waters, where single-hook artificial flies may be used, for this purpose an artificial fly means a fly that is constructed by common methods known as fly-tying, including a dry fly, wet fly, and nymph, or a bare single hook, and that is free of bait.
  • Hidden Lake lake trout restricted to one per day, less than 16” in total length.
  • Liberal pike regulations repealed in Mackey Lakes, Derks Lake, Sevena Lake, and Union Lake.
  • Personal use household permits allowed to harvest one king salmon 20” or greater in length, and up to 10 king salmon under 20” in length.
    • This is definitely a step in the right direction. There is absolutely no reason someone should be able to keep a large Kenai (or Kasilof) king salmon for personal use when liberal sockeye limits are in place. Not only do Kenai King salmon need every help they can get, the economic value of that fish is far higher on the end of a sport fishing line. 
  • The area closed to dipnetting from shore in the Kenai River personal use fishery was increased from the mouth upstream to the Warren Ames Bridge on the north bank, and from the mouth upstream to the Kenai Landing dock on the south bank.
    • Apparently this shoreline has been getting hammered for quite sometime and the marsh grass that grows in this area is heavily affected by soil compaction, according to ADFG and biologists. It is also hard to enforce regulations on this shoreline so they just assume close to dip-netting. 

RIP Spring Steelhead fishing, “its not you, its me.” This is probably for the better. Thanks for the memories!304862_3554590994765_1390367778_n305726_1924844332117_4193691_n527982_3554591914788_243371581_n

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Early Season Fly Fishing on the Kenai, the New September?

 

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Many people ask when is the best time to fly fish the Kenai, and just about every guide, outfitter and lodge will tell you the same thing –“the fall.”  And yes, the fall is damn hard to beat with the trout and dollies on the sockeye spawn bite, the crisp air, changing colors and shots at dime bright silvers (not to mention steelhead, but as they say ‘thats a whole other story’). For those looking for pleasant weather and less people, the early season can be equally if not more epic depending your goals as a traveling angler.

Up until last year, our spring time coastal stream fishing has been poor to non-existent and for good reason, not enough fish and appropriate closures by Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Fortunately these stocks are showing a rebound and the fishing last year was lights out!

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The early bird gets the worm when it comes to fishing for kings in small streams.

These coastal streams coupled with the traditional early run on the Kasilof and Kenai gives you the best shot at a king on the fly. For these smaller streams, single handed rods in the 8-10 weight with an intermediate head are ideal. A six to seven foot leader with 20 lb tippet is perfect for the job and long casts are not necessary. Fly selection depends on water clarity–sometimes big and gaudy (prom dress, articulated leaches in green and black) other times small and subtle does the trick. Small clouser flies tied with iridescence green are amazingly effective in these small rivers. Swinging, twitching and even dead drifting under indicator will typically illicit strikes in the early morning bite.

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Center pins can be absolutely deadly when fishing slow pools in clear water conditions. Needles to say, guide JP is a master with the pin and is always looking for others to turn to the “dark side.”

The tricky part about fishing our coastal streams for king salmon is that these rivers are only open certain days, typically on the weekends, Mondays and occasional Wednesdays. If you are at Tower Rock during the latter part of May or early June, you will likely be here at time when you can fish the river. But your options are not limited to fishing for kings on these smaller rivers, there are other fly fishing options and thats what makes the Kenai peninsula a beautiful thing.

The steelhead fishing can definitely be worth the effort. Floating the Kasilof River during May, on a good day can produce multiple steelhead hookups with the occasional dolly and rainbow. The added bonus during this time of year is the little pressure if any from other anglers. This is mostly due to the fact that steelhead cannot be harvested and the river is typically very low this time of year therefor only seasoned guides are able navigate the low flows during the early season. In addition to targeting anadromous fish in the rivers, our local lakes can provide constant dry fly action. This fishing is numbers game. Most of the fish don’t break twenty inches, but weather permitting, you will catch hundreds of inches of rainbows in a day.

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A nice early season steelhead on the fly. 

Looking to fill the box and take home some filets? Trolling Cook Inlet for river bound kings combined with halibut is essentially a sure thing as it is much of the year. Many fly anglers shy away from this type of trip, but as a avid sport fisherman, I encourage everyone to at least give it a try. Cook Inlet and the marine waters around the Kenai Peninsula are some of the most productive marine ecosystems in the world and as traveling angler, its worth at least getting on the water and giving these amazing fisheries a shot.

So if you are looking to do some fly fishing on the Kenai peninsula and the fall doesn’t fit into your schedule or if you are simply looking for a different experience along with some serious savings, consider May and early June to fish at Tower Rock.

 

Feeder King Fishing in Homer: Catch your Rainbows and Eat your King too.

When I think of Homer Alaska, three things come to mind: Tom BodettThe Salty Dawg Saloon, and feeder kings. A feeder king is a king salmon in the ocean that is not yet river-bound. They are doing what salmon do in the ocean, swimming around feeding on whatever they can find until their biological clock signals it’s time to back to their native rivers to spawn and die. In this sense you could think of a feeder king as a salmon during their mid-life–neither a fry nor a “river monster.” It just so happens that the waters around Homer are favorite area for these fish during certain times of the year and their numbers and popularity of the fishery continues to grow.

