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Dipnetters descend on Kenai River amid record salmon run

Craig Medred

The waters of the Kenai River literally came alive on Sunday with what may have been a record rush of salmon to the famous Alaska waterway.

By the end of the day, a sonar maintained by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game had counted 230,643 sockeye salmon coming into the river.

Test fishing in Cook Inlet had earlier indicated to state fisheries biologists that massive numbers of sockeye were schooling offshore, but they were a little shocked by the size of the return that swarmed the river in one fell swoop. "It's a phenomenal event,'' said commercial fisheries biologist Pat Shields, who noted fish were continuing to come up the river in waves on through Sunday night into Monday.

He wouldn't be surprised if a combined total of a half a million have managed to force their way up the 600-foot wide river in the 48 hours between midnight Saturday and the end of the day Monday. The river, Shields said, hasn't seen a return of this magnitude since 1987.

Commercial fishermen were busy in Cook Inlet this year, but the salmon came in such a mass they were overwhelmed. "On the 14th of July, the drifters had an all time harvest record in terms of catch per boat,'' Shields said, and when the oncoming wave of fish hit east-side Inlet beaches, set netters caught about 450,000 sockeye.

"That's going to be close to a record for a single day,'' he said.

The drifters are commercial fishermen who trail gill-grabbing monofilament nets behind boats out in the Inlet. The set netters use similar fishing equipment, but anchor it to the bottom of the Inlet near shore. Catches in both the drift and setnet fisheries have been so large over the past couple days that salmon processing plants in the Kenai-Soldotna area are struggling to keep up with the flow of dead fish

Processors have put commercial fishermen on limits, Shields said, to try to keep their facilities from overflowing with salmon. "They're still cleaning up from Saturday,'' he added.

How long the salmon can continue to swarm the river with such intensity is unclear, although Sheilds noted that in 1987 there were seven straight days in late July when the daily sonar count went over 100,000, and on July 21 it peaked at 150,293 in a day.

Fisheries biologists say that was an undercount, too.

They have updated the technology used in the Kenai sonar since 1987 after concluding it was significantly undercounting fish. The belief now is that there were closer to 210,000 salmon across the sonar on that best day in 1987, but that's still significantly below the return Sunday counted by a sonar Shields swears is "100 percent accurate and correct.''

"I think this is a new record,'' he said.

The flood of salmon made for excellent fishing for people all along the river. Dipnetters at the mouth of the Kenai were busy filling coolers with the carcasses of dead fish, and anglers upstream were hooking salmon on almost every cast. Some reported it took only minutes to catch the sport-fish limit of three sockeye per day.

Fishing for anglers should continue to be good for days as fishermen track the big school of fish on its move upriver. The fish are expected to light up the Russian River, a major Kenai tributary, in five to seven days.

Shields said he has no idea why the fish hit the river in such a concentrated mass this year. "I never can figure out why fish do what they do,'' he confessed.

Their behavior, though, did make for a great day for state fisheries managers used to getting their ears bent by Alaskans unhappy about the fishing -- be they commercial, dipnet or sport fishermen. With the salmon swarming the Kenai like this, he said it "made all three groups happy on the same day.''

And that might be an event even more rare than an Alaska river so plugged with salmon you could almost walk across the water on their backs.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.