This may be a dismal summer for king salmon fishing in Alaska, which attracts anglers from all over the world. After several years of poor returns, hot spots around Cook Inlet and the Kenai Peninsula will be heavily restricted or closed this year. Many of the state's other good king salmon rivers will be, too.
And yet, one gem of an Alaska river continues to thrive: the 242-mile-long Nushagak.
To the delight of sport, subsistence, and even commercial fishermen, the Nushagak River has now had three really good years following a crash in 2010. It is not just the top performer in the state; the Nushagak may be the greatest king salmon river in the world.
"Yes, for wild kings I think it is pretty close to the top," said Dillingham-based sport fish management biologist Jason Dye. "Of course the Columbia River is having huge runs lately too, but a large percentage of those are hatchery fish."
Nushagak kings are counted at a sonar site near Portage Creek, which probably "sees" about 62 percent of the kings that swim by. The management plan calls for getting 95,000 king salmon upstream, past the commercial fishing district, the subsistence nets, and a few thousand eager anglers. Last year saw a return of 113,709 kings, a number safely near the top end of goal of between 55,000 and 120,000.
Dye has the tricky task of managing the river's sport fishery, based primarily on the sonar counts. Escapement is measured on a curve, which helps project the run size mid-season. If the projections are low, the tediously developed management plan has "triggers" to restrict the sport fishing a little at a time. That has happened in the past few years, but the restrictions didn't last long.
Fish and Game has not produced an official Nushagak chinook forecast for several years, as the biologists are building up a new data set based on the upgraded sonar technology. But it's easy to get optimistic after several strong returns.
"The last couple of years have been strong, and we don't have any reason to believe that this year won't be strong," said Dye. "That said, we'll go into this season somewhat cautiously and obviously keep a close eye on things."
It is of course conceivable that this year's return could be lower, on account of the dismal return four years ago.
"I wouldn't say I'm not concerned about that," said Dye. "But it's way too early to tell and not something that's easy to project. We'll wait and see."
New to 2014, an effort to mark recapture on adult chinook salmon at the Iowithla and Stuyahok tributaries should help biologists produce a better abundance estimate of Nushagak kings, which is probably quite a bit higher than the current sonar counts suggest.
Off the road system, the Nushagak River is a tough destination for most anglers to achieve. The outside fishing effort comes mainly from fly-in lodges, which aren't cheap. A dozen or so camp-style lodges actually line the river's banks, and their guests come for the sole purpose of fishing for kings on the Nushagak. Other high-end lodges around Bristol Bay fly guests to the river for just a day or two of fishing before moving on.
The river has also seen more traffic from floatplanes with fishermen from the Anchorage area. Even some wheeled planes can land on long stretches of river gravel, steps away from superb king fishing.
Dye suspects the attention on the Nushagak from both in-state and out-of-state fishermen will probably increase.
"There are a lot of preseason closures at other king fisheries around the state, and a lot of bad press detailing that. Right now there's nothing like that on the Nush. I do expect the sport fishing effort will be a little bit higher than usual," he said.
Bob Toman runs Toman's King Camp on the Nushagak River, which is busy setting up for its six-week season. He says he has noticed some additional interest in fishing the Nushagak, but not as much as he had expected.
"We do have a few clients this year who told me they always fish the Kenai, but came to us this year because the Kenai's closed. But not as many people have called us as I would've thought."
Toman said some of the fisherman who come to Alaska to fish in the summers may not be aware of the closures at rivers they are expecting to fish. Getting to Dillingham, and then getting up-river, takes some coordination, but Toman's hoping cruise ships and tour guides will send clients his way when they run into closures elsewhere.
The fish and game restrictions for king fishing on the Nushagak River are: for kings, 20 inches and longer, the bag limit is two per day, with only one over 28 inches, and a bag limit of four for the season. After harvesting two kings for the day, a fisherman is not allowed to continue using bait for that day, but can use bait the following day.
During the king salmon season, the Nushagak River is now restricted to the use of single hooks only. That complicated, and many say unnecessary, rule was partly rescinded by the Alaska Board of Fish in March. Originally, the rule had restricted the entire river to single hook lures only year-round.
"It's still in effect from May 1 through July 31, so you still have to use single hooks for kings," said Dye. "But the rest of the year, you can now go back to using multiple hooks."
Fishermen are reminded to keep their license and king tags on them while fishing, and to mark the tags as soon as a harvest fish has been landed. Kings that will be released should be returned to the river quickly and carefully, without lifting them out of the water when possible.
This story first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is republished here with permission.