Alaska Salmon 2011: Not Too Shabby

‘More than a few bright spots, very few total washouts.’
Fishery manager terms estimated return of 160 million a ‘top 20 percent’ year.

By Tom Reale

The 2011 salmon sportfishing season was the usual mixed bag of ups, downs, missed predictions, surprises for biologists, and just general chaos. However, there were more than a few bright spots in the season, and very few total washouts.

In Southeast, salmon fishing for kings and silvers was pretty much in line with projections, with pink salmon being the biggest shortfall. However, since pinks are rarely targeted by sportfishers, this was mostly a commercial fishing problem.


In the Bristol Bay area, Chinook “returns were consistent with expectations, and there weren’t any emergency closures for kings out there, and the runs weren’t as bad as last year,” said Craig Schwanke, fisheries biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish & Game.

The Nushagak sonar counter tallied nearly 60,000 kings for the year, peaking around the third week of June, so compared to other years, a middle-of-the-road return.

Red salmon numbers for the area were better. According to Schwanke, all the escapement goals for sockeyes in the Bristol Bay region were met, although some commercial openings had to be curtailed in order for that to happen.

Silvers in the region were not noteworthy for being either high or low for the year, chums aren’t managed in Bristol Bay, and pink salmon are an even-year occurrence, so there weren’t any humpies to speak of out there.

KINGS WERE PRESENT in catchable though low numbers in the famed Kenai River; ADFG’s Web site says,

“The season finished with very low fishing success rates.”

The 2009, ’10 and ’11 seasons were quite similar in numbers of kings present in the river, and the surveys show a pretty steady decline in return numbers since 2003 when over 55,000 fish were estimated to have passed by the sonar counters.

This is known as the most popular sportfishing venue in Alaska, so when things are bad on the Kenai, it tends to have a ripple effect on businesses on the Kenai Peninsula and throughout Southcentral.

In Upper Cook Inlet, the Deshka River aims for a Chinook escapement between 13,000 and 28,000 fish, and the counters came up with about 19,000, right in the middle of what they aim for, according to Sam Ivey of the Palmer Fish & Game office. The streams on the east side of the Parks Highway in the Mat-Su Valley are a traditional hotbed of activity for Valley and Anchorage anglers, but this year numbers were down, and the Board of Fish decided to try and reduce the catch numbers by cutting off one weekend of fishing and to prohibit overnight fishing. Even with these restrictions, there were still a number of escapement goals that weren’t met in the Talkeetna drainage.

As for why king numbers are lower is anybody’s guess, but the fact that it’s consistent over such an enormous area and length of time points to something going on at sea – climate change, commercial fishing issues, hatchery fish outcompeting natural runs, baitfish problems, long-term ebbs and rises in salmon populations.

Silvers in Upper Cook Inlet provided fair to good fishing, but not anywhere that consistently produced hot fishing. According to Ivey, the reduced numbers of coho salmon in the inlet were an area-wide phenomenon, which probably points to marine survival issues. Whether that’s a function of water conditions, intercept catches by the commercial fleet or any one of a number of other factors, nobody knows, but quick turn-arounds are possible.

“Coho rebound numbers can be spectacular – sometimes it only takes a few coho to make a lot of coho,” Ivey said, so there’s always hope. Stay tuned.

One saving grace for the year was a great chum salmon return. While most people don’t target chums, they can be a great way to enjoy some fishing action while pursuing silvers – catch a few nice chums, release them if you don’t care for them as table fare, and hone your reflexes while you wait for a silver to happen by.

OVERALL THE STATE SAW a return of roughly 160 million salmon. Geron Bruce, deputy director of ADFG’s commercial fisheries division, was quoted in the Anchorage Daily News as saying, “Still, it will rank in the top 20 percent of Alaska’s salmon harvests since statehood. And there’s been pretty good distribution all around the fishing regions. Not like last year when it was really concentrated in Bristol Bay and Prince William Sound, and other areas really had subpar seasons.”

The other nice surprise was the red salmon run in the Kenai River system. The sonar counter near the river mouth counted over 1.6 million fish by the time it was shut down, the sport limit was doubled to six fish per day, and personal use dipnetters had a banner year in the Kenai and Kasilof Rivers. While the runs in the Russian River never quite lived up to the standard set in the Kenai, overall the numbers in the whole system were quite good.

If you look at the big picture for the year, there were more than a few bright spots, and, as far as sportfishers were concerned, no real disasters to speak of.

The worst you can say about many spots were that the salmon fishing was “average,” but average for Alaska is pretty spectacular for anywhere else.

AS FOR WHAT TO EXPECT for the future, the department will gather all the data from the fish counts and catch numbers over the winter, and try to come up with a good guess as to what to expect for 2012.

If you’re thinking of making the trip next year, monitor the ADFG’s Web site for the latest info, brush up on your technique, and no matter what the projections are, come on up anyway – you’ll be fishing in Alaska! How bad can it be? ASJ