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Size Matters: Alaska’s Salmon And Halibut Shrinking?

Aaron Williams with a pink of 5.46 pounds

Photo by Valdez Fish Derbies

Photo by Valdez Fish Derbies

Photo by Valdez Fish Derbies

Fascinating report in The Alaska Dispatch analyzing the size of some of Alaska gamefish like salmon and halibut.

Here’s reporter Sean Doogan:

Small fish were also gumming up the top of many of the state’s silver salmon derby leader boards. And fisheries biologists say that red salmon in Cook Inlet, Bristol Bay and Prince William Sound were noticeably smaller this year, too.

Cook Inlet commercial fisheries biologists are still crunching the numbers from this year’s run, but they’ve already have noticed a trend — shorter, and thinner sockeye salmon.

“That was the attention-grabbing species during course of summer,” said Alaska Department of Fish and Game Cook Inlet Commercial Fisheries Biologist Pat Shields.

Bristol Bay, which hosts the largest wild run of sockeye in the world, saw reds arrive small and late. According to Fish and Game, the average size of red salmon caught commercially in Bristol Bay in 2015 was the smallest on record: 5.12 pounds — almost 13 percent smaller than the average. By contrast, the average weight for Bristol Bay reds last year was 5.96 pounds.

There were similar stories throughout Alaska.

“The size of sockeye is much smaller than average this year, and we are seeing that around the state,” said Jason Pawluk, a sportfishing biologist with Fish and Game’s Soldotna office.


Whether or not this is an anomaly or a sign of things to come, it’s something to think about and continue to monitor for sure.



Brown Bear That Mauled Hunter Found Dead

Photo by Tom Reale

Photo by Tom Reale


This is a few days old, but a brown bear that mauled a hunter has been found dead close to the original attack site.

From the Associated Press:

The adult female bear was found Wednesday mortally wounded about 100 yards from the attack site in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge after being shot. Officials say two bullet wounds were found in the bear.

There were no signs of her cubs. Game officials said the bear was not actively nursing, suggesting the cubs were at least yearlings and possibly 2- or 3-year-olds old.

Gregory Matthews of Plano (PLAY’-noh), Texas, is recovering at a nearby hospital after being attacked Tuesday while moose hunting.

King Salmon, Alaska Named One Of Top Destinations

The Bristol Bay area was named one of nine destinations to visit in USA Today's fishing and hunting magazine. (BECCA ELLINGSWORTH)

The Bristol Bay area was named one of nine destinations to visit in USA Today’s fishing and hunting magazine. (BECCA ELLINGSWORTH)



USA Today’s summer/fall fishing and hunting guide is out, and King Salmon, Alaska, made the list of nine top destinations to head to.

Here’s some of the description:

The name says it all — King Salmon, a small town in southwest Alaska that provides access to the Bristol Bay watershed and its run of the five species of Pacific salmon. The fishery hosts more than 37,000 anglers annually, but don’t worry about crowds — we’re talking 40,000 square miles of unspoiled wilderness the size of Wisconsin that encompasses five national parks and streams so numerous many of them aren’t even named.

   Among salmon, kings and silvers draw the most attention from sport anglers; kings arrive mid-June and silvers in August.

   In between, sockeyes, pinks and chums return to their natal waters — the sockeye run can reach 40 million. The Naknek and Nushagak rivers are best for kings but also boast strong runs of silvers, which return to streams distributed throughout the watershed.


Evidence Of Ancient Alaska Salmon Fishing Found



Photo by Thomas Quine/Flickr

Photo by Thomas Quine/Flickr

I’m a big history geek and love stories like this one in the Alaska Dispatch. Evidence has been unearthed linking this state’s dependence and reverence for salmon fishing dates back thousands of years:

A study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found the earliest known evidence Ice Age humans in North America used salmon as a food source. Ancient DNA and stable isotope analysis from salmon vertebrae bones found in Interior Alaska indicate sea-run chum salmon were consumed by North American hunters 11,500 years ago.

 The study notes that the findings are significant because it shows that Ice Age Paleoindians also fished, altering the understanding that the group was focused primarily on hunting big game. The study also notes that the findings at the Upward Sun River site — approximately 1,400 kilometers upriver from the coast — show chum salmon spawning runs were established by the end of the last Ice Age.

 “There’s such economic and cultural importance (of salmon) to Native Alaskans and Native Americans,” said Carrin Halffman, UAF biological anthropologist and lead author of the study. “To find out that salmon fishing has such deep roots in Alaska and North America is very significant.”


Dr. Ben Potter, UAF professor of anthropology and project director at the Upward Sun River site, said the findings also have broader implications toward understanding the technology, economy and settlement patterns of early Alaskans.


