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.


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.

                IMG_2181              IMG_2179

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.

IMG_2184            IMG_2185

Tissue0288            IMG_2175

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.


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.

IMG_2187               IMG_2186

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 :)


  1. December 9, 2013
    Scott Duke

    Thanks for that Ard–very interesting. As I think I mentioned when I first joined the NAFF forum, I go to Haines, Alaska with some friends every fall to fish for coho. We fish two rivers there–the Chilkat and the Chilkoot, each of which use different methods to count. On the Chilkat Alaska Fish & Game uses fish wheels (and, I’m assuming, a method similar to what you described) and on the Chilkoot, an “old fashioned” weir. I’ve always wondered how accurate the counts are using those two methods, and your post gave me some real insight into the methods.

  2. December 10, 2013
    Chris (PA and NJ)

    More good stuff, Ard. Knowing as much as possible about the life cycles and habits of the quarry certainly improves the odds of finding them afield.

  3. December 11, 2013
    Ard Stetts

    Hi Chris,

    I’ve been interested in such things for a very long time. I should do a story here about my times living in Pennsylvania, I was involved there also and did a float stocking co-op with the PA fish commission on several of their stocked delayed harvest creeks.

    I could honestly say that although I enjoy catching fish, I get just as much pleasure out of observing them and learning about their habits and requirements in the rivers and creeks.

    The entries here are an effort to make this an informative and interactive place for people to visit. I’ll be writing more this week.


  4. December 11, 2013

    That was a very interesting and informative read, thanks for taking the time to post it as I really had no idea how those fish weirs worked.

  5. December 12, 2013

    Are he counting stations in place all the time, and manned during the runs? Or are they portable and reassembled each year?

  6. December 14, 2013
    Ard Stetts

    Hi Dewayne,

    Generally the weirs will be set up by mid May to late May depending on water levels. Once the weir is up there will be an encampment nearby where the staff will live in 7 – 14 day periods. They will man the weir from roughly 7:00 AM or so until around midnight.

    While the crew sleeps the passage gate is closed so that there are not missed fish during the night.

    Counting goes on until the first week of September when the silvers are hardly showing. if there is a late run and a huge number of fish were to move up the river during the first 2 weeks of September they will continue the count until the run finishes.

  7. August 7, 2014

    Way cool! Somme very valid points! I appreciate you
    penning this write-up plus the rest of the site is also
    very good.

  8. September 13, 2017

    Ard, Thank you, this is a great post. I’ve never seen the counting process shown this way. Here in Michigan counts are usually done by shocking fish, then netting/data collection. Thanks again

  9. November 20, 2017
    Ard Stetts

    Thanks for the feedback comments everyone :) I could spend a lot more time creating content articles here and when I see people enjoying the information it gives me incentive to do just that.

    Thank You

One Trackback

  1. [...] at the ready. If you want to see how fish counts are conducted here you can read and look here; Fish Counts The link should take you straight to a brief article about assessing run strength of salmon in [...]


Post a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *