For many anglers in Southcentral Alaska, the hard-fighting silver salmon of fall are the last hope of bailing out what has been a dismal salmon-fishing season.
A word of advice for Mat-Su anglers: Don't get your hopes up.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game issued an emergency order this week closing the popular Little Susitna River to silver fishing beginning Friday, Aug. 10, and cutting the daily bag limit on popular Jim Creek to just one silver.
Further cuts may not be far behind.
On the Little Su, just 515 silvers had passed the fish-counting weir at river mile 32.5 through Tuesday, Aug. 5. "The sport fish exit survey conducted at the Little Susitna Public Use Facility indicates mostly below-average fishing success under good fishing conditions," regional state fish biologist Sam Ivey said in a news release. Typically, about 40 percent of the run has passed the weir by now.
The escapement goal for the Little Su is 10,100 to 17,700 fish, a range that Fish and Game managers have not attained since 2008.
While allowing that "run timing can be highly variable for coho salmon," Ivey said that even a late-arriving run wouldn't be enough to reach the low end of the escapement goal.
The silver salmon run on Jim Creek is smaller, with an escapement goal of 450 to 700 fish. But it "has grown since 2006 and become the largest fishery in Knik Arm in terms of harvest," according to Ivey.
This year, however, "fishing success has been sporadic and below average for this time of the season." Jim Creek also gets a late run of red salmon, and the emergency order cuts anglers' bag limit to three fish, only one of which may be a silver.
Another popular Mat-Su silver stream, the Deshka River, has only seen 4,848 silvers pass the weir through Aug. 8.
On the same date last year, 6,734 silvers had passed. In 2010, nearly 9,000 had passed by Aug. 8.
But, as Ivey noted, silvers can be mercurial. In 2009, for instance only 2.634 silvers had passed the weir by Aug. 8. Then a huge rush of coho materialized in the middle of the month with more than 21,000 fish passing the weir in three days, leading to a total escapement of more than 27,000 fish.
Some sport fishing advocates are unhappy that Fish and Game, on Aug. 1, expanded the commercial salmon harvest by emergency order in a portion of the Northern District, south of the Susitna River.
"Why has the department authorized additional commercial harvest that may further jeopardize attaining the Little Susitna River coho salmon spawning escapement goal and Fish Creek sockeye salmon spawning escapement goal?" asked sport fishing guide Andy Couch, who owns and operates Fishtale River Guides in Palmer and is a member of the Mat-Su Borough Fish and Wildlife Commission.
Contact Mike Campbell at mcampbell(at)alaskadispatch.com