Mythbusting: Kenai River Kings
Story and Photos by Greg Brush
The popular Discovery Channel series MythBusters is built on a simple but fascinating premise: what is often widely accepted as common knowledge can be quite far from the truth.
With this in mind, let’s take a closer look at a handful of commonly accepted Kenai River king factoids and debunk them as total myths, or at least inaccurate claims. By doing this, you may better understand this complex fishery, think outside the box more often and perhaps even improve your success rate on this tricky river.
Only BIG lures catch BIG fish
I’m a big fan of big lures when targeting trophy-sized kings. We all know that jumbo sized K16 Kwikfish have accounted for plenty of monster Kenai kings over the years. However, like most fishing, nothing is 100% when dealing with giant Chinook. The simple fact is that sometimes, when selecting lures, less is more.
Under certain conditions, such as extra-clear water or suspended fish, downsizing your lures and baits can work well. And when fishing pressure gets extreme, sometimes small baits will trigger that hard-to-come-by strike when all else fails.
Highly respected Kenai River guides Mike and Murray Fenton are living proof that small lures can catch big fish. Over the past 25 years or so, their guests have caught hundreds of 65-plus-pound kings. Fish near them sometime and two things will happen: you will likely be humbled at the end of the day, and one glance at their riggings (you had better be looking!) more often than not will prove the effectiveness of their ala carte offerings. Sure, they use heavy-action Shimano rods and stout leaders and mainlines, but all of that sturdy gear means nothing if they can’t get the fish to strike. To do that, these two fish-catchin’ brothers frequently use small lures and baits, landing way more than their fair share of hog kings, in my opinion.
Catch and releasing Kenai kings is bad
Many people believe that catch-and-release of trophy Chinook is not only wrong but downright immoral. Believe it or not, every three years the Alaska Board of Fish must address specific proposals to not only make catch-and-release illegal, but to mandate that all king anglers be required to keep every king they catch.
While I respect the opinions of these folks, as well as their right to it, I feel that they are grossly off track and that a lack of knowledge plays a large part in this. In fact, myself and numerous other passionate Kenai king anglers believe that catch-and-release might just be the future of our special Chinook fishery. With a finite supply of these genetically unique super-salmon and an ever-increasing demand for them, I think that catch-and-release should be more widely practiced as a highly effective management tool that helps ensure the future of this fantastic fishery. But that’s just me.
Somewhere in the middle of these two extreme opinions is likely good, safe ground and a more reasonable compromise. No doubt, catch-and-release is a touchy subject; one where emotion can often take over. So without entering the volatile debate of whether the practice should be part of everyday regulations, let’s take a closer look at the rather ridiculous notion that a large percentage of these big, sturdy kings die when released.
Many years ago, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game did an extensive study on catch-and-release of Kenai kings and came up with a mortality rate of 7- to 8%. Now here’s the kicker: this study was not only done with bait and multiple hooks, but it occurred in a somewhat “foggy time,” where anglers could still legally remove kings intended to be released from the water. This means that a fair percentage of the fish studied where likely handled poorly. With increased education and today’s more restrictive regulations, I believe (but have no proof) that the today’s catch-and-release mortality rate of Kenai kings might be as low as 1- to 2%.
Some claim that even this number is unacceptable, but to those naysayers I pose this simple statement and rhetorical question: “Catch-and-keep is 100% mortality, which means that for every 100 trophy kings caught, 100 trophy kings don’t make it to the spawning beds. Doesn’t 2% mortality sound better now?”
Kenai kings travel at a consistent rate
Biologists tell us that as a general rule, the early-run kings of May and June are primarily tributary spawners, headed to far-off destinations like the Killey River. July late-run fish, on the other hand, mostly spawn in the mainstem Kenai below the Soldotna Bridge.
Since the first-run fish have so far to go, they have a tendency to not only travel faster overall, but to actually pass through the tidal zone without pause. July kings frequently behave just the opposite; lollygagging on the front side of the tide as it pushes up through Beaver Creek, the Crossover, Eagle Rock and Pillars.
Now go back and review those first two paragraphs, noticing the ambiguous wording of “primarily, mostly, tendency, frequently . . . ” This is because Kenai kings, perhaps more so than any other salmon, don’t follow exacting scripts when it comes to travel. Sometimes they scream upstream so quickly that even the fastest Willie Boat can’t get in front of a group of them, while other times they choose to gently enter, hang around The Pastures or Mud Island, then back out again until another day. Called “washing” for the way these fish wash in and out with the tide, this phenomenon often occurs in early- to mid-July if water conditions aren’t right or the kings biological clock says “hold on, big boy!” Most days are somewhere between these two extremes, where Kenai kings move, pause, move, pause . . . picking their way and holding periodically in various pockets and holes.
My point is this: the next time someone tells you “Kenai kings swim upstream at such and such speed, so they will be around this or that hole tomorrow at six!” just smile and walk away. Consider the time of year, water levels and trends that particular week, good, reliable info that you gathered from talking to someone who has actually been on the river the last four or five days. Then, and only then, can you make an educated guess at how fast tomorrows Kenai kings might travel.
Jacks don’t spawn
Nothing could be further from the truth. While two- and three-ocean Chinook compose the primary spawning component and most of us might prefer more giant four- and five-ocean kings, the fact of the matter is that pesky yearling males (jacks) are becoming more and more abundant and do indeed spawn.
