Dismal Copper River king return triggers angler restrictions

The bounce-back summer for king salmon in several waterways across Alaska is not universal, and one mighty river that's struggling mightily is the Copper River.

Draining parts of the Wrangell and Chugach mountains, the Copper is rated the 10th largest river in the country, based on the volume of water it moves. Tributaries as the Gulkana and Klutina rivers feed the Copper, and king salmon fishing in those waterways is anticipated each summer. But this year is different.

This week, Alaska Department of Fish and Game Area Management Biologist Mark Somerville in Glennallen announced he's projecting a return of less than 24,000 kings, below the low end of the river's escapement goal and far below the preseason forecast of 64,000 of the big fish. King fishing in the upper Copper River drainage will be catch-and-release only starting Saturday — and Somerville is predicting a complete shutdown, a first for the drainage, within days.

"We're probably not even going to get the lower end (of the escapement goal) into the river," Somerville said.

Copper River personal use dipnetters are barred from keeping any kings.

In 2014, the last year for which numbers are available, 931 kings were taken by anglers in the Copper River drainage. Somerville estimated the 2015 take at 1,500 fish, with anglers allowed a seasonal take of four kings.

"It's a serious deal," Danny Schmitz, general manger of the guide service River Wrangellers in Copper Center, said of the restrictions. "We've got jobs on the line — seven or eight guides during the summer. I may have to take out a loan to pay back all the refunds for trips that were booked.


"Kings are the reason people come to the basin to fish," he said, estimating that king anglers outnumber red salmon anglers 4-1.

So far, the commercial harvest of Copper River kings in the river mouth is 10,554 fish, the seventh worst since 1980, Somerville said. That's some 7,000 fewer fish than last year at the same date.

Somerville noted that the commercial fishery catches most of its kings the last two weeks in May, but it's not until the first week of June when managers see their first data. "By then," he said, "most of the fish are through the fishery."

Upstream, 18 kings have passed the Gulkana River counting tower so far.

"Counts should be significantly higher," Somerville said.

Beginning Saturday, anglers in all waters of the upper Copper River drainage upstream of the Klutina will be limited to catch and release using single-hook, unbaited lures.

"While we don't compare to Kenai, the Klutina and Gulkana are significant sport fisheries," Somerville said.

The Copper River's king salmon woes come while other significant Alaska salmon waterways are seeing king runs bounce back after years of poor returns.

  • The Kenai River has already exceeded its minimum escapement goal, with the run significantly ahead of the last two years.
  • The Deshka River, another large Southcentral king producer, is seeing its biggest king return at this juncture in the season in a dozen years.
  • On Kodiak Island, king returns to the Ayakulik and Karluk rivers, dismal for so long, are much improved.
  • Even the mighty Yukon River is seeing an early king return far greater than last year.

Schmitz noted that the Copper River basin seems to run opposite most major king salmon fisheries in Alaska. "Other years when the rest of the state is hurting, the Copper River basin is hanging in there. When the Kenai is closed or the Deshka is closed, we're cranking along. Kings and sockeyes are all we got."

Mike Campbell

Mike Campbell was a longtime editor for Alaska Dispatch News, and before that, the Anchorage Daily News.