Fish Counting, How’s That Work?

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One of the most important data items to both the fisheries management department and the sport fishing community alike are the fish count numbers. Counts are conducted by various means, some rivers are done using a combination of sonar devices and netting to assess run strength. How this system works (in some locations) is that the submerged sonar will detect numbers of fish passing a given point in a river. In order to assess what those blips on a data screen are nets and sometimes fish wheels are employed to take a sampling of the traffic associated with the electronic results. By this means the sonar records numbers of fish passing and the net samples help to identify the species. Of course given the size of rivers and the time lapse between the sonar readings and the actual nettings there is some margin of error in absolutely proclaiming what fish was actually counted.

Some rivers experience a great deal of overlapping species traveling at the same time such as both king salmon and sockeye moving in mid June. Other rivers have a much more defined run of each species at any given date. On smaller rivers the ‘picket Weir’ is employed to impede free travel up river by the salmon and these weirs direct the salmon to just one passage point. On these ‘hand count’ stations there is less error in identifying what species and the exact numbers which pass the count area.

Click the image below for a good look at a picket weir, back arrow to return to the page.

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In that image the platform where the fellow is standing is the side where the fish will follow a funnel like structure on the downstream side which will effectively corral them into the count box. This ‘box’ is what it sounds like, a chamber that all fish must pass through to reach their upstream destination. While the water in the chamber may be deep, the gate that allows passage is but a foot beneath the surface so the fish are clearly visible to staff as they make their passage. These stations are remote and are supported with an on site base camp complete with a wireless hookup so daily counts can be sent in to the department of fish & games offices for tabulation. Count is done using an analog device for which a button is actually pressed for each of the five species of salmon identified in passage.

Below you have a view as would the staff of salmon in the passage chamber. The second picture of the lone fish it that of a silver salmon who has found the gate to upstream closed. This fish will be netted for measurement and for tissue sampling to be done.

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The tissue samples help to age the specimen and to determine it point of origin to see whether it is in fact a natal fish returning or a wanderer from another watershed running with the pack. While we have been conditioned to believe that a salmon will almost without fail find its exact place of birth for reproduction it is becoming increasingly evident that this is not always the case. This among other reasons makes the genetic tracking of fish important.

In the sequence of images below the trapped silver has been netted and is quickly measured, and a single scale tissue removed.   All of this in an amazingly short time and the fish gently set free above the weir to continue its journey.

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Naturally if that silver was born in this river it will locate the proximity of its origin and breed there if it does not fall prey to either man or eagle before spawning. In most rivers here there are very few good fishing spots for brown bears because of the relative depth of the waters. Places like the Russian River down on the Peninsula are host to many bears because they are shallow and make the fishing very much in favor of the bruins who live in the area. That shallow water is I believe what draws so many fishermen to that river also. When I first came to Alaska I fished there but soon determined that what I was seeing and experiencing was not salmon fishing. it was more of a terminal harvest area where a thousand men were elbowing one another to fish in water sometimes not more that 14″ in depth. As you read my postings here you may begin to think that I don’t think highly of ‘The World Famous Russian’ and you would be correct. It is a beautiful creek but hardly a river and some of the behavior I have witnessed there is….. well, reprehensible.

Getting back on rack here, the weirs are equipped with an electric wench which operates a boat gate as seen below.

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When lowered it allows just enough draft for a jet boat to skin its way over the framework and pass. If you look closely at that picture you will see a large chum salmon who had first decided to rejoin his friends below the weir by going over the boat chute and at the last moment before plunging down he wanted back upstream. I am told by staff that the chum are the most common species to do this. other fishes like kings and silvers tend to get on with their travels while the chum linger about the weir. I ask about the number of fish going back and if they were accounted in the daily figures and was told that if they are witnessed they are not counted twice, in other words one fish gets a free pass for each that slides back.

On the day I took these pictures there were some nice specimens sampled in my presence as seen below. I was at the time shooting wide angle and the fish didn’t fit in the first frame shot.

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I hope you have enjoyed this visit to a count station with me, the purpose of these posts is to inform and also to hopefully build confidence in that I am not only a fly casting fisherman but a student of what is happening around me. The more I know, the better it is for anyone who chooses to go fishing with me. Fishing, I very well know is never guaranteed. On any given day things may shine or they may not, I am simply doing everything I can to try putting the odds in my favor :)

Ard

New Fishing Options Coming in 2014;

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If you are reading the pages and thinking you might want to give my area a try in 2014, by all means drop me an e-mail through the site here. I am putting together a ‘totally new’ way to provide a quality and exciting fishing experience for visitors in the new year. I am calling this ‘Adventure Fishing’ and I’m serious about the title.

I am absolutely excited for spring ever since this started to come together for me. If and when you would contact and ask about this service I will be wanting to call you to provide details. Why the secrecy? Why not just make a page here on the site to highlight this?

