Sockeye salmon are swimming up the Copper River in record numbers, just in time for the opening of the Chitina Subdistrict personal use dipnet fishery on Thursday.
The cumulative in-river fish count at Miles Lake, near the "Million Dollar Bridge" outside Cordova, stood at 469,895 as of Sunday. That is by far the most for that date in the past 34 years. Counting began on May 16.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game tracks fish at the lake using sonar and posts daily and cumulative counts going back to 1978. According to their tally, the current onslaught of reds is more than twice as large as the totals reported on June 3 for eight of the past 10 years, 2011 (310,645) and 2006 (273,732).
The previous high count as of June 3 -- 361,229 -- was recorded in 1997. Sockeyes, or reds, account for more than 95 percent of the salmon in the river.
This year's giant number got a big boost from all-time daily highs reached last week.
"May 28, 29 and 30 were all records," said Mark Somerville, Fish and Game's area management biologist for sport fish based in Glennallen. "It was the highest we've ever seen in a three-day count."
The total number for those three days more than quadrupled what biologists expected. The biggest one-day count came on May 29, with 83,062 reds passing the Miles Lake checkpoint.
The previous one-day record, 46,182, was set on May 31, 1997. The cumulative count for that year exceeded 1 million fish, making it the biggest year on record.
The three back-to-back record-smashing days were preceded by an unexpectedly strong week preceding them. Fish and Game officials had predicted a run of 83,678 for the one-week period of May 21-27. The actual count was 138,877, said Somerville.
Numbers have since subsided, but remain robust; 16,242 reds were counted Sunday.
It takes about two weeks for a salmon to swim up the turbid Copper River to the dipnetting hot spot near the Chitina-McCarthy Bridge. The place is a magnet for Alaskans who swarm there each year, wading into the cold, treacherous current or perching on rocks with their long-handled nets in hopes of filling their freezers and canning jars. The department reports that 9,217 Chitina Subdistrict permits were issued in 2011.
Because of the high count, dipnetters will be allowed to keep 10 additional fish during the initial opening period of June 7-10.
"Anytime there's a surplus of 50,000 salmon or more past the preseason count it triggers an increased limit," Somerville said.
Ordinarily, dipnetters in the fishery are allowed 15 fish for a household of one or 30 for a household of 2 or more. Only one of those fish may be a king salmon, only dipnets may be used and only Alaska residents may participate.
Additional increases in limits are likely in the days ahead, given the spike in daily counts that came after May 27, Somerville said.
The huge river run follows a strong commercial harvest near the mouth of the Copper River, which opened on May 17.
"They really ramped up in the third period (May 24-25)," said Jeremy Botz, area management biologist for gillnet fisheries in Prince William Sound and the Copper River, based in Cordova. The harvest was 250,000 sockeye, he said, and each of the two shorter periods that preceded it landed more than 100,000 fish.
King salmon catches have been weak, however. Botz said restrictions on commercial fishing for that species had been put in place and some areas closed.
Upriver in Chitina, residents are bracing for the annual crush of visitors to the tiny Gold-Rush era hamlet.
"I'm sitting here with my chef, up to my neck in Costco and vendor orders," said Jeffry Barry, co-owner of Gilpatrick's Hotel Chitina. "We're doubling up on everything we need."
Jeff and Susan Barry's 11-room hotel, the former Arctic Brotherhood Hall, built in 1914, has a 40-seat restaurant and pub. Barry said he's been getting a steady stream of bookings since the high count numbers were first reported.
The press of vehicles with Alaskans trying to get to the dipping grounds overwhelms public land access. The major private land owner in the neighborhood is the Chitina Native Corporation, which sells passes for parking, camping and fishing on their property adjacent to the river.
"We're offering access to the O'Brien Creek Recreation Area for boat launching this year," said Jeff Doty, the Native corporation's business manager.
Fees, $15 per day, can be deposited at red pay stations at corporation sites. An annual pass, good through Dec. 31, is $60. "People can buy it by coming up to the corporation office," Doty said. "Or just look for the big white truck with 'Chitina Native Corporation' on it."
Doty stressed that would-be dipnetters should wear life vests. "A guy went into the water last year and they never found him," he said. The state provides a rack with free life-vests at O'Brien Creek.
Barry said word of the coming sockeye glut has the town "abuzz."
"I was talking with biologists at the fish wheel; they have this 10-foot wide fish wheel that scoops up a good run of river," he said. "They were getting reds weighing 15 to 20 pounds, bigger than first run kings. Old timers have never seen anything like this. The biggest number and the biggest fish we have ever seen. It's unprecedented."
Doty agreed. "It's going to be a banger season," he said.
The Chitina Subdistrict personal use salmon season will open at 12:01 a.m. Thursday, June 7 and run through June 10. Additional periods will open on a week-by-week basis. Dipnetters must have a valid resident sport fishing license to participate in personal-use fisheries. It is unlawful to buy, sell, trade or barter personal use finfish, shellfish, aquatic plants or their parts. Additional information is available at adfg.alaska.gov and chitinanative.com.
Reach Mike Dunham at email@example.com or 257-4332.