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Empty state

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A strangely deserted Pink Salmon parking lot at the Russian River early Wednesday/Craig Medred 

RUSSIAN RIVER – The crowds that have made this gin-clear stream Alaska’s most famous “combat fishery” were missing Wednesday.

A mature black bear that emerged behind the lone angler occupying the well-known “Cottonwood Hole” below the Grayling Parking lot in the Chugach National Forest appeared surprised.

On a normal day near the end of mid-June, the gravel bar on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge side of this fabled tributary to the Kenai River would witness anglers lined up elbow to elbow no matter whether the sockeye salmon were running thick or thin.

By 7 a.m. on Wednesday, they were running thin – the classic, big, early-early morning push of migrating fish long gone on the run up the river to the Russian River falls and spawning grounds in tributary streams to the lakes beyond.

But there were a couple fish still holding in the Cottonwood Hole. The angler ignored the bear and kept working to try to hook one. Fishing for sockeyes – or what Alaskans often call “reds” because of the hue they take on when their spawning colors emerge – is relatively easy when they are traveling in big schools.

Lone fish are, however, hard to catch. Like other salmon, the fish do not feed once they enter freshwater, and irritating a lone fish into striking a fly can sometimes seem almost impossible, whereas a fly drifted through a tightly packed school of the fish is likely to spark one of them to lash out at it.

Needless to say the fishing was far from great, but the peace was overwhelming.

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By noon, the fish had pooled up at the base of the Russian River falls/Craig Medred 

Upside of downside

Hiking upriver into the Russian River canyon on the search for fish, there was an angler or two found here and there, but mainly there was the fern-filled, green emptiness of the river corridor, the gurgling of the fast water, and the gulls coursing between the forested slopes as they winged their way upstream and down looking for a salmon carcass to scavenge.

Welcome to the summer of COVID-19.

As the global economy in general and the visitor economy in the 49th state in particular stumble toward a recession threatening to become a depression, Alaskans and the rare tourist are enjoying a unique opportunity for near-wilderness fishing along the state’s limited road system.

Fishing effort has dropped to levels not witnessed in decades. The downside is that the Sport Fishing Division of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which is hugely dependent on fishing license sales to fund its budget, is looking at a revenue shortfall in the neighborhood of $5 million.

Because of that, program cuts appear inevitable. And the potential effects on the private-sector visitor industry – the state’s largest employer – are frightening.

Many of the owners of the small businesses that are the backbone of the industry in-state say they can probably make it through one disastrous summer, but if the COVID-19 related slum in air travel continues into next year – as many expect it will – they say they will have to close their doors.

The U.S. Travel Association describes the present situation as “dire” with U.S. travel spending expected to be down 45 percent from 2019 by the end of this year. A partial recovery is expected next year, but the forecast says travel is unlikely to be back to anything hear normal until at least 2023.

“New analysis reveals that while the economy is in the midst of a recession, the travel industry is in a depression: overall travel industry unemployment is 51 percent – twice the unemployment of the worst year of the Great Depression,” the association reported.

The association reports Alaska travel spending has been climbing back from a mid-May hole that had it down 80 percent or more, but as of June 13, it was still only 55 percent of 2019. 

The change was visibly obvious here.

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The view downriver from the Cottonwood Hole/Craig Medred 

Nobody

Downriver from the Cottonwood Hole, in a stretch of shallow water normally cruised by significant numbers of anglers looking for moving schools of fish to which to toss a fly this time of year, there was nobody.

There were more people at the confluence of the Russian and Kenai, but the crowd was a third to a quarter or less of what one would expect in a normal year. The line of motor vehicles that normally forms at the entrance to the Russian River campground where anglers wait on spaces to open in the campground’s parking lots was non-existent.

No one in the almost wholly Alaskan crowd was complaining. For many if not most, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have the state’s most popular clearwater salmon stream largely to themselves.

Selfish? A little.

A big benefit to a grim moment in global history? A definite yes.

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The Russian River-Kenai River confluence. In a normal year, the bare sandbank in the background would be covered by a swarm of anglers/Craig Medred

Fall out

The long term consequences of this? Unknown.

Alaska still has a lot to offer tourists. The salmon fishing is the best in the world. The wilderness touring is unmatched. The outdoor-adventure opportunities are underused.

But nearly all travelers enter the state through serious chokepoints: airports via airlines and ports via cruise ships.

The cruise industry is at the time in even worse shape than the aforementioned airline industry. The five-year leader in tourism growth, the cruise lines were taking a beating in the stock market this week.

“Some investors are running out of patience. Credit analysts at S&P cut their bond rating on Carnival to BB-, down three notches from its previous BBB rating and putting the cruise line into junk bond status,” NASDAQ.com reported. “Rival credit rating agency Moody’s had already given junk ratings to Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian.