Just like a spike bull that quickly breeds an estrus cow while “big bubba” the herd bull runs off a competing bull, a small jack king will zip in and get the job done when the opportunity presents itself. Ideally we have diversity in our runs where all age classes are adequately represented on our beds, but I can’t help but wonder as sport anglers selectively harvest more and more big fish and intentionally release more jacks, what direction are we headed? Recent years lend some credence to this concern, as jack numbers increase and mature trophy fish become somewhat harder to come by.
What’s this mean to you and I? Whenever possible, I think we should opt to keep the smaller fish for delicious table fare, thereby reducing overall jacks’ numbers and spreading harvest more evenly instead of always targeting the very fish we want to reproduce, the biggest and baddest kings on the planet! By doing this, we can become responsible stewards of our resource and active participants in the sound management of the river we love.
You need bait to catch Kenai kings
Nonsense! What bait DOES do is give you a little “cushion” in regards to your presentation. This means that the addition of scent, whether fresh roe or a juicy sardine wrap on your favorite plug, often triggers strikes even if other aspects of your king fishing are slightly off.
Personally, I think that bait sort of acts as the Great Equalizer, where anyone, at any given time, has a reasonable chance of getting bit, allowing us to get away with being a little sloppy. However, when fishing without bait, during a restricted time period, your plug needs to be tuned perfectly and your presentation smooth as a Kenny Chesney tune. BUT . . . catching kings without bait can be done.
Over the years, some of my best days have occurred in early- or mid-June while using bare lures – the trick is to push that no-bait apprehension aside and fish with total confidence, knowing that you can catch fish.
The sonar counter is gospel
Every year I hear visiting guests, local anglers and even veteran guides quote the lower Kenai River sonar counter numbers like they are the gospel itself. Looking back at over two decades of guiding kings here, I can’t tell you how many times I have experienced good or bad fishing that totally contradicted the sonar numbers. There were those days in mid-May, many years ago (when our May run was still strong,) where my guests hooked five and landed three despite daily sonar numbers that hovered between 35-50 fish daily, for a week straight. Conversely, at some time or another, every experienced Kenai king fisherman has a tale of the day that the Horse Pasture or Mud Island gave up three fish total all day to fifty boats (nearly 200 lines in the water), despite ADF&G’s claims that 4,000 plus kings passed, directly under their boat mind you. I understand that fishing is fishing, but that’s kind of ridiculous, isn’t it?
Now that I have that last little rant out of my system, let me say that the sonar counter located at river mile 8.6 in the lower Kenai is a useful and necessary tool for proper management of our kings. It is one of many indicators utilized to not only enumerate salmon entering but to help mangers make better decisions based on particular run strengths and timing. When its numbers are cautiously compared with other indicators (test netting, creel sampling, public comments, etc.) those biologists charged with making these tough decisions (like opening or closing commercial fisheries or liberalizing or restricting sport anglers) can do so with more confidence that the decision is a prudent one.
However, as managers and anglers, we must take the data it provides with the proverbial grain of salt, realizing that even the latest Didson sonar technology is not exact science but rather a complex process with a multitude of inter-related factors that have the potential for error. In fact, just as recently as this year, ADF&G has finally admitted that their sonar numbers may be off by as much as 50%.
Beyond the heavy implications this might have on the management of our prized kings, what does this mean to you and I, the sport angler trying to find, hook and land the salmon of a lifetime? Don’t get too hung up on daily counts but definitely use the sonar numbers to make good choices. By looking at this data in its entirety over many years, you can get a good picture of peak run-timing. A boat operator can also decide to greet reportedly large numbers of brand-new tidal fish or fish upstream to try to locate those kings reportedly to have entered over the past week. By monitoring other factors such as water volume, temperature and tide cycles in conjunction with sonar numbers, one can learn even more about the Kenai and its giant kings.
Kenai King MythBusters:
As previously noted, Kenai kings seldom follow hard and fast rules in regards to how they travel. But we do know that incoming tides frequently bring fresh Chinook that have a tendency to be reliable “biters.” The problem is that these fish are often right behind the edge of the high, where Cook Inlet’s huge tides actually flood our big, powerful river.
This lack of current means that preferred methods, such as back-trolling and drifting, no longer work well, so boaters often relocate one or two holes upstream where they have enough current to drift their boat or take their diving rigs to the bottom. The problem is that they just left decent numbers of aggressive fish that love to hang in that area where fresh- and saltwater mix.
For years, myself and other diligent king guides have switched our back-trolling gear to back-bouncing rigs to address this issue, but recently I’ve noticed an increasing number of enterprising operators turning to forward trolling under these conditions. With great success, I might add!
Rig a three-way swivel (or simple slider) with a 4- to 10-inch dropper,2- to 3 ounces of lead and a 3- to 4-foot leader, ending in a standard Spin ‘n Glo and eggs or Kwikfish of your choice. Big T-spoon spinners, similar to what is so popular in the Cook Inlet troll fishery, provide incredible flash in the murky tidal water and can provide brutal strikes when nothing else seems to work.
The trick is to mix-up your presentation by employing long, straight trolls with periodic turns and mild zigzags. (Be courteous to other boaters, as this method obviously doesn’t mix well with stationary boats like back-bouncers.) This weaving troll not only allows you to fish more water, it enables you to cover a larger percentage of the water column, specifically that mid-depth range where suspended kings often hold. As the boat turns, the lure on the inside rod slows, flutters and drops while the outside bait speeds and lifts. This change of tempo and depth is often more than a fresh king can take. Strikes are sudden and nothing short of savage, so a tight grip or a rod holder is highly recommended!