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A banner king salmon run on Nushagak River in Alaska's Bristol Bay

Jill Burke
Courtesy Angela Addiego

Sport fishermen across much of Southcentral Alaska who'd hoped for heart-thumping fights with Alaska's most regal fish, the prized king salmon, have largely walked away with dashed dreams this summer, casualties of a statewide trend of declining runs. 

Yet in Southwest Alaska's Bristol Bay, home to one of the world's largest salmon fisheries, the magic that anglers seek has maintained its spell -- a rebound that may offer hope to disgruntled Kenai River king salmon fishermen.

Just two years ago, the Nushagak River saw its worst king salmon run ever. In 2010, a little more than 36,000 kings made it into the river -- fewer than 25 percent of the river's historic high of 172,000 king salmon in 2005.

But this summer, the Nushagak has  bounced back smartly, offering anglers and fish biologists a glimmer of hope in this summer of discontent. As of early August, in-river sonar counts show about 110,000 fish have returned, to the delight of people who make their living catering to fisherman eager to wet a line. That's nearly 100,000 more kings than have reached the Kenai River so far, as the world-famous waterway south of Anchorage deals with its worst king salmon return in a decade.

Bounty of kings

"Not only were the numbers good, but (the kings) just kept coming. And coming. And coming," said Brad Giroux, owner of Nushagak River Adventure Lodge.

His clientele this year included people who'd booked fishing vacations elsewhere in the state, such as the frequently shuttered Kenai River. Looking to salvage their Alaska  getaway, one visiting couple found their way to Giroux. In five days at the lodge, Giroux said, the couple landed at least 30 of the highly sought-after kings.

And a travel writer who planned to write about fishing for Alaska silvers walked away with a different fish tale. “The article of everyday slaying the silvers turned into lots of kings with a trickle of silvers," Giroux said."

Lucky break amid a mystery

State biologists don't have a silver-bullet explanation for why so few kings returned to many Alaska river systems, particularly those in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet.

In 2010, it looked like Alaska king runs had hit bottom after several years of declines, according to Matt Miller, a regional fisheries biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's Division of Sport Fish. In 2011, things started looking up and it was thought that trend would continue in 2012. Instead, many places declined again.

But not all. Returns to rivers in the Kodiak and Bristol Bay region strengthened, Miller said.

Scientists generally believe that whatever is happening to Alaska king salmon is occurring in the ocean, where the fish mature several years before returning to their home rivers to spawn. "What we are fairly comfortable saying is that it appears what we are seeing in Southcentral (Alaska) isn't tied to in-river survival. If you have an instance where it is widespread, and it affects hatchery fish, then we tend to point to ocean conditions," Miller said.

Hatchery runs of king salmon returning to Ship Creek in Anchorage and the Eklutna Tailrace about 20 miles north of Alaska’s largest city have also disappointed, reinforcing the theory.

Missing at sea

But once salmon leave the rivers, it's anybody's guess where they go or what dangers they encounter at sea.

Bycatch is always a concern, with some kings scooped up by commercial fishermen targeting other species. Natural population cycles are also a factor.  Predation, fluctuating water temperature and available food sources also play a role.

Nushagak's perfect storm

Miller calls the pristine habitat Bristol Bay offers to fish "fantastic," as there is nothing upriver decreasing or limiting the ability of the fish to spawn. With little to be done to improve the habitat for returning fish, fishery managers are left with one tool:  controlling the fishing.

"By everybody sharing the pain and reducing the harvest,  we've been getting some kings back," Miller said. Commercial fishing, sport fishing and subsistence harvests are all managed, limiting fishing time or catch sizes.

Another factor this year was a lower-than-expected run of sockeye salmon, the main fish driving commercial fishing industry in Nushagak Bay, a Bristol Bay inlet where the river reaches saltwater.

The pre-season forecast called for 6.8 million sockeye. Of that, 4.7 million fish would have been available for commercial harvest. But this month’s estimate of the actual run size is just 4 million, reducing the commercial catch to 2.6 million. Because of the reduced sockeye run, fewer kings were pulled in as bycatch, allowing more into the Nushagak River, according to Matt Jones, an assistant state commercial fisheries biologist for the State of Alaska assigned to the west side of Bristol Bay, including the Nushagak.

So far, commercial fisherman have brought in just 11,000 kings, far less than the 27,000 kings they’ve averaged over the last five years, he said.

Biologists actually expected the sockeye run to be even lower. After high returns for a number of successive years, the boon was due to end, Jones said. Like the king salmon, sockeye may also be meeting some unknown fate in the ocean. But Jones says there is also suspicion that an unusually high number of returning salmon in 2006 could be playing a role.

That year, the sockeye return was about four times bigger than normal, possibly resulting in more fish spawning than the rivers could handle.

Sportman's dream

"This 100,000-plus run of kings is a pretty quick rebound from the 30,000-plus kings we saw a few years ago. It's unexpected and surprising," said Craig Schwanke, an assistant area sport fishery biologist for the Bristol Bay. "They had tremendous sport fishing this summer. They were very happy with how the king run turned out."

In 2010, when little more than 36,000 king salmon returned to the Nushagak, sport fishing was limited to catch and release only. This year, fisherman can keep four king salmon more 20 inches long for the entire season, with a possession limit of two per day.

By 2011, the run strength had increased to nearly 60,000 kings passing the in-river sonar counter. But this year, at 110,000 that’s almost doubled. Schwanke is careful to point out that the counting in 2012 may cause a slightly imprecise comparison from year-to-year, because this year kings were counted for an additional two weeks.

Still, "there is no doubt it is a really good king run," Schwanke said.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com