“The news will only make it harder for cruise ship companies to find new financing if they need it in the future. If delays in setting sail get even longer, that could prove costly for the three companies – and for the investors who put their capital to work for the cruise ship operators prior to now. Shareholders of Carnival, Norwegian, and Royal Caribbean will have to keep a close eye on how COVID-19 case counts progress in order to assess whether the rising risks are too large to bear.”

Alaska cruises appear especially vulnerable to market changes because they attract a large number of senior citizens wishing to see the northland “B4UDIE” as the state once advertised. People over 60 are the people most vulnerable to death from COVID-19.

“Just months ago, the visitor industry was anticipating a banner year for Alaska. Projections showed an anticipated peak season of 52,000 jobs, with a total economic impact of over $4.5 billion,” the Cruise International Association Alaska reported. “As our communities were preparing to welcome visitors, COVID-19 put a screeching halt to life as we know it.

“With 408 cruise voyages canceled to date, we understand the impacts are severe, especially for the many Alaskans, local businesses and communities that depend upon visitor industry spending. This is an unprecedented time and we know this is extremely difficult on our industry partners, who are all vital to this industry,” the association said.

It offered no timeline for when cruises are expected to resume, saying only that cruises would resume “when it is safe.”

At this point, unfortunately, knows exactly how to define safe.

Until then, Alaskans are likely to have the 49th state largely to themselves.

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A lone seagull, the only visitor at the Russian River falls Wednesday morning/Craig Medred

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20 replies »

  1. Whether or not the cruise lines are able to weather the Covid-19 storm, still remains to be seen. What we do know, is that no cruise ships will be making port in any Alaskan coastal city, village or town anytime soon! After the horrific stories and experiences, suffered by many 60+ cruise clients, during early ’19 spring, majority will have second thoughts, about booking another cruise, sometime in the future. Just ask Jim Cramer, the cruise industry, will have a long trek back to profitability.
    Alaska got hit big time by loss the of tourism in 2020, and it may carry over into 2021.

  2. “unlikely to be back to anything hear normal until at least 2023.” There is no going back. week up.

  3. Craig, so you were “the lone angler” at Cottonwood Hole? Why not refer to yourself in the first person? Something to do with journalistic standards? Just curious because it reads like you were observing someone else

    • Pete,

      The last time you posted you said you’d wait for my answer, have you finished waiting? Did you figure out how to properly use quotes and how properly quoting me would have answered your question regarding agency? I just want to make sure you aren’t waiting on me anymore.

    • I was observing someone else as the story said. I actually spent most of the day observing. Looking for fish, actually, but there weren’t many to be observed. Once that early morning push went through, as is normal with the early run, there was almost nothing left. Those sockeye move fast.

  4. Alaskansfirst , as I recall from fishing the inlet for close to 40 years, our largest sockeye returns were in late 80’s, early 90’s on escapements in the half million range. Your statement that large sockeye returns have dramatically increased over time with large escapements until recently just ain’t so. Sure miss the good old days of the 80’s when gillnetting was good and a growing guide industry was profiting as well. If you couldnt catch a 60 # king on the river in late july, you werent trying.

    • Gunner, you are correct about the big Kings. I sure miss them. But I respectfully disagree with your assessments of the runs over time. When the UCI fisheries went to limited entry the harvests were but a fraction of what they have been the past ten years. Dept management using escapement goal management has resulted not only increased harvests but higher average runs.

      • Alaskans First, I believe you are correct that when uci fisheries went to limited entry that runs were smaller than they have been in recent years. But most attribute these larger returns being attributed to the 200 mile limit, which reduced foreign harvests of alaskan salmon.

      • You’re both missing the forest for the trees, or the ocean for the water. Keep pissing on each others legs like you’ve done for year after year saying the exact same thing and guess where we will be…the same place we are now. Guess that explains it, you are both happy with where we are now.

        It’s time to move on from that way of thinking, maybe we can all be happy instead of having piss on our legs? What do you say boys? Perhaps having a single sports fishermen kill 20 some kings on the closed Anchor River with horrible return numbers or an undetermined number of setnet dropouts we can come up with something that will actually help our salmon stocks…since we all want the fish to be plentiful, right?

        Or we can keep pissing on each others legs while less and less salmon return like a bunch of raving idiots.

    • there were big returns in the ’80s. they don’t appear to be tied to escapements in the half-million range:

      “Escapements below 400,000 salmon never produced yields exceeding 948,000 (total run size),” authors Lowell Fair and Mark Willette wrote. “The highest yields originated from escapements of 755,000, 792,000, and 1,983,000 sockeye salmon (brood years 1982, 1983, and 1987).”

