03 Feb Alaska Fishing Report: 2019 Year In Review
And just like that, the 2019 season is in the books. And what a season it was. I have said it a million times but will say it again, every season has its own distinct personality and 2019 was indeed unique. Unfortunately, our 2019 king runs seemed to follow an all too familiar trend with lackluster returns, restrictions and just overall unpredictable fishing. By far the most remarkable and memorable theme for 2019 was blue bird skies and sockeye, sockeye and more sockeye.
Our season opened in May as usual and as expected we had pre-season restrictions in place for king salmon on both the Kenai and the Kasilof rivers. On the Kenai we were restricted to no bait/single hook and catch and release fishing only and on the Kasilof, we had no bait/single hook and retention of hatchery fish only. Despite the restrictions, we did see some very exciting king fishing on both rivers this year, but it did require putting in your time and a little extra effort. We primarily fished the Kasilof in May and early June and the fish were very healthy, chrome bright torpedoes. You really couldn’t ask for more beautiful fish to to begin our season. The eating quality of these tidal reach hatchery kings is superb and their fight from a drift boat on the low flows of the Kasilof is extremely memorable. Again, it does take hours and even multiple trips at times to connect with one of these special salmon but when you do, you will know it was all worth the wait. We were fortunate to catch and release a great number of wild early run Kasilof fish this season with our guests and we gladly released all these fish and hope they will contribute to healthy future Kasilof returns.
Right around the time the Kasilof was seeing peak numbers of early run kings, reports of unusually high numbers of early run, (Russian river bound) Kenai sockeye began to surface. It is normal to hear about the occasional limits being taken in late May and early June in the lower river, especially in strategic pinch points along the shore that naturally funnel these early arriving red salmon as they make their way upriver from Cook Inlet. But this year was different. Reports were not just occasional limits, or you should have been here yesterday stories. The reports were limits, limits, and more limits. It was overwhelmingly obvious we were not dealing with a “normal” early run of sockeye. Weir counts from up on the Russian collaborated the large return with close to 50,000 sockeyes counted by mid-June and 125,000 cumulative through mid-July. This run has an escapement goal of 22k-42k fish, so it far exceeded the goal. Fishing for the entire month of June was excellent. Getting consistent day after day limits of beautiful sockeye in June was a very special treat.
The early run of King Salmon on the Kenai improved from the 2018 season and although our efforts on the Kenai were almost exclusively catch and release opportunities, we did bring a number of big beautiful kings to the net. The run did meet minimum escapement goals but was still far below its historical averages. One very encouraging sentiment to this season is more and more anglers both guided and private are adapting to this cycle of low abundance by practicing conservation and releasing Kenai kings. Regulations may have made this mandatory at times this season be we will continue to strongly encourage the release of all large Kenai Chinook on our boats.
As we turned the corner into July we were still riding the wave of early run Russian river bound sockeye when a few larger fish started to join the stringer. The late run Kenai sockeye have a much different profile than the slender, torpedo like shape of Russian River reds. These big bright Kenai sockeyes were a welcome sight and we wondered if this late run would be as strong as the early Russian river return? The answer to this question was a resounding YES as the run far exceeded its goal and 1.8 million sockeyes were counted through the sonar as of Aug 19. Fishing was phenomenal. The timing of the run spread itself out through July and into the third week of August perfectly. There were always plenty of fish available and sometimes it was easy and sometimes it took a little patience and persistence, but limit catches were available daily for weeks and that incredible bounty was amazing to witness. Those that visited the river this summer were treated to what Alaska is all about as mother nature was in full display for both the early and late run of Kenai sockeye this season.
August seemed like a continuation of July with such an abundance of sockeye present. We just kept fishing reds well past mid-August as the silvers arrived a little late and the sockeye just kept pouring in. I think it was the third week of August before all of our boats transitioned to silvers from sockeye, but I do know it was much later than we are accustomed to. The early run of silvers was a good one and proved very strong at times. The last week to ten days of August was really the peak of the early run and limit catches were not a given, but with determination were achievable. Water conditions were not the best in the lower portion of the river so we did spend the majority of our silver season in the upper middle Kenai, below Skilak Lake. The late run of silvers in September was consistent but not an exceptional return. There were fish present throughout the middle river below Skilak through September and into October and we enjoyed many great days surrounded by fall colors and some of the most incredible scenery imaginable.
Trout fishing throughout the fall months was very good and it was particularly good during the peak of the sockeye spawn. Fishing the braided flats just below Skilak yielded some incredible fish in mere inches of water. Catching salmon sized trout on egg patterns you need to squint to see is really a ton of fun! When the sockeye are dropping their eggs in force it really does concentrate resident rainbow and dolly varden populations and it is amazing to fish with so many trout in such a small area. Unfortunately, this never lasts forever and eventually the fish move and we move with them. Its always fun to dissect such a beautiful river and uncover its hidden treasures. Water on the Kenai stayed very high well into late fall and even early winter. Good numbers of spawning coho were staking their claims on prime spawning gravel as they prepare for their winter ritual.
As always Fly Out fishing in 2019 was amazing. We spent most of the early season fishing Big River Lake for sockeye and watching the bears. As we transitioned to fall, the Kustatan, the Chuit and Big River Lake all saw excellent returns of silver salmon. Getting to these more remote areas to fish is a must do experience and we are looking forward to another great fly out season in 2020.
Farther south on the Kenai Peninsula, the steelhead returns were good again this season with rivers like the Anchor, Deep Creek and the Kasilof all seeing decent runs. As always it takes a lot of time and commitment to find and catch these fish in typically cold, fall weather conditions but when you do…it is very addictive. I know I greatly look forward to putting my time in each season fishing for these awesome sea run missiles and I can think of no other fish I’d rather close the season with.
Indeed 2019 was like every season before it, a world within itself. There are so many special moments and incredible act of nature that occur within every season that it is truly impossible to recount them all. One thing is for certain, they are all incredibly unique and for everyone that was here to experience some piece of it, you know how amazing it is to fish Alaska! All the best for 2020 and we look forward to fishing with you all again very soon.