The Nushagak River is having a near record return of sockeye salmon. Normally, the river is more famous for the strength of its king return, where many other Alaska rivers have struggled. This year, though the king run has struggled or at least run late, to the frustration of the anglers who line the river’s banks in June and July. Some sportfish operators say they would like to see some changes in the commercial sockeye fishery downstream to help protect the kings.
There is no formal forecast issued for Nushagak kings anymore, but going into the season, state biologists felt it would be another good year.
But the season got off to an achingly slow start, just as anglers showed up to fish the famous waters. On June 21st, sportsfishing guide Chris Carr lent voice to how few kings had gotten upstream thus far:
“Two days ago we set the net, let it sit overnight,” Carr said. “That was a mistake. It took my daughter and all everything we had to pull that thing up. So we took another nice brand new net, set it on this morning’s tide, let it sit for six hours, and same thing: not one fish and every web covered in the green algae.”
The kings trickled in, but not on an escapement “curve” that suggested it would make its 95,000 in-river goal. Early on the numbers of kings counted at the Portage Creek sonar site showed something was off. Alaska Sportsman’s Lodge King Camp Manager Jeff Pfaender said his repeat clients could tell, too.
“Like I said before it’s our clients that have been here and know that and it’s a slow day when you’re out there watching the tip of the road and you’re knowing ‘God, normally I can catch 20 a day and I’m struggling to get my four or five out of the day.’ And I know that the client is sitting there thinking the same thing too.”
Anglers know that fishing is fishing, and there are few guarantees when booking any trip tied to Alaska salmon. However, Pfaender, who has 23 years’ experience with this river, has been frustrated by what he sees as a chance to place a greater priority on protecting kings.
“The biologists that manage this area, I know they have mandates and management plans in place, and it’s upsetting that they won’t take initiative, even though those mandates are there to see how hard the things are being hit this year.”
The upriver anglers are about the last in line to get a chance at the kings, after the commercial sockeye fishermen net up tens of thousands and subsistence fishing around Dillingham harvests around 12,000 too. This frustrates the clients of Bob Toman, the founder of Toman’s King Camp on the Nushagak.
“It’s the last one to get the fish,” Toman said. “The first ones are caught out in the ocean by, you know like salmon, by trawlers and stuff. And then they get closer and gillnetters get them and then the sports guys get them. So if any of those over harvest, there’s not enough left for us, and then for the Fish and Game to meet their quotas for the specific river.”
Jeff Pfaender said repeatedly that he doesn’t see this as an issue of sport vs. commercial, which breeds some of the ugliest fish politics from other Alaska fisheries. However, he does hope that perhaps the commercial fleet could pause to help out the king numbers.
“I’d like to see at least every other tide be un-netted and allowed to come in the river,” Pfaender said. “And it may only take one or two days to jump us above our minimum escapement goals on kings.”
But while the kings have lagged, the Nushagak sockeye are returning in some of the highest numbers ever recorded. Pausing the commercial fishing downstream would only allow more “over” escapement, something area management biologist Tim Sands doesn’t see as an option.
“Our system is so dynamic,” Sands said. “We have these huge masses of sockeye coming in. Taking a tide off is catastrophic potentially.”
The Nushagak-Mulchatna King Salmon Management Plan governs decisions on the sport, subsistence, and commercial fishing of this species. Former ADF&G sportfish biologist Dan Dunaway helped draft those rules, which he believes have largely been successful:
“There’s been a lot of dissatisfaction expressed by some sport folks over the way the plan worked out, but it’s what was politically viable at the time in front of the Board of Fish and with the local users of all groups.”
Dunaway added that he would be interested to see parts of the plan reviewed.
“It would be interesting to gather up the available data to look at sport harvest, sport impact,” Dunaway said. “Also possibly, I seem to recall that there’s been a potential for a growth in the subsistence harvest, especially the subsistence impact in the Dillingham locale. And this is something else that can get kind of tricky. Upriver villages I would say are truly a lot more dependent on that king run.”
The king run continues to build slowly, creeping towards the lower end of its goal. It’s possible they are just running late this year, perhaps due to the low water or lack of windy days that normally push fish. If the run comes in on size, likely most concerns will be calmed, but if the numbers stay low proposals may emerge to change the management plan.
Correction: This story originally misquoted Bob Toman as referring to trollers when he actually was talking about trawlers. It has been fixed.