Story and photo by George Krumm
My friend, Brad Zweifel, was backbouncing roe and a winged Cheater in the Beaver Creek hole amidst a crowd of boats one July morning in the early 2000s. Backbouncing was new to Brad; I offered advice on technique, and he was executing effectively as I drove the boat and coached him. I saw the initial bite—thump! I said, “Wait.” He waited for a second or two, then the rod tip dipped down again, and stayed slightly bowed. “Hit him!” Brad set the hook. Moments later, we’d drifted out of the pack and I netted the fish. It was a beautiful, tide-fresh Chinook in the upper 30s. We noticed it was bleeding; not necessarily indicative of certain death, but we did harvest the fish. The hook was embedded at the base of the gill arches at the back of the tongue, likely a mortal hooking wound. That fish provided a few pounds of roe, which we carefully cured to use later.
In the past, the Kenai opened to the use of bait on July 1st. Private anglers and guides alike looked forward to that day with great anticipation, for use of bait and scent greatly increases the likelihood of getting Chinook to bite. But eggs aren’t the only bait that works. Some would argue that a sardine-wrapped plug is equally effective.
Nowadays, we don’t seem to get to use bait for Chinook in the Kenai very often; a bait ban is one of the tools in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s (ADF&G) toolbox to limit impact on weak Kenai Chinook runs.
However, anglers are always hopeful it will open to bait, and during the early part of the run, it’s been common for guides and private anglers to harvest any legal hens they catch not only for the fish, but for the roe they provide for bait. In a way, hens were the more desired fish because of the bait they could provide. This may have put undue harvest pressure on female Chinook—the very fish we need to reach the spawning grounds if we are ever to recover the Kenai Chinook fishery we once had.
ADF&G has several tools to manage Kenai Chinook angling. Among them are 1) No restrictions; any Chinook can be harvested; 2) No bait (including scents) of any kind; 3) Retention of fish less than 34” only; 4) Catch-and-release (CnR) only; 5) Closure of the fishery.
In an effort to put more fish on the gravel, and also to protect hens, it’s common for one or more of tools 2) through 5) to be implemented by Emergency Order. These tools can be effective at putting more large kings on the spawning beds by limiting the effectiveness of anglers (no bait), limiting harvest (no bait, CnR, less than 34”, and of course, closure), and limiting mortality (no bait, CnR, 34” and less, closure). It seems there might be enough tools already, if they are implemented wisely and in a timely fashion, which was not at all the case this year. Stay tuned; I may write more about that in a future issue.
As I sit here, contemplating the sad decline of the Kenai’s Chinook runs, I wonder if, in this age of extremely low abundance where every large king on the spawning bed counts, another tool might be useful. Specifically, I’m wondering if it would be helpful to have a roe ban. Not a total bait ban—we already have that tool—just roe. A roe ban could be a step in between a total bait ban and catch-and-release.
Why, you ask? Think back to my friend Brad, and the fish in the opening paragraph. The number one cause of mortality for Kenai kings is hooking location. Fish caught with bait run a much higher likelihood of being hooked deep (gills, tongue, esophagus) than those caught on artificials. The two most common baits used on the Kenai, when legal, are roe in combination with some form of drift bobber, and plugs wrapped with a bait of some kind (sardine fillet, herring fillet, tuna belly, canned tuna, sometimes even roe). While we have no scientific data that says fish that take backbounced, drifted or backtrolled eggs are more likely to suffer mortal hooking wounds than those hooked with wrapped plugs, in my boat over many years of fishing the river (even back in the heyday when we used bait all July), I have never had a single fish suffer a mortal hooking injury (as judged by me) that took a wrapped plug. Others surely have, but it is extremely rare. However, with egg baits, I have had some, both while backtrolling and backbouncing. Mortal hooking wounds don’t seem to be all that common on the Kenai, but it does happen, and I think it happens most often when roe is the bait being used. If we can use bait, but not roe, it stands to reason the mortality number would go down a little.
Second, if roe was banned on the Kenai, especially if it was a permanent roe ban (not that I’m advocating that, yet), there wouldn’t be any incentive to harvest a female Chinook to restock the bait bin. I am one of those anglers who, back in the mid-90’s, hoped like hell I’d nail a few hens out of the Kasilof, the Deshka, or perhaps a big Kenai hen sometime in late June or early July. The reason was obvious—I wanted those eggs for second-run Kenai king bait. Being mostly a weekend warrior back then, but usually taking a week off in late July, I wanted as much prime bait as I could get. The guides working the river, taking four clients out per shift, sometimes two shifts per day, also wanted eggs. We harvested as many large hens as we could back then, probably impacting the spawning population more than we know, and probably contributing to the situation we find ourselves in now on the Kenai. If a roe ban was put in place on the Kenai until the number of late-run Chinook exceed the top of the Sustainable Escapement Goal (SEG), there might not be as much emphasis on bonking hens for bait.
In my attempts to look at this from different angles, I spoke to some other veteran Kenai anglers. One pointed out to me (rightly), that tool number 3) (retention of fish less than 34 inches only) effectively eliminates Kenai hens from harvest. If that’s the case (it is), why would we need a roe ban?
Maybe we don’t.
However, a roe ban could still eliminate the incentive to kill large hens in a wide-open, unrestricted fishery, and that could aid in the recovery of the stock as more hens would make it to the gravel. Some conscientious anglers hoping the Kenai runs will rebuild to historic numbers already release large hens, even bucks, to allow them to make it to the spawning beds—even if retention is legally allowed. Also, at a time when we need to put as many kings on the spawning beds as possible, a roe ban would likely result in a few more fish making it to the spawning beds by reducing mortal hooking incidents for fish that might be released.
With Kenai Chinook runs at or near historic lows, every large Chinook on the gravel, and every large hen especially, is vital if we’re ever to see the Kenai recover to numbers commonly seen in the ‘80s through the ‘90s. To put this in perspective, we’ll be lucky if this year’s escapement (large kings over 34 inches) that make it to the spawning beds) breaks 9- or 10,000. (Know that I’m writing this in late July; by the time you read this, the numbers will be in and you can see whether I am right or not). In contrast, during the years from 1987 through 1994, the average number of second-run Chinook going through the counter was over 42,000! (Note: Back then, ADF&G counted all Chinook; currently, they only count large Chinook—those over 34 inches long—so there are going to be more total kings in the river than the counter tells us, but they will be small and likely very few, if any, will be hens.)
It’s not my purpose to adamantly advocate for a roe ban on the Kenai—yet. I want to think about it some more. I want to talk to more anglers, biologists, and think some more. I encourage you to do so, too. Can you imagine having 42,000 second-run kings, on average, making it back to the Kenai in the future? It starts one angler at a time, one king at a time; one hen at a time.
In this rather dire time of Kenai Chinook history, perhaps it’s time to add a roe ban to ADF&G’s toolbox for rebuilding Kenai Chinook numbers. A roe ban could allow ADF&G an additional tool during Chinook season that would decrease sport angler mortality on kings and eliminate the incentive to harvest hens for the bait they provide. The end result would be more kings—especially hens—on the spawning beds; undoubtedly a step in the right direction. I am all for anything we can do to put more kings on the Kenai spawning gravel, while still having a sport fishery. If that means no roe for bait, count me in.
George Krumm is the Editor of both Fish Alaska and Hunt Alaska magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.