 

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The Homer marina is great launching point with clean, heated restrooms and well maintained boat ramps. Processors will even pick your fish from the dock!

Up until recently, people thought that feeder kings were of Cook Inlet origin, fattening up around the spit until heading back North to spawn. With declining king salmon numbers in the last decade, people became concerned that the harvest of feeder kings, with a more liberal bag limit of two per day with no annual limit, was detrimental to the cook inlet king salmon stocks. However, studies using PIT tags and genetics show that 99.8% of the fish caught between October 1 and March 31 originate somewhere outside of Cook Inlet. As the summer progresses, numbers show that anywhere from 10% to 24% of the kings caught off Homer were bound for Cook Inlet streams. In short, harvesting of these fish does not put our Cook Inlet runs in jeopardy. So if they aren’t from Cook Inlet, where do they come from and does this new information warrant new regulations and management?

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Big Game with a typical Homer feeder king

Though the study is not yet complete, the word on the street is that many of these fish come from hatchery (and wild) fisheries located in Southeast Alaska, British Columbia and even Oregon and Washington. With evidence showing the harvesting of these fish is has little effect on Cook Inlet stock, the Alaska Board of Fish has decided to widen the winter king fishery season for 2017–starting September 1 (as opposed to October 1) to March 31st. At Tower Rock Lodge, we see this a great opportunity to add yet another excursion to our list of fishing options. For example, if our September guests have had their fill of trout or silver fishing on the Kenai, they now would have the opportunity to chase feeder kings in Homer. Even if the fishing is slow, the drive to Homer is breathtaking, the culture at the Salty Dawg is priceless, and Kachemak bay with its sea otters and whales is ideal for the nature viewing enthusiasts. So if you want to catch your rainbow and eat your king too, September might be the best time for you come see us at Tower Rock Lodge this fall.

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Limits of feeder kings, two out of the six fish caught that day were hatchery fish. An ADF&G biologist met us at the boat ramp to take genetic samples and remove PIT tags.

How does Alaska Department of Fish and Game ‘Count’ Fish?

If you know anything about salmon fishing rivers in Alaska, you know that many of the river’s salmon runs are counted using a various methods including sonar, video, and physical observers (people on a ladder, actually counting fish). Here is a video from ADFG counting salmon as they past the sonar weir on the Lower Kenai River.

 

New Regulations for Early Run Kenai Kings

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On Tuesday, the Alaska board of fish made changes to the early run king management plan. Though its not entirely clear how the regulations will actually read, a few things are clear. Fishing in the middle river for king salmon will be heavily restricted (prohibited) which comes as no loss to us as we essentially never fish the middle river for king salmon. This leaves the lower 19 miles open to what is known as a “pass through fishery.” The slot limit that requires all fish from 42″ to 55″ to be released will no longer be in effect. Under the new regulations, anything over 36″ will be prohibited to retain. We see this as a positive because for the longest time fish have been high-graded–removing the biggest fish, truncating the gene pool producing smaller fish.

Similar to other salmon management plans, our ability to fish will be based off a tier system related to the preseason projections. These projections along with the Kenai late run are typically released in March, so we should be getting word any day now.  The new tier system will work as follows:

2,800 to 5,600 fish —> closed.

3,900 to 6,600 —> closed or possibly open to catch and release.

6,600 and up —> catch and keep and possibility of bait allowed.

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With these new regulations and upward trend in our early run, June fishing in the next couple of years should be better than it has been in the last five years. These new regulations should help in taking some of the pressure off the Kasilof River which sees a lot of pressure when the early run Kenai is closed or heavily restricted. Fingers crossed!

2017 Cook Inlet Sockeye Forecast and Salmon Management

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) is responsible for managing Alaska’s fish and wildlife resources. Each year, using computer models based on harvest and field data, the department is able to forecast the run strength so that regulations and management practices will allow for the maximum sustainable yield of the resource. That is, we try to figure out how many fish will be returning to our rivers so we can then decide how many we can harvest while not jeopardizing the productivity of future runs and thus maintain the sustainability of the resource.

In 2015, ADFG forecasted a record run of sockeye returning to Cook Inlet in 2016, but the run ended being significantly short of the prediction. While there is some evidence in a recent study that some of the fish bound for the Kenai were intercepted by purse seiners off of Kodiak, we also need be conscious of the fact that these predictions are based on inherently imperfect models. As one famous statistician once said, “all models are wrong, but some are useful.” Therefore we should take these predictions with a grain of salt.

For the 2017 season, ADFG is predicting 2.2 million sockeye to return to Cook Inlet bound specifically for the Kenai River. This forecast for the Kenai is about a million short of the 20 year average. Data incorporated into the model comes from sockeye salmon fry rearing in Kenai and Skilak lakes. In short, ADFG estimates that there were 9.5 million fry that headed out to the ocean in the years 2013 and 2014, so in theory these fish will be headed back to the Kenai this summer. While this might seem like a lot of “baby sockeye,” 17 million fry would be considered a good year.