He said the salmon, with their large, annual runs, likely played into how early humans collected the resource and shaped their life patterns.


“It’s a very predictable resource, versus going after caribou, which is not quite as predictable,” Potter said.

 The bones were found in a hearth at the Upward Sun River site near the Tanana River located east of Fairbanks. The same site is the location of the oldest human remains ever found in the North American Arctic and subarctic.



Sportsman Channel Host Faces Poaching Charges


Clark W. Dixon of Hazelhurts, Miss. has hosted the Sportsman Channel series The Syndicate. But Dixon faces multiple poaching violations in Alaska.

Here’s the Associated Press:

“The charges show five years of documented, illegal take of wildlife involving over two dozen big game animals,” Loeffler said.

There were at least four hunts conducted for the show in Alaska over that time span, said Steven Skrocki, the lead prosecutor.

“All of the Alaska hunts that appeared on his show were conducted illegally,” he said, adding they “were edited to appear not illegal.”

Loeffler noted that various types of hunting, including commercial and subsistence hunting, is allowed in the preserve, north of the Arctic Circle.

“This is an amazing state, and what we have here is very inviting to people from outside and should be,” she said. “We just want people to do it legally.”

Prosecutors charged a host of the show, Clark W. Dixon, 41, of Hazlehurst, Mississippi, with two felony violations of the Lacey Act. The others who were charged, from Alaska, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana and Nevada, face misdemeanors or ticket offenses.

A message left by The Associated Press at Dixon’s home Monday evening was not immediately returned. Sportsman Channel spokesman Tom Caraccioli said the channel has no comment.

Among those charged is Dixon’s father, Charles W. Dixon, 70, of Brookhaven, Mississippi, and authorities are seeking forfeiture of his aircraft.


Lost Hunter Subsisted On Berries, Bird

Photo by Kristine Sowl, USFWS

Photo by Kristine Sowl, USFWS



Hunters and anglers get lost in Alaska all the time, sometimes with tragic results. But a reported happy ending  for 49-year-old Charlie Hull.

From KTUU:

“Every time [people] come back from moose camp there’s always a different story and that’s what I said before I left. I want my own story,” said Hull. “I wasn’t expecting this.”

The trouble began last Saturday, Hull said, when he told his fellow hunters he was going for a short walk to look for moose around 7 a.m. He quickly became surrounded by fog, he said, and couldn’t see more than 15 feet. 

He was wearing sweatpants beneath neon green rain pants, two layers of shirts, a sweatshirt, a beanie and rain boots at the time. The only other items he had were two guns and a Bowie knife. …

He slept in the cold without a sleeping bag and lived on fresh river water and berries. On Tuesday, the third day of the ordeal, he used a rifle to shoot a spruce hen, he said. 

“Believe it or not but grouse ain’t bad, raw grouse is not bad,” said Hull.

Here are the Alaska State Troopers dispatches on the case:




Surviving Wild Alaska Constestant Charged In Fatal Wreck


National Geographic Channel

National Geographic Channel

My story last year with now three-time Iditarod winner Dallas Seavey was one of my favorites projects. I enjoyed Seavey’s candor and admired his skills as both a dog musher and his overall outdoorsman skills. Seavey even teamed with two other men, Sean Burch and Eddie Ahyakak, to win the National Geographic Series  Ultimate Survival Alaska in 2014. But tragedy offscreen struck when Ahyakak was involved in a July 2014 car accident on the Old Richardson Highway. The other driver was killed in the wreck, and Alaska State Troopers announced Wednesday charges will be filed against Ahyakak.

From the Alaska Dispatch via the Fairbanks News-Miner:

Online court records list Eddie Ahyakak, 38, as charged with criminally negligent homicide in a case first filed Tuesday. The date of the offense — July 29, 2014 — is the same as that of a wreck in which Alaska State Troopers said Ahyakak’s Ford F-350 pickup crossed the center line of the Old Richardson Highway at Mile 12, colliding with a Chevrolet Suburban driven by 59-year-old Ernest Ford.

Ford died at the scene, while Ahyakak was taken to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital for treatment of serious injuries. Troopers closed the highway for about five hours as they investigated the crash.

The show has endured multiple terrible moments. In May, former cast member Jimmy Gaydos (Gojdics) was found dead from to a gunshot in his Fairbanks home.

Hunters Should Be Wary Of Train Traffic

Photo by Kolmkolm/Wikimedia

Photo by Kolmkolm/Wikimedia

A really informative story from the Alaska Dispatch on hunter safety regarding railroads.  The author of the story, Doug Engebretson, is the chief operating officer for the Alaska Railroad. 