  5. Spent part of the early morning on the Russian. Nothing in the lower river (Greyling on down). Nobody on the river. Folks leaving had fished since midnight for the most part. Some had limits. Some didn’t. Very lo water in the Russian. Only fish caught were in the Kenai, and not many of them while I was there. Saw a few doinking the surface at the crease in the confluence. Caught fish seemed smaller than normal.

    Worst was Cooper Landing. Almost a ghost town. No place to get an early breakfast or coffee. Most of the lodges closed. Lots of the guide services closed. Only 1 for sale sign. There will be more. Kenai Cache under new ownership. So is Gwin’s, whose new owner put a LOT of new money into the place.

    From a cynical viewpoint: I wonder if all the so-called Upper Kenai guides who turned out a few years ago to torpedo the Chugach proposal to put a small dam on the Snow River are enjoying their businesses these days.

    Crummy fishing. Beautiful morning and river. Few mosquitoes. Things could have been a LOT worse. Cheers –

  6. Craig, if you want crowds you should have joined me Tuesday. If I could post pictures, I would. It was packed from the confluence all the way past the bluffs. Heck, even the ferry side of the river was packed with anglers. On the flip side, the Russian itself had very few anglers because the fish just weren’t there.

  7. The mismanagement by the ADF&G in the exercise of their emergency order authority and their hatchery release decisions over the past five years is one of the reasons for poor runs. It is finally catching up. Claims of over escapement made by the commercial
    Gill net fishers and the political pressures by their organizations have resulted in a collapse of the Chinook runs. Now we are seeing what happens to the Sockeye when literally billions of hatchery Pink salmon are released into the ocean by Alaska hatcheries, particularly in PWS. There are limited food resources in the ocean and Alaskans are now paying the price of losing high dollar great tasting Sockeye so that the commercial
    Sector can make more money harvesting the hundreds of million Pink salmon.
    Never forget the phrase used by the Dept’s hatchery manager at a BOF meeting approx a year ago when asked about this issue. He said that “ correlation is not causation “. What a shameful answer that was.

    • Alaskans First, You state that there are limited food resources in the ocean and too many hatchery fish are being released.This may be true. But at the same time,you criticize the commercial sides belief that there are limited food resources in glacial lakes such as Skilak and Tustemena. It would seem to me that any body of water has limited food resources , not just the ocean. If you believe there are too many fish being released into the ocean,than you have to admit overescapement in rivers and lakes is at least a possibility.

      • Gunner: you are correct. Anything is possible. The oceans may have far greater capacities than we realize as could the lakes serving the Sockeye returns. I will
        say that the Kenai Sockeye runs have dramatically increased over time with large escapements until
        just recently. As have the PWS runs until recently. Maybe correlation, but maybe much more. I never believe much in coincidences.
        But it is a fact that the Chinook are not as abundant as they were. The anglers take some and the commercial fleet while targeting Sockeye take some. Problem is nobody knows what the mortality is from drop outs and non reporting. And it seems clear that the UCI commercial sector would just as soon eliminate the Chinook “nuisance” so they would not be restricted from harvesting Sockeye. Maybe they are getting some help from the hatcheries. I used that quote because that is the term used by a KPFA ( Kenai commercial set net organization ) board member a few years ago.

      • Gunner: I don’t think anyone denies the reality of over-escapement. The devil there lives in the details, ie. when does many become too many?

        The first problem comes in defining the ideal number, given there are so many variables at play, and then the ideal number might be more than one number. There is an ideal for maximizing the annual profit to commercial fisheries, an ideal for maximizing the annual profit from sport fisheries, and an ideal for maximizing ecosystem productivity, ie. providing the maximum for people, bears, wolves, birds, freshwater fish in the river, the surrounding forest, etc.

        The upside of over-escapement is that it is by nature self-limiting. The system will fix itself. Hatchery production has no such safeguard. It could be used to mess up a lot of things.

  8. As of 23 June, 10,134 Reds have entered the Russian compared to last year’s banner run of 77,038 as of the same date. COVID isn’t the only reason the parking lots are empty………

    • Yes and no, Marlin. The non-residents who schedule a trip to Alaska to fish those early-run sockeye don’t stop fishing because of low numbers of fish in the river. They fish on anyway.

      They don’t have the luxury I do: Take a nice hike along the river, count fewer than a dozen salmon in the clearwater, do some bear watching, throw a few casts at single fish, give up, visit the falls, take some photos and go home happy knowing I have plenty of opportunities ahead to kill fish.

      • From a personal viewpoint, I agree. I call them hunting and fishing, not “getting”. I am not a Russian River fisherman. I prefer the Lower Kenai for Reds, mainly because that’s where I fish with local friends and the Russian is usually too crowded for me.

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