Using the wind and mosquitoes as signs, elders predict late salmon run in Yukon-Kuskokwim region

Kuskokwim River break-up in front of Bethel, Alaska on the evening of May 3, 2020. (Katie Basile/KYUK)

Salmon are beginning to swim up the river, and many people are watching to see what kind of run there will be on the Kuskokwim this year.

James Nicori, one of four in-season managers with the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, says that the traditional indicators he’s learned from his elders tell him a lot. One of them is the wind’s role in pushing salmon along their migration routes.

“When there is a certain wind direction, it pushes fish in the mouth of the river,” Nicori said.

The other major indicator is the nature of the spring bird migration. Nikori says that the size and timing of the migration are both important: if the birds arrive all at once, so will the fish. But if the birds arrive spread out, so will the fish.  

“Looking at the birds and observing them, they were late. So those salmon will come in, but the high numbers will be at a later date,” Nicori said.

But another sign is the size of the mosquitoes when they first arrive, and he, along with many others, noticed that the mosquitos are pretty big this spring.

“This year, when the mosquitos first came in they were a bigger mosquito than last year, and the first kings that I caught were bigger than last year,” Nicori said.

But what will happen this season, no one knows for certain. Both scientific and traditional knowledge predictions are, after all, just predictions.

Mary Peltola, the executive director of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, also fishes the Kuskokwim. She said that the closure of the lower river to gillnets, which started June 1 this year, is later than in previous years. Instead of two gillnet fishing opportunities during the closure, there are three this year. Each are also twice as long as the usual 12-hour openings. The first 24-hour set-net opening started on June 3 at 11 a.m., and closed June 4 at 11 a.m.  There are two more set-net openings scheduled for June 6 and June 9. The nets are limited to 6-inch mesh, can be no more than 45 meshes in depth, and need to be no more than 60 feet in length.

“Which is very short for our standards in this section of the river,” Peltola said.

Peltola says that the nets must be set in such a way that they are not intentionally targeting king salmon. 

“The way the law is written, it said, ‘Set gillnets may not be operated more than 100 feet from the ordinary high-water mark, must be attached to the bank, and perpendicular to the river,’” Peltola said. “I don’t even understand the legal requirements, but I do understand not setting the net to intentionally catch king salmon.”

Managers say that these fishing opportunities are designed to catch other species than king salmon, but any kings that are caught can be kept. The front-end closure on the lower Kuskokwim River is designed to get some of those big king salmon upriver to spawning grounds so that they can make more big kings for coming years. 

Gear like dip-nets, beach seines, fish wheels, and hook and line can be used during the closure, and federally qualified subsistence users will be allowed to harvest all kings caught with those devices.

KYUK reporter Greg Kim contributed to this story.