The fall chum salmon season on the Yukon begins Wednesday.
Fishermen along the river are saying the fall run comes not a moment too soon. During a weekly teleconference of fishermen and fisheries managers organized by the nonprofit Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association, subsistence users spanning the length of the river were vocal in their anticipation of the fall chums.
“The water is high but dropping,” one fisherman near Fort Yukon said. “We’re just waiting for the fall chum, that’s going to be really important for us this year.”
“Too much humpy,” in the waters near Holy Cross, one angler said. “I think they’re going try and go for the fall chums.”
“There’s very few people fishing mainly due to the closure and lack of gear,” another added from upriver. “There’s no fish camps, no fires or smoke houses, and everybody’s just waiting for chums.”
One fishermen from the Lower Yukon merely sighed when asked about fishing in his community. “They’re just waiting on the fall chums right now.”
Fish and Game managers said the wait will mean a lot of fishing, with a strong run of 850,000 fish expected, likely more. Even with fishermen relying on chums in the face of unprecedented restrictions on fishing for king salmon, Fish and Game biologist Jeff Estensen said the fall chum run should be enough to fill out fish racks up and down the river.
“We don’t anticipate, because of our run size this year, that there will be any restrictions to the subsistence fishery,” he said. “Everybody should be able to get their subsistence needs.”
The strong fall chum run will mean commercial openings in the Lower Yukon as well. But while subsistence salmon fishing on the lower river through Galena has been open for some time, fishermen on the Upper Yukon near Stevens Village and Fort Yukon still can’t fish at all, out of concern for Chinook still making their way to spawning grounds in Canada. When it comes to those imperiled kings, Fish and Game biologist Stephanie Schmidt said the numbers are looking better than the dire predictions from earlier this year, but they’re still far from good.
“The Chinook salmon run is nearly over in the lower Yukon, and the cumulative passage at the sonar project near Pilot Station is approximately 130,000 Chinook,” she announced. Though a full week earlier than historical runs, Schmidt said the final king salmon passage—estimated to be anywhere from 47,000 thousand to 63,000 fish—is now passing the final observation point in Alaska near the community of Eagle. While the overall run may be low, Schmidt said escapement targets could still be reached, and she credited successful management and restraint from users along the river as key to reaching those targets.
“This year we’ve taken more unprecedented management actions and have not been fishing on those lower river stocks, as we have in past years,” she told the teleconference. “So that’s a good sign that the management actions we’ve taken have been able to get fish on the spawning grounds.”
As for the fishermen on the upper river still waiting for salmon, Estensen said the openings will come soon—as early as this upcoming weekend—and he said the Department of Fish and Game is prepared to halt the commercial harvest downriver if subsistence users aren’t catching what they need.
“If we get to points like we did last year where we kind of have doldrums, or kind of a lull as we like to call it, we may find ourselves pulling back a little bit on the commercial fishery to let some fish by, so we have some going up river for subsistence,” he said.
“Then, once we’re back to where we feel like we need to be, then we resume commercial fishing.”
A full list of fall chum openings on the Yukon River can be found among the Alaska Department of Fish and Game releases for 2014.