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Sockeye surge into Kenai River

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The Alaska Department of Fish and Game issued a pair of emergency orders Wednesday for sockeye salmon in the Kenai River, increasing the daily possession limit and extending dipnetting hours after fish surged in record-breaking numbers over the weekend.

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Dipnetting is now open 24 hours daily and the bag limit for traditional anglers is six instead of three.

More than 230,600 sockeye flooded the Kenai on Sunday - which shattered the record of about 217,000 set in 1987, according to Fish and Game - and another 260,000-plus entered Monday and Tuesday combined.

"I think it's safe to say it was a surprise," said Jason Pawluk, assistant area management biologist with Fish and Game. "It's surprising and good to see."

Although numbers are tapering off and many of the fish are nearing Skilak Lake, another huge batch of sockeye could be on their way.

Pawluk said offshore test boats around Anchor Pt. recorded indices of sockeye ranging from 230,000 to 270,000 after the weekend run, meaning the push might not be over.

"There were four days of big numbers," Pawluk said. "If it follows suit, then we should see another surge of fish pretty darn soon."

Dipnetters should understand that the weekend flood of fish has passed through the dipnet fishery upstream toward Skilak, so the action won't be as hot until more fish hit the river.

Still, anglers can wet their nets around the clock through July 31. Before Wednesday's emergency order, dipnetting was open 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.

"The big slug of fish that hit has passed through the dip net fishery," Pawluk said. "We don't want peoples' expectations to match the big push we saw this weekend."

Those with a traditional rod and reel are now allowed to keep six sockeye daily, although the limit remains three for the Russian River and Kenai River "fly-fishing only" zones.

Check the regulations for details.

The daily limit for silver salmon, which aren't expected to enter the river until early August but could trickle in before then, is two. Anglers, however, can only keep four sockeye if they have two silvers in their bag, Pawluk said.

Silvers can be identified by the spots on their back, which sockeye don't have. They also have smaller pupils than sockeye, and the tails of silvers look as if they've been airbrushed with silver, while sockeye are distinguished by a flat, gray, opaque tail. Silvers have white gum lines.

The king salmon run is still on course to finish below average, but some anglers are reporting success.

Longtime Soldotna resident Bob Penney, who lives at River Mile 23 and has fished the Kenai for 35 years, said Monday was one of his best days to memory.

Penney anchored off Eagle Rock slightly after 6 a.m. on an incoming tight with a group of five and hooked eight kings in about four hours, releasing three, losing one and keeping two 44-pounders and a 39-pounder.

The avid fisherman said there were between 17 and 19 boats in the area throughout the morning, and he saw 55 kings hooked.

Penny used eggs with Spin-N-Glo lures as well as Quik Fish.

"I hadn't seen fishing like that since, I don't know, maybe 1988," Penney said. "There were a lot of smiling faces catching kings. It's encouraging because it says, hopefully, there are enough kings to sustain the run."

Fish and Game reported that 1,364 kings passed through the sonar Monday to bring the season total passage estimate to 16,570, although the department said those numbers could be high.

Restrictions are still in place from regulatory markers about 300 yards downstream of the mouth of Slikok Creek upstream to the outlet of Skilak, and in the Moose River from its confluence with the Kenai upstream to the northern-most edge of the Sterling Highway Bridge, that requires anglers to release all kings between 20 and 55 inches through 11.59 p.m. July 31.

Pawluk said catch and harvest rates for kings were the highest they've been all season Sunday.

"It was good to see some improvement, but keep in mind it's still below average," he said.

To the south, halibut fishing has been poor in Kachemak Bay but fair to good in the central and southern portions of Cook Inlet from Homer, said Carolyn Bunker with Fish and Game.

Catch rates have been decent out of Anchor Pt. and Deep Creek, Bunker added, with halibut ranging from 6 to 82 pounds and averaging about 16.

The lower portions of Deep Creek, the Anchor River and Stariski Creek are closed to king fishing through 11.59 p.m. July 31. Those areas are open to all other sportfishing, but anglers must use single, unbaited hooks. The Anchor is closed altogether two miles north and south of the mouth.

The Ninilchik River, meanwhile, is open to kings.

Pink and silver salmon have started entering Kachemak Bay. Bunker said there are silvers in Cook Inlet, too, but the bite has yet to pick up.

"It's been sporadic," she said, adding conditions should improve over the next few weeks.

For lake fishing, Bunker suggested anglers try the Bridge Creek Reservoir near Homer for dolly varden. Bait, spinners and fly fishing are effective, she said.

There are 27 stocked lakes on the central Kenai Peninsula. For a complete list, visit www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=fishing.main.

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