The outlook for king salmon fishing on the Kenai Peninsula this season just took a turn for the worse. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game had closed the Kenai River, Anchor River, and Deep Creek to king fishing into June. Now, after alarmingly low king numbers around the peninsula this spring, they have closed the Kasilof and Ninilchik Rivers and Cook Inlet into July.

Mike Booz, the Lower Cook Inlet sportfish area manager for the ADFG, told Alaska Public Media, ““I want nothing more than to have good numbers of king salmon returning to our streams every year. But I think it’s going to be a test of patience here for what we’ve been seeing.”

What they have been seeing is very few kings. While healthy early-season runs typically see 4,000 to 7,000 kings on the Kenai River, this year the department has only counted 1,030. And it’s a trend that’s getting worse. The Ninilchik had closed in 2018, but this is the first time in Booz’s memory that the department has closed the Kasilof to king fishing. “It was pretty obvious that these runs were looking to be some of the weakest runs we’ve seen here in Cook Inlet since we’ve been monitoring escapement,” he told APM.

In the case of the Kasilov and the Ninilchik, the closures come despite an ongoing king stocking program. But most concerning for many local anglers is the closure of the Kenai, which has traditionally been the largest freshwater sport fishery for king, sockeye, and coho in Alaska. From its source at the outlet of Kenai Lake, the river flows 80 miles to Cook Inlet, offering anglers early and late-run action for the three salmon species, along with pink salmon and rainbow trout. 

For local sportfishing guides, the closures mean fishing different rivers or different species, or both. Grant Anderson of the Fly Box in Anchor Point, plans to shift from kings on the southern peninsula to sockeye on the central peninsula. “It’s an extra hour drive each direction,” he told APM

Meanwhile, Hunter Keogh, who operates Key-O’s Guide Service out of Ninilchik is rethinking his business plan. “My father runs the Kasilof River and the Kenai River and he hasn’t killed a king salmon in the Kasilof or the Kenai in, shoot, like 8 or 9 years now,” he told Alaska’s News Source. “He has now turned to be a sockeye and silver salmon guide versus a king guide.”

The Kenai River is closed through July 31 for kings. The Kasilof and Cook Inlet fisheries are closed through July 15 for kings, with catch and release starting on July 16 on the Kasilof. 

Booz does not see a rebound in the near future. “Ideally, I’d like to see king salmon start turning around right now,” he told ANS. “But it feels like we’re in for the long haul.”