Fishing season is still more than a month away in the Matanuska-Susitna valleys, and already there is bad news for Alaskans. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game says it will restrict anglers to only two king salmon for the entire season -- down from five a year ago – and ban bait in most areas.
Little Susitna River anglers will only be able to keep kings Friday through Monday. Kings, or chinooks as they are sometimes called, are the most prized salmon in the north. The Little Su offers some of the best prospects for road-bound anglers headed north from Anchorage.
The state agency says there are some exceptions to the planned restrictions. Bait will be allowed in the Eklutna Tailrace fishery, which focuses on hatchery salmon, and on the lower Deshka River, which historically gets one of the strongest king runs in the entire Susitna River drainage.
But aside from those two spots, things do not look good. According to a press release, biologists are worried because of "low king salmon abundance over recent years, a below-average outlook for the upcoming season, and uncertainty over how quickly king salmon abundance may rebound."
Fishing time for the commercial fishery at the mouth of the Susitna is also slated to be cut in half to reduce the king catch. Some anglers expect the next notice from the state agency to warn of restrictions on the Kenai River, one of the world's best known king salmon streams. It, too, has been hampered by low returns in recent years. No one is sure why. There are a variety possible explanations, ranging from high-seas interception of kings, bycatch in domestic trawl fisheries, or simply a change in ocean conditions that limits the food available to support the fish while they are growing in the ocean.
Last year, the fish counters on a Deshka River weir reported 19,026 kings made it upriver to spawn. That's the most in five years and comfortably within the goal of 13,000 to 28,000 kings that biologists hope to see spawn to ensure strong future runs.
In the Kenai River, a sonar estimate calculated the return at 29,400 kings, but there was debate about how accurate the count. Fish and Game biologist Robert Begich noted the number of hours anglers needed to catch a king was the fifth longest on record, and a test netting program run by the state had the historically second lowest catch per hour for kings. Both appeared to indicate a weaker run than indicated by the sonar estimate.