Here are some of Engebretson’s thoughts:

I grew up hunting with my own father, and ever since my sons were old enough to join me on moose hunts, I’ve continued that family tradition with them. Even now that my children are grown, we still head into the backcountry on moose hunts, and it is a time I cherish. We’re as eager as anyone to have a season that includes plenty of birds or a moose for the freezer, but none of that is worth risking our lives. The best hunt is always one where everyone comes home safely.

At the Alaska Railroad, many hunting enthusiasts like me are aware of the prime hunting grounds around our tracks, but all Alaskans must be sure to follow the law when it comes to track safety and Alaska Railroad right of way. You may think using the tracks as a path to access your favorite hunting spot seems harmless, but that could not be further from the truth. In fact, on average, 500 people in the United States die each year on the tracks. Even when the Alaska Railroad’s summer service subsides, we run dozens of trains along the Railbelt every single day. Having people on the tracks not only endangers their lives, but it puts the safety of Alaska Railroad employees and passengers in jeopardy.



Caribou 1


Editor’s note: The following story appears in the September issue of Alaska Sporting Journal 

Story and photos by Steve Meyer
The apparitions ghosting out of the brushline in the early morning haze that blanketed the mountain valley slowly became two caribou bulls some 700 yards away.
Surveying the options for cover to make a stalk didn’t take long: There wasn’t any. The stunted blueberry bushes and lichen that comprise most of the vegetation on the northern slopes of the eastern Brooks Range might lend concealment to a snake, but not much else.
A prayer to the hunting gods – “Please let them come this way” – may not have helped, but when the pair of bulls turned and started our direction, it seemed worth the small effort. The capricious and unpredictable mountain wind was generally quartering across our right shoulders and would eventually intersect the path of the two handsome animals.
As they came closer, the binoculars confirmed both bulls to be mature, respectable representatives, all we were looking for. Around 400 yards out, the mountain landscape concealed a draw that took them out of sight, allowing us to move rapidly closer, and when the antlers rose out of the draw, the caribou were at 175 yards, nicely confirmed by Christine Cunningham’s 10×42 Swarovski rangefinding binoculars.
The bull on the right appeared slightly larger than his buddy, and Christine settled into a solid sitting position for the shot. On they came on a dead course to intercept our wind. At 125 yards, the larger bull’s head went up and he turned, ran a few paces and stopped broadside to Christine’s position.
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CHRISTINE CAME TO the hunting arena in 2006, crawling through tidal duck muck with a borrowed shotgun. A hunter wasn’t born that day; she had been a hunter all of her life, but she had never had the opportunity to unleash the passion for nature’s most honest relationship until the moment in time that allowed her two clean misses on a pair of fast flying wigeon.
Bird hunting became her immediate passion, and with an extended family of three chocolate Labrador retrievers, two English setters and an Irish setter, hunting time was booked solidly in the bird department.
Big game hunting was always in the back of her mind, but time just seemed to pass too quickly to engage in yet another outdoor endeavor. When Christine met Emily Thoft through the rapidly growing community of female hunters, things began to change.
Emily and Matt Thoft own and operate Silvertip Aviation, L.L.C. (907-676-0421silvertipaviation.com), an air taxi/ transporter service, and Orvis Outfitters, a big game outfitting and guiding service. The Thofts are registered Alaska big game guides and pilots, and during the late July to August big game season, operate out of their lodge on the Ivishak River, on the northern slopes of the eastern Brooks Range.
When asked about hunting big game, Christine had explained the difficulty of giving up time from the bird dogs once upland season began Aug. 10. Emily solved the problem by advising Christine that caribou hunting in their area of operation opened July 1, and that they would be up there around the end of July. A hunt scheduled for 2014 was derailed when a litter of English setter pups entered this world, but there was no problem changing to 2015, and so we scheduled a July 30 fly-out.
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LOGISTICALLY, HUNTING IN the Brooks Range – particularly the northern slopes – requires a bit more of a commitment than the typical Alaska resident fly-out with a transporter or guided nonresident hunt. For our hunt we would drive the Dalton Highway, otherwise known as the “haul road,” from Livengood to Happy Valley. It was a trip of some 335 miles of broken pavement, potholed gravel, narrow bridges and lots of semitruck traffic. Traveling the Dalton is a story in itself, and our two-day adventure on it was a great experience.
We arrived in Happy Valley, an abandoned pipeline camp with an airstrip that services several air taxi operations. There we were met by Matt in his Cessna 185 wheel plane. Unlike many parts of Alaska, wheel planes are prolific in the far north; the terrain lends itself to these marvelous machines. The aircraft was limited to 60 pounds of gear per person, so loading the 185 was quick and the view that materialized as we gained elevation was in itself worth the trip.
