Warm days at Bristol Bay mean cold water and slow-arriving fish

Western Alaska had one of the warmest Mays on record. June hasn’t been too shabby either — June 10 was a balmy 65 degrees, and Bristol Bay was calm. A half-dozen drift boats swung lazily on anchor in the Naknek River. The cannery docks were devoid of life in the afternoon heat.

You might expect the Bay to be bustling with activity — but it is not. Much of the inactivity is due to the restrictions placed on the fishery by COVID-19 requirements. However, an equal amount is due to what fishermen are perceiving to be a late sockeye run due to cold water temperatures.

I stood in the Naknek River behind my skiff waiting for the tide to drop. In just a few minutes, even though I was in chest waders, my teeth were chattering. The water was frigid. The Kvichak River, the largest feeder stream on the east side of Bristol Bay, is colder still.

Despite the warm spring, there is plenty of snow in the mountains. Warm June days are dumping snow melt into area streams. That means cold water. The past few seasons, Bristol Bay inshore water has felt like bath water.

Fish spawning is triggered by water temperature. In lower temperatures the returning sockeye salmon hold in the bay for a few days. Anecdotal evidence from longtime fishermen says that during years with colder water, the fish enter their home river system in a rush. But that rush is usually late.

In years when the water temperatures are closer to normal, the returning salmon enter their home river soon after they arrive in Bay waters. This makes for a much more orderly fishery. Processor are not overwhelmed with a glut of salmon, boats are not overloaded and fishermen can keep their fish cooled properly.

When the water temperatures are chilly, the first push of salmon may tend to hold off and mill just outside of the fishing districts and then enter the various systems in a mass. A million-plus fish entering a river in a single day is impressive, but it’s counterproductive from a harvester’s standpoint.

The Kvichak River, which historically has the largest producing system in Bristol Bay, is the most diverse. Sockeye that enter this system disperse into a number of unique systems. Two of the largest are the Alagnak River and the Talarik Creek system.

The Alagnak is a system complete unto itself. Its headwater is an 11-mile long lake, Nonvianuk. Locally known as “the Branch,” it’s home to all five species of Pacific salmon. In addition to a sockeye run with occasionally returns in the millions, the Branch also supports a fair number of king salmon.

Talarik Creek, Upper and Lower, flow directly into Lake Illiamna. The relatively short watershed’s head is in the foothills just north of the big Lake. Sockeye fry, soon after hatching, migrate downstream into Lake Illiamna, where they spend one or two years before heading to the ocean.

The proposed Pebble mine is situated on the upper Talarik Creek drainage. Lake Illiamna is a sparsely populated, pristine system that feeds from numerous other drainages, including those of Lake Clark, which also hosts a substantial number of Kvichak River sockeye.

The five major Bristol Bay salmon-producing river systems — the Ugashik, Egegik, Nushagak, Naknek and Kvichak — all have various individual characteristics. Spawning sockeye, triggered by water temperature, enter their home stream when the water is right.

Salmon return in a huge mass with the main goal of overwhelming their predators. A spread-out return makes a salmon more likely to be eaten by bears or eagles. The survival odds for a single fish improve when a million fish arrive overnight.

Sockeye eggs hatch in 90 to 150 days in the majority of Bristol Bay river systems. The tiny hatchlings stay in their stream gravel for a few weeks before migrating downstream to the home lake. The outbound smolt migration is also influenced by water temperatures. During cold seasons, the young salmon move a bit later.

Western Alaska has had a warm spring. There was more snow than usual and it melted fast when the warm days hit in mid-May. The leaves were green a week or so earlier than normal. At first glance that might indicate an early run — but a look at the amount of snow in the upper drainages says differently.

Experienced fishermen will look at the Copper River and its cold water and parallel it to the 2013 sockeye run there. The run was very late but the fish came in a rush at a level far above the forecast.

Ahh. We all know fishermen. Hope springs eternal.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and a two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.

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John Schandelmeier

Outdoor opinion columnist John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.