For most of the 2012 fishing season, good news about Alaska king salmon has been as rare as a 90-pound whopper. But finally, there is a shred of optimism.
• The Deshka River, one of the biggest king producers in Southcentral Alaska, reached its minimum escapement goal of 13,000 fish on Saturday when 226 kings passed weir. That marks the third consecutive year the Deshka has surpassed its minimum goal, though the run still has a way to go before reaching the return of about 19,000 kings reached each of the past two years.
• On the huge Nushagak-Mulchatna drainage in Southwest Alaska, a late surge of kings headed upstream has allowed state biologists to double the bag limit to two kings a day. Through July 6, a sonar some 37 miles upstream from the mouth of the Nushagak has counted 56,861 kings -- considerably more than the 45,591 counted on the same date last year.
• Even on the Yukon River, a late bump in the number of kings headed up the lower river may have put biologists' pre-season estimate of 110,000 fish within reach. Already, 92,416 have passed the sonar at the village of Pilot Station 121 miles from the river mouth. While the peak of the run has passed, some late kings usually continue to dribble past the sonar into August. Last year, a total of about 123,000 kings swam past.
Early on, state fisheries biologists speculated that in addition to being weak, Alaska's king runs might be late this year because lingering cold water threw off the timing of many runs.
While improving numbers on the Nushagak prompted state fisheries biologists to offer anglers more fish this week, the Deshka – and all other king fisheries in the Susitna drainage – remain closed, as they have been since June 25. Of the three waterways, the Deshka is the one closest to Alaska's population center in Anchorage and the Mat-Su Valley to the north.
Area fisheries biologist Sam Ivey said earlier this week that biologists have talked about reopening the Deshka to anglers for the final week of the season until its traditional July 13 closing. But he didn't expect that to happen. Ivey said biologists believe that putting more fish on the spawning beds would guarantee an adequate number of eggs.
"We've got a weak run we're dealing with," Ivey told Alaska Dispatch reporter Craig Medred. "We're evaluating it … You don't want to manage for just the low end of the goal."
Mat-Su fishing guide Andy Couch has delivered a petition to Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell asking her to order the fishery reopened until the traditional end of the season on July 13. There is, he said, no justification for keeping a fishery closed when the minimum escapement has been reached, and no one familiar with Alaska salmon fisheries could recall a time the state has done this on any other river.
"This just seems totally out of the normal way of doing things," Couch said, and it's not because of some concern about the quality of data, an issue that has arisen on the Kenai, Yukon and other rivers where sonar are used to count fish. The sonar have sometimes proven less than accurate. Not so the data from a good, old-fashioned weir where people visually count the number of fish going upstream.
"This is the best data they have," said Couch, who suspects the true story here is that the Deshka "is caught up in the king salmon politics throughout the state."
On the Nushagak, where a number of fishing lodges and camps operate, Fish and Game "now projects that the in-river run of king salmon will likely exceed 75,000 fish," according to area management biologist Jason Dye. "Therefore, the reduction of the bag and possession limit in place for the sport fishery is no longer warranted."
The Nushagak River rises in the Nushagak Hills and flows 275 miles to Nushagak Bay, claiming such major tributaries as the Mulchatna and Nuyakuk rivers. Few waterways attract more kings.
Seven years ago, a sonar counter on the river recorded a whopping 166,700 kings en route to spawning beds upstream, but then the run crashed. About a quarter of the fish counted in 2005 returned five years later.
Contact Mike Campbell at mcampbell(at)alaskadispatch.com