After we landed on the Ivishak River, which serves as an airstrip for the Orvis Outfitter Lodge, we unloaded gear for the next stage of the trip, a Super Cub flight into hunting country.
Our destination would take us into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, 19 million acres of one of the last truly wild places on the North American continent. Sadly enough, ANWR is in constant political and corporate turmoil over the desire to develop it. Words and photographs cannot adequately describe the wildness exuded by this magnificent chunk of real estate; being on the ground in it is a life-changing experience for anyone who embraces wilderness.
As I made the first flight in with Matt in his highly modified PA 12 Cub, caribou and grizzly bears dotted the landscape below. The “airstrip” where we elected to begin the hunt was a shale-strewn ridge surrounded by mountains and guarded by a gorgeous blonde grizzly bear in a creekbottom some three-quarters of a mile from where camp would be.
I set up camp with a backdrop of roaming caribou in the high ridges around the site. They were seeking the high ground where wind keeps insects and heat at bay. When Christine arrived on the second flight, the caribou had started to move down the shale slopes into the surrounding valley.
Since we had flown in, hunting could not start until after 3 a.m. the following morning. That was OK, as it allowed us time to soak in the silence and beauty of our playground.
The area was flanked on the north by rugged blue-gray shale slopes and jagged rocks. It was more of the same to the south, where the valleys below were blanketed in lichen – a mainstay of caribou diet – blueberry scrubs and salmon berries.
Scattered throughout the valley were shed caribou antlers, bleached white by weather and sun, revealing that herds spent time here in the winter. These antlers are considered artifacts and are not to be taken or even moved from their natural resting place.
As we sat in front of our tent a young cow caribou came prancing up the slope to the west, displaying the innate curiosity that has a way of ending badly for caribou. Christine waved at her and she ran back and forth, coming to around 50 yards from us before she caught a whiff of our scent and trotted down the valley to the east.
Later in the evening we scouted the area to the south and spotted a very respectable bull caribou feeding along, oblivious to our presence. We weren’t looking for a record-book bull; a mature representative animal that would provide winter meat was Christine’s goal.
This bull filled the bill just fine and Christine was excited and insisted we just go back to camp and find him in the morning. That was OK, except that with caribou, the odds of them being in the same area the next day are not great. Caribou don’t know where they will be tomorrow; they move constantly, and often it is a matter of cutting off their direction of travel to get a shot.
 Still, the odds were in our favor. The caribou had come to the valley off the surrounding ridges, it was fairly late in the day, and it seemed likely they would bed down in the vicinity.
There were numerous calves amongst the cows and young bulls in the valley, and the grizzly that we had seen flying in was only a quarter-mile away from some of the cows and calves. He could be a game changer.
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SLEEP WAS FITFUL. This time of year and this far north it does not get dark – more like dusk – and we tossed and turned, all the while listening to the periodic “click” sound caribou hooves made as they trotted by the tent. We could legally hunt at 3 a.m. but elected to wait until 4:30 for the sake of not getting overanxious.
We sought a vantage point overlooking the valley that bottomed out at a brush-choked creek. Dotted around the valley were caribou, most still bedded down, and only their heads and small antlers visible. But there were no bulls. We climbed over a knoll to overlook the area where the bull had been the night before. The valley floor was such that any caribou bedded down there would be visible; there were none.
From that spot we could see caribou cows and calves starting to move southwest towards a pass that would take them up onto a steep shale ridge. We theorized that if the bulls were still in the area, they were probably bedded down along the brush line of the creek and would eventually follow the cows and calves. We moved to another viewing area where we saw the aforementioned bulls.
Anxiety, buck fever or whatever one chooses to call it is a very real dilemma, especially for the first-time big game hunter. Many are the stories of disastrous first shots and they are hardly gender specific. But Christine is an accomplished wingshooter and had been practicing shooting from field positions all summer with her .300 Weatherby, reliably hitting vital zone targets out to 300 yards.
The sound of her shot blended with the “whack” of a solid hit; heart-shot, the bull staggered and started the typical run. When Christine hit him again, it dropped the animal.
We walked up to the gorgeous bull and found the light gone from his eyes. Christine knelt beside him, stroking the soft velvet of his antlers, unable to speak. After several minutes she looked at me, her face breaking out into a familiar smile. It left no doubt that this was the beginning of many more hunting adventures for big game.
It is rare to have a first time for anything and have it go perfect; this was one of those times.
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