WASILLA -- Despite a big pulse of king salmon that pushed up the Little Susitna River over the rainy weekend, Alaska Department of Fish Game biologists say it's still too soon to reopen the popular fishery shut by emergency order last week.
As of Monday, about 1,000 kings had passed a fish-counting weir about four miles above the river's public-use area and boat launch after riding higher, cooler water toward upriver spawning areas, according to Sam Ivey, Palmer-based area management biologist. Only 63 kings had passed the weir by Wednesday of last week.
The state escapement goal used to set fishing levels -- the number needed to spawn and keep the run healthy -- is 900 to 1,800.
But even though the number of fish counted at the weir seems to meet the escapement goals, it doesn't.
Fish managers need to see more than twice the current count before they'll consider letting people fish for kings on the Little Su, Ivey said.
The state's escapement goal isn't based on counts at the weir because it wasn't used regularly until last year, he said. Instead, the goal is based on postseason aerial surveys thought to count only 40 percent to 60 percent of the fish in the river.
Last year's aerial count was about 2,300 fish, Ivey said, but muddy floodwaters obscured the kings in places. He estimated the actual count as anywhere from 2,300 to 3,000 fish.
That's very roughly the kind of numbers he's looking for before the river will reopen. Allowing fishing for kings on the Little Su now could lead to low postseason counts, he said. "We're not kicking the fishery open at 1,000 fish. ... We may only count 400 of them and we'd be below the goal."
Ivey said his staff hopes to get a better sense of how many kings are in the river in the next few days. A big pulse came in on Saturday, and another 178 on Sunday, but the numbers crossing the weir tailed off slightly Monday.
Anglers reported catching about 200 kings before the river closed, though the number caught is thought to be somewhat higher.
Elsewhere, earlier-than-usual king runs in the Deshka River, Alexander Creek and the Parks Highway streams gave anglers some relief after grim forecasts for below-average runs led to low expectations and new limits for the Susitna Valley. Fish came in about a week early, Ivey said. But now it looks like numbers are dropping, so runs may end up at disappointing levels after all.
The state put a number of restrictions into place on the Susitna River systems this year, including an annual limit of two chinook for the Susitna system and Little Su combined instead of five. Anglers on the Little Su were also reduced to catch-and-release during the week, with harvest allowed only Saturday through Monday.
Reach Zaz Hollander at firstname.lastname@example.org or in Wasilla at (907) 352-6705.
By ZAZ HOLLANDER