It’s simple, there are a lot of guides in Alaska, there are plenty in my area, I use Google analytics to track what’s happening with traffic to the site and I see how many visits are from Alaska :)  I don’t really plan to discuss rivers – creeks or methods by name on the site. Face it, I’m a fisherman and we are a secretive lot.

 

If were to try the Adventure Trip you’ll love it I’m sure.

 

Ard

How Trout Fishing is Linked to the Salmon, Our Migratory Trout

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For viewing media inserts simply mouse over the image and click for enlargement :)

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Something to acknowledge in this first sentence is that I am not a fisheries biologist. I do seem to have a fair grasp of sciences and so try to relate my observations to others. These ideas are taken from years in the field combined with my understanding of theory and known facts.

 

I grew up fishing the mountain streams of North Central Pennsylvania, not here in Alaska. In my area trout were to some degree migratory because during the 20′th Century that region of the Mid Atlantic had what I would call real winter conditions. In those conditions there were prolonged periods of cold and water levels dropped significantly beneath the ice that very often covered many of the freestone streams and also the rivers & lakes into which they flowed.  I was well into my 40′s before I understood and witnessed what ‘anchor ice’ was and the effects it had on some of my favorite fisheries. The brook trout which had been populating those waters since the Wisconsin Period Glaciation or Ice Age, (which had only ended some 11,000 years prior) had evolved into a species who knew when to move about the streams and thereby avoid being trapped in areas which would become solid with ice by January nearly every season.

 

So what exactly does all this have to do with what I may or may not understand about Alaska and its trout, char and graylings? To a certain extent I was conditioned to streams that became almost uninhabitable to the resident fishes long before moving to here. The differences are that these fish have been dealing with this harsh environment for way more than 11,000 years. It took me a while to adjust to the idea of trout in some watersheds traveling as much as 50 miles to winter over and in some cases all the way to Cook Inlet for the winter…………… At this point I am becoming a little too wordy and so I will provide some pictures and then try to break this post down to a quick point by point of what I think I know about the habits and migratory patterns of the trout and their friends. In short; other than very deep pools and lakes, we have no actual resident fish that you can count on season after season. The big rainbow that you caught by the logjam in June may or may not take up residence at the same spot next June.

 

By winter the rivers that I drive my jet boat on become the highways to the Interior and they look like the picture below.

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That crevasse to the right of the snowmachine is what is called ‘an open lead’ and in this case there is not much water there at all. I was doing some learning on my own when I took the picture and discovered that much of this very wide river had receded  into a few deep channels. This leaves much of the area under the ice either very shallow, or dry gravel bars.  Seeing this made it easy to understand what happens to the smaller waterways  and larger rivers alike as the nights become colder in September. For the fish these conditions dictate that they move or die.

The trout, and for all accounts the other fish we seek, char and grayling, are all wedded to the salmon. For the sake of writing I will refer to trout but it is assumed that we are talking about the three species from here on. Because of the extended cold which can last into June and return as early as September we have low to poor aquatic insect populations in the higher elevations. Of course that affects the entire food chain, therefore the salmon are ‘the’ source of nutrition for the large part of time that the waters are ice free. With those cold September nights the runoff from marshes and snow packs is stopped by freezing. The creeks and smaller rivers drop very quickly and this signals the trout who have returned from their deep water wintering hides with the salmon that it is time to leave. These fish come in beginning with the first kings to return, the trout will be following closely behind. As each successive specie of salmon comes so do the fishes who depend upon the food that the salmon supply.

In late fall the ice begins to extend over the river channels until they are covered. At this time or as the ice covers the rivers and creeks the fish are moving downstream or have moved to deep pools where they survive for six long months of ice locked winter. On the larger or main stem rivers like Susitna, the fish may either pool up or make the trip on toward the Inlet and winter in the brackish environment there, thus producing our ‘Rainbow / Steelhead Trout’ here in the Valley.

While the fish seek food and better oxygenated water the river slows beneath the ice. Depending on how fast the melt takes place in spring you may have a very small window of time to fish the places where rivers have confluence with one another, or they may become quickly soiled as seen in early June 2012 below.

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When the ice goes out the streams transform quickly from narrow channels to roaring flows.

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When that ice clears it is only a few short weeks before the trout and other species are gathered in the lower sections of most streams. Some will begin to migrate back up, the Rainbow and Grayling are both spring spawners themselves and by mid May they are busy with propagating another generation. Many of our streams are not open to trout fishing until June 14 or 15th in order to protect the trout. Grayling can be pursued during spring as well as Dolly Varden Char.

When the first salmon show up the trout have finished their breeding and radially follow the various species of salmon on up the streams to their ancestral breeding grounds.

 

A breeding king who is taking on color                                 Followed closely by Sockeye Salmon

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Wherever those fish are active there will be trout waiting just behind the salmon to collect any stray eggs.

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This is when swinging streamer flies is such great sport and is the best time to catch a beautiful trout or char on a real fly!

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By August the game changes as the silver salmon are arriving. While you may still be thinking Trout, it is very likely you can strike silver or…..red, once they change I call them Coho.

