Spring of 2013 brought with it trepidations regarding the king salmon run strength. 2012 and the preceding year saw the broadest fisheries closures in our history. In facing the dilemma of dwindling returns the Alaska Department of Fish & Game along with a host of other agencies and organizations have mobilized in a concerted effort to find the causes for the declines. In spite of the obvious, that being that numbers are down, there is reason for hope and no real need to not consider fishing for the Kings on a trip here. The department of F&G has instituted Catch & Release fishing for the Alaska King Salmon and this no doubt will be helpful in mortality for fish once in the river systems. The Board of Fisheries will be taking a hard look at regulations for commercial fishing in Cook Inlet also. This past season saw closure of some set netting and drift netting during the king returns and that’s a first since I took up residence 10 years ago. I will go on to explain why I reserve hope for this wonderful game fish in the following paragraphs.
From the time that the ice goes off the rivers I try to get to as many of my fishing spots as possible throughout the entire season. It is during these travels that I keep a careful eye for any and all things that regard fish. Due to C&R regulation on the rivers I fish I was able to notice increased numbers of paired spawning king salmon working their redds all the way into August. Although the breeding activity of 2013 will not be realized by a return for 5 to 6 years the past 2 years have seen more successful spawning than the preceding 3 seasons did. I will not delve into actual numbers due to the fact that they can be somewhat deceiving. One river may see 18,000 kings return while another only 2 or three but the fishing may actually be better where the 2 thousand fish came through. Remember this from a fishing standpoint, more fish = more fishing pressure. So long as we have enforcement of C&R fishing for the kings the numbers, although somewhat important, are not the end all for fishing.
Beside what I could see for myself on the rivers I spent some time with researchers where the fish data ‘rubber hits the road’, so to say. What you see here is a fish wheel. The capture devise is just part of an elaborate floating workstation. These research stations are transported by river barges every year to some of the most remote study sights in America.
Fish wheels are used for conducting salmon census along many rivers here. The fish use historic migration routs that are near the shore line and this is where you find the wheels and mini weirs. A weir is very much like a picket fence that is constructed from the shore to the floating platform where the fish find an upstream passage. The large baskets that are mounted to the armature which is revolving dip into the river every few seconds and then scoop fish up and dump them into a holding pen so they can be sorted and in this case, radio tagged.
In this image Charlie is netting out a salmon and will transfer it to the work station for tagging.
Once the fish is out of the hold it is measured and if it meets length requirements qualifying it as a returning adult king, it receives what I learned is called an ‘esophageal radio transmitter’. Since it is accepted by fisheries biologists that once re-entering fresh waters salmon do not actively feed in an effort to sustain themselves, radio transmitters are inserted down the throat and lodged into the esophagus of the fish. The fish is then released to continue its journey to the natal waters.
A transmitter being inserted;
I must tell you that this procedure, when considered from a human viewpoint looked as if it may be a little discomforting. However, it is the new way to track fish movements within their range. All along the tributary rivers and streams that flow into the Yentna River there are receivers located. These receivers mark each of the esophageal transmitters with a distinct digital tag which in turn identifies the fish that had that radio in its gullet. By compiling the locations where the fish are recorded along with biological materials collected from the individual during the tagging process the researchers are able to draw distinct profiles for each genetic strain of returning king salmon. The tagging also aids in determining the estimated survival rate of each run and their ability to reach natal waters for reproduction.
The following photos demonstrate fisheries researchers measuring the salmon and collecting tissue samples for use in the bio tracking I referred to above.
In these next 2 photos I attempt to show the antenna and a fish ready to go.
The entire procedure takes about a minute and then the fish is placed back in the river to complete the trip to its natal stream. Just this past November 13th & 14th 2013, I attended my second Mat-Su Salmon Science & Conservation Symposium here in the Valley. This is a gathering of every research and conservation agency and organization operating in this region. I am able to net work with state, federal, and contract researchers and I do my best to learn so that I can share with others. Thus far the tracking program is a success, fish are now able to be pinpointed both as they transverse the rivers and streams but at the terminus of their trek as well. I did not catch any tagged kings myself this season but the lodge I guide for at times reported 3 fish caught & released with transmitters. Obviously the fish will still take a fly or lure even with the radio on board!
So how do I feel about the 2014 King season? After being here and fly fishing for this species for 10 seasons I know that there is a lot more to it than numbers. While we can look ahead positively for a decent return and for protective regulations and research to further those returns into years to come; the weather and water conditions are the unknown factor. I’ll be out after salmon soon as the ice goes out and if you come here to fly fish for the King, maybe you’ll consider fishing with me as your guide.