So why is there such a difference in the number of fry between years? The answer deals with the concept of escapement, the number of adult sockeye that make it back into the river and successfully spawn. Its logical to assume that with the more fish that spawn, the more fish we would see into the future, but its not quite that simple. Sockeye Salmon spawn in a specific size gravel, and the fry that hatch then live in the lake for 1-2 years. Because spawning habitat has spatial limitations (ie fixed area), there is not always enough room for all the fish that enter the river to spawn. In addition, the carrying capacity within the lake systems is also limited. So when it comes to allowing fish into the river to spawn in hope of producing more fish, there is a law of diminishing returns. This is why ADFG sets escapement goals–the sweet spot where we would see a maximum return given the number of spawners. If below the escapement goal, we would see vacancies in the spawning areas, and over escapement would produce crowding of spawning habitat and a lack of food for those fry in the lake. This is why in ADFG would like to see 900,000 to 1.1 million sockeye return to their spawning beds. Anymore than 1.1 would be considered over escapement and anything under 900,000 would be considered under escapement.

While the 2017 Cook Inlet sockeye forecast might be below the 20 year average, don’t write off your trip to Alaska quite yet. The prediction will call for more conservative commercial fishing management until the run is realized. This will limit the time commercial guys are allowed to fish and will likely bode well for our King salmon. And let us not forget that sport fisherman such as ourselves fish the river for sockeye not the inlet. Given the escapement goal put forth, we are almost guaranteed to see at least 900,000 fish pass the lodge during the 2017 season–another reason to not get worked up over this smaller than usual forecast.

2017 Upper Cook Inlet Sockeye Forecast

Major  Age Classes Total Escapement
System 1.2 1.3 2.2 2.3 Run Goalsa
Kenai River Forecast 345 1,299 161 322 2,164 900 – 1,100b
20-yr average 399 2,185 249 737 3,634
Kasilof River Forecast 282 231 203 81 825 160 – 340
20-yr average 306 325 240 83 987
Susitna River Forecast 75 194 12 44 366 See Belowc
20-yr average 79 221 26 42 387
Fish Creek Forecast 48 17 1 1 75 See Belowd
20-yr average 44 22 6 3 84

Five Tips for Catching More Sockeye in Alaska

As many of our  guests know, TRL are very good at catching sockeye. Here are few tips when fishing for sockeye on the rivers of the Kenai Peninsula.

5) Pick a good spot!

Though this might seem obvious, positioning yourself in the right spot is crucial to catching sockeye. On the Kenai, we only fish sockeye from the bank. The key to a good spot lies in the bank profile and the current flowing along that bank. Some anglers prefer a more steep bank, others more gradual. Sockeye tend to move up the river rather quickly (1-2 mph in the Kenai), so corners and bends and the “paths of least resistance” tend to hold a majority of fish. However these paths the fish take will differ with changes in visibility and river discharge. If fishing near the ocean, the old saying of “2 hours before and after high tide” is definitely true. The further up from the ocean, more elongated the runs become and thus tide has little effect.

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4) Use the right hook. 

When sockeye fishing, hooks tend to dull quickly due to the hook point repeatedly nicking gravel of the river bottom. Some anglers prefer using cheap hooks and simply switching out hooks when they become dull, other prefer a hardened steel “high mileage” hook such as an Owner of Gamakatsu. As long as they are sharp and the proper size, it should not really matter. As far as size, we prefer a 4/0 for fishing for sockeye. Of course if fishing the Russian River, a particular size is required by ADF&G.

3) Use the correct weight

Many times I will see tourists and even locals not catching fish despite everyone else around them nailing. While it is better to be on the heavier side when it comes to lead, most people tend to use too much. Using too much weight will also tire the arm and shoulder more quickly. The style of weight also can effect the rig’s effectiveness. For example, for the Russian I prefer large split shots due the large boulders frequently snagging angler’s lines. Along the Kenai, cannon ball and tear drop styles are favorable because they allow the angler to feel the bottom more effectively and are easily changeable.

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2) Leader length is important!

As a general rule, the more gradual the bank profile, the longer the leader. The more steep the bank profile, the shorter the leader. We generally start our leaders at 5-6 feet. Remember when you are rigging up, it is always easier to make your leader shorter than it is to make it longer.

1) “Fish with Feeling”

This is Walter’s (aka Swissmiss) #1 tip when fishing for sockeye. The correct lead size weighs heavily on the correct feeling when fishing for sockeye. With each flip and sweep, one should feel the weight tap (not drag) along the bottom about 3-6 times. If you cannot feel the bottom either increase the weight or slow down the sweep. If it feels like you are hitting bottom too much, increase the sweep speed. You are looking for that perfect combination of sweep speed and weight that produces 4-6 contacts with the bottom. Despite what you might witness, there should be less of an emphasis on the jerk at the end of the sweep–only jerk if you feel something. Using a jerk at the end of the can lead to more foul hooked fish and a sore arm. The end of the sweep should be more of an abrupt acceleration than a violent jerk of the arm.  If you are fishing with feeling, you will learn to feel the fly enter the fishes mouth, then warranting a proper hookset.

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