PALMER -- With just 63 chinook salmon counted at the Little Susitna River weir as of Wednesday, state biologists scrambling to preserve this year's run are shutting down king salmon fishing at the popular Valley destination -- for now anyway.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game on Wednesday afternoon announced an emergency king fishing closure on the Little Susitna as of 12:01 a.m. Friday and through July 13, the end of king fishing season. The state's emergency closure includes all waters of the Little Susitna from its confluence with Cook Inlet upstream to the Parks Highway Bridge.
Salmon swimming up Cook Inlet into the river are apparently waiting out warm, low-water river conditions by holing up in stretches where they're easy to catch, prompting the state's emergency order.
It's possible that a shot of cooler, wet weather in this unseasonably dry spring and early summer could send enough fish past a fish-counting weir to reopen the fishery, said Samantha Oslund, Palmer-based assistant area management biologist for northern Cook Inlet.
"We'd like to protect the king salmon fishery there," Oslund said Thursday. "We'll see how the run progresses. As the fish move past the weir we'll have a better idea."
Anglers leaving the river this month reported catching about 200 kings when contacted for exit surveys by the state Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation at the Little Su Public Use Facility where many access the river.
The Little Su's easy road access -- the facility boat launch is 26 miles across Point MacKenzie from Wasilla -- for years has drawn hoards of anglers and RVs though recent salmon declines are shifting some of that attention to other areas. It's one of the biggest silver salmon fisheries in the state.
Still, king runs on the Little Su are never huge. The state's "escapement goal" for kings on the Little Su -- enough to spawn and keep the run healthy -- is 900 to 1,800 based on post-season aerial surveys, biologists say.
Last year, the first time since 1995 that the state used a weir across the river four miles upstream of the public-use facility to track fish numbers, crews counted nearly 2,400 chinook, according to the ADFG web site.
The emergency closure comes as a disappointment to anglers but the general sentiment Thursday seemed to be in favor of closing the fishery if it means more kings in the future, especially since other chinook-fishing destinations like the Deshka River and Parks Highway streams remain open and reports are good from the Eklutna Tailrace.
"If they're not there, they're not there. It's a matter of saving what we do have," said Tom Hilty, working the counter at 3 Rivers Fly & Tackle on Thursday afternoon. "It's just a bummer that they're having to close it."
Matt Peterson has spent nearly 20 years guiding on the Little Su. Peterson, who teaches physical education at Hanshew Middle School during the year, said the emergency closure didn't surprise him, though he partly blames the state's weir for causing fish to pool up.
"A lot of the time, I'm a supporter for closing a river," he said. "My son is seven. I want him to be able to guide when he's 18."
He said he expects to lose a few clients who don't want to switch from the Little Su to the Deshka, where boat congestion especially near the mouth dulls the "real Alaska" feel of a fishing trip.
About the weir, Oslund said fish are holding several miles below that point as well. State crews monitor it 24 hours a day, letting fish past as they arrive.
"They're not all pooled up down below the weir," she said. "I think the fish are waiting for a rain event."
Even as the Little Su shuts down, the outlook for kings on the Deshka is brighter than expected.
Biologists last week relaxed fishing restrictions to allow bait and multiple hooks -- treble and two hooks -- on the Deshka because biologists say they've counted more than 13,000 kings on that river. That's nearly 12,000 more than were counted this time last year.
It's impossible to compare the two rivers because the Deshka is much bigger system, biologists say.
Still, the fact that the Little Su is far below escapement goals while the Deshka has already met them makes you wonder: what's the difference?
The Little Su is much more developed. Subdivisions hug its banks near the Palmer side of Hatcher Pass -- the river's source is the Mint Glacier in the Talkeetna Mountains -- along Edgerton Parks Road as well and the Fishhook road system as well as the end of Schrock Road northwest of Wasilla.
There's no "direct evidence" of any connection between development and low salmon numbers in the Little Su, said state habitat biologist Stormy Haught. The state has requirements for culverts to get fish past roads, as does the Mat-Su Borough for new subdivisions.
That said, the state has never specifically analyzed disturbed fish habitat, Haught said.
"We all know the Mat-Su is certainly growing," he said. "Every year I get a few more permit applications to put culverts on it or to put culverts on tributaries of it."
Reach Zaz Hollander at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4317.
By ZAZ HOLLANDER