More than 2.5 million sockeye have returned to spawn in the Nushagak River this year, one of the highest counts on record. They have filled pools and creeks, jumping and swimming their way to their spawning grounds.
“I’ve seen a lot of red salmon this year. There was so much salmon in the river. Usually we get our kings first, but my dad brought home over a hundred reds the first time I cut fish,” Frances Nelson of Koliganek said. Koliganek is the uppermost village on the Nushagak River.
King salmon are conspicuously missing from the nets in the village. Local families have had to travel to places like New Stuyahok and Lewis Point to catch them. While many in Koliganek do that every year to get an earlier start on processing fish, this year even families who usually get their kings near their village went downriver.
Local elder George Nelson usually catches 100 to 150 kings at Koliganek in a season. After setting his net for a month, he has only caught six or seven.
Diane Ishnook has lived in Koliganek since she was a child. She and her family set their nets off of Tuumartuli, Cranberry Creek. In three weeks, she caught one king. Her sister got two in two weeks.
“Normally we could catch up to 30 or 40 a day, like 18 in the morning or 15 at night. We’d have to check it twice a day,” Ishnook said.
Ishnook said that people are puzzled as to why the kings have not arrived yet. She also has another theory.
“We were thinking that maybe there are so many reds that they’re pushing the kings out the middle of the river,” Ishnook explained.
If that is the case, king salmon may simply be escaping the nets set for them.
Frances Nelson is also from Koliganek. She stands in the doorway of her smokehouse. It smells sharply of cottonwood smoke and salmon, which hangs in from wooden racks. The small wooden structure is full of both kings and reds. The kings she has cut into long strips. The sockeye are split in half with only the base of the tail joined so that each fish can be hung over the rack to dry.
Nelson’s kings were caught downriver, but she is sure that there are king salmon near Koliganek as well.
“I think there were lots of kings in the river. I don’t ever want to say there’s a shortage of kings in this river. That’s just talk. If those downriver people harvested all their kings that they did down at the mouth of the Nushagak River in Dillingham and Clark’s Point, you know there were a lot of kings coming up this river,” Nelson said.
Sport fishing provides another perspective on the unusually low king catches in set nets. Katrina Merlino, the village Indian Environmental General Assistance Program coordinator, said that people who sport fish for a full day are catching upwards of six kings.
“Usually the nets catch a lot more than we do rod and reel,” Merlino explained. “I really think that the kings are coming up in the middle channel and riding along the banks because right where all the rod and reel fishers are, they go right where there’s still water and right in the current and they leave their line right there, it seems like that’s where they’re catching the most kings.”
While no one in Koliganek can do more than hypothesize about why the kings are hitting the nets so sparsely, there seems to be little concern. Freezers are full, and most people have already smoked as many fish as they will need for the year. Nelson takes a no-nonsense attitude toward the whole situation.
“People all along this river have gotten their king salmon,” Nelson said. “It’s just a different year, a different season. As Alaska Natives we always know how to adjust to change. There’s always different changes in our ecosystem, and we learn to adjust to those changes.”
The coming years will tell whether this year’s run is an anomaly or whether it is indicative of a long-term shift in the way salmon run up the Nushagak.