CHITINA – By late afternoon Wednesday, the winds funneling out of Wood Canyon to the south of the Chitina-McCarthy bridge were driving a Sahara-Desert-style sandstorm across the exposed sandbars off the low flowing Copper River.
The better prepared of Alaska dipnetters pulled down their goggles, pulled up their facemasks and started working the river bank. There is no rest for the weary in the short, salmon-killing days of summer in the 49th state.
Commercial troll fishermen kicked things off months ago in Southeast Alaska with sport and subsistence anglers there soon to follow, but it wasn’t until May that the action really exploded with the opening of the Copper River commercial fishery.
At this point, the statewide body count of dead salmon still measures in the tens of thousands, but it will not be long before that climbs into the hundreds of thousands and then the millions. Somewhere around 115 million of the fish were killed last year, more than 95 percent of them in commercial fisheries.
“…It was a rough year for the (commercial) industry, with the overall harvest of 112.6 million fish having an estimated value of $406.4 million,” Margaret Bauman reported in The Cordova Times.
Such are the expectations that have come to be the norm in 21st Century Alaska. It is understandable. The state has been on a roll since the 1980s. It set a record with a 2013 commercial kill of 272 million salmon. By then most people had forgotten the 1970s when good harvests were in the range of 50 million, but plunged as low as 22 million in 1973.
Another big salmon harvest is expected this year. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game says 204 million, but things have started off slow. The Copper River sockeye catch has been held down by state efforts to protect a weak run of king salmon. Area closures are credited with helping limit the catch to about 10,000 kings, which is still twice what managers wanted caught this year given a horrible forecast as to the size of the run.
They now believe, though they are not certain, the run has come back bigger than expected. Whatever the case, Copper River commercial fisherm are confident the fishing restrictions cut into their sockeye havest.
As of Wednesday, 276,000 of the latter fish had escaped the commercial fleet and made their way into the Copper. That was about 68,000 above the escapement goal for the date. The approximaely 500 drift gillnetters allowed into the Copper fishery had caught 253,000 sockeye, but considered themselves robbed off the other 68,000.
Where those fish were in the Copper River was hard to say. Fishing on Wednesday was slow in both the Chitina personal-use dipnet fishery and the Copper River subsistence fishery just upstream of the bridge. Area fisheries biologist Mark Somerville in Glennallen said it had been that way since the June 1 opening of subsistence.
He was off the belief that a big slug of fish that hit the lower river in late May largely made it through the upriver fisheries before fishermen showed up in significant numbers. They were catching only a fish here and a fish there near the bridge Wednesday. The fishing didn’t sound much better downstream in Wood Canyon.
Hem Charters posted this on the website of the Chitina Dipnetters Association:
“Dipnetting opened at midnight last night. From midnight to 6 a.m., the best our overnighters did was two guys with 17 fish the worst was two guys with four fish. The major run of fish has not reached here yet but could any time now. The river is still the lowest I’ve ever seen it for this time of year. (Fishing) spots are limited. If you are prepared to sweep and work a little harder, you probably will do better. Not many people here yet, but I expect this weekend to be pretty busy.”
Given the salmon sonar counts days downriver, there was no reason to expect great numbers of fish on the weekend, but the fishing will pick up. It usually does, and other fisheries are opening around the state.
The Russian River, a rod-and-reel sockeye fishery second only in popularity to the Kenai River for angling, opens Sunday. The king salmon fishery on the Deshka River in the Susitna Valley is already well underway.
The fishing frenzy has begun. It will only intensify into July before starting to fade into August on the way to a slow end in September and October. By then, there will be a lot salmon shipped south and stacked up in freezers and smoked, pickled or canned.
It is the killing season in Alaska.