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I guess what I have tried to say without being too technical is that fishing trout and all other species here revolves around the salmon. The salmon are the primary source of food for all species. Trout eat the fry and fingerling salmon when they can. They eat as many salmon eggs as they can catch floating down the creeks. After the salmon begin to die off by early August the trout eat the decaying flesh from the salmon and will continue to be sustained on this well into the winter. I should also note that along with the spring thaw, many salmon carcasses which have been conveniently locked in the ice & snow since October & November, are set free. Just one more way that the trout and other game fish are linked to the salmon. It is the silvers who provide this early ice out bounty because many of the late run fish are still in the head waters when the winter comes.

It is this bond between the trout and the salmon which makes this the most challenging trout fishing I have ever done. it is truly a game of hunting for them and of course knowing where best to look. This area where I am is not the Kenai or Russian Rivers, we do have trout but we must work for them. One thing I don’t have to deal with here are ‘Combat Fishing’ conditions.

 

Stay Tuned for regular content updates on this page.

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I appreciate all of you who are stopping to read these pages greatly. As the title implies, I will write tonight about what I have learned regarding the seasonal movements of our various indigenous species here in South central Alaska.

Thank you for bookmarking this site!

 

Ard

Northern Pike the Problem & the Fishing;

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If there is one thing I have been very bad about that would be documenting the pike fishing here. There are several reasons behind this short coming; one is that I have never been a rabid pike fisherman and secondly they are viewed as a problem in my area not a sport fish. Never the less the lake where our cabin is at has more pike than we or the department of fish & Game would prefer to see there. The Ideal number would be zero or as close to it as we could get.

In Hewitt Lake Alaska the pike are an invasive and they have taken a heavy toll on the trout & salmon. However, there is perhaps an upside to this for the time being, if you enjoy feeling or seeing a fish grab hold of a fly this is the perfect venue for you during June & July. Those 2 months the fish are easy to locate and access to their hideouts is still an easy thing. As the summer goes into August the weed growth in the slough’s and creeks will make navigating difficult at the least. The creeks in the immediate area of the lake are flowing at……….well, lake level and therefore they are slow moving and prone to vegetation.

This is the place for a 9 or 10 foot single hand rod in 7 – 9 weight. All you need are a floating line and I’ll bring the Whitlock Sculpin’s . If you are familiar with shock tippets and have them bring them with. If not, I’ll have some on hand. Although the bite wires are the very best I don’t like the way they can get kinks in them. I get by almost all the time with a 14″ length of 30 – 40 pound mono as a tippet. while there are all sort of good pike fly and I have those too, the Sculpin in size 2 is extremely effective and so are bunny leeches of about 4″.

I have had action with a couple large pike and what seems to be an ongoing theme is holding true with this species also, the big ones got away. I’m talking about the kind of pike that eat ducks when I say ‘big’, there are plenty of 27 – 30″ fish caught and now and then a 36 or larger but there are a few around that are truly large. I don’t insist that there are a whole bunch of 44 – 50″ pike out there but I’ve seen enough to know they have the unicorns outnumbered in a big way.

Because I am fishing flies, and not concentrating on the pike I am not taking as many and perhaps not as large of fish as the gear guys but On a good day there can be pretty much non stop action with fish between 18 – 30″ in size. The down side of these days is that this is what we call ‘A Terminal Fishery’. This is an invasive species that is threatening our salmon stocks and every fish caught is killed immediately. For many, myself included this is a tough game to play but if you choose to do a little pike fishing here, that is how it ends for the fish. Of course the killing of a dozen or 2 pike is not the end all for the plight of our salmon & trout, but you and I can rest assured that those killed will not fill their stomach with juvenile salmon when dispatched.

These are a trio of small fish taken on one of the creeks flowing from the wetlands adjacent to the lake.

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This group (below) were taken right in front of the cabin along the lake shore. I took the picture because these fish were cleaned and filleted because they were a good size for that. I neglected to place the rod into the picture for reference but the fish were sized between 27 and 30 inches. I keep track of sizes for the research team from Cook Inlet Aquaculture who are conducting a 4 year pike assessment and advisory study for the state on Hewitt & Whiskey lakes.

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So what do you do with all those pike? That’s what I meant when I said I did a poor job of documenting all of this! You feed the fish to the two pair of Bald Eagles who raise young out there on alternate years. There’s always a nest with a couple hungry babies in it nearby. We have many fox who patrol the lake shore daily and their finding a meal of fish every so often does its part to spare the Spruce grouse and Snowshoe Hares who call the land around the cabin home. When there is a pile of fish to be disposed of they are transported to the back 40 where brown bears will find and eat them. No fish are discarded near the cabin and to date I have no bear problems there at all.

2014 will be a season when I will be much more careful about photographing pike as they are taken and posting the results of fishing here. I already know that I have a couple people coming in late June – July1st to fish for pike as a targeted species so there will be fish. I will return to this post and add any more pertinent information as I think of it but this is a start.

Ard