The Alaska Department of Fish and Game only allowed eight days of bait fishing on Little Susitna River in 2019, before restricting the river back to artificial lures. That first emergency order was followed by an emergency closure to coho salmon fishing on both Little Susitna River and Deshka River starting on Aug. 21. Even with those changes to the sport fishery, and emergency restrictions that first restricted a portion of the Northern District commercial fishery to one net, and then closed commercial fishing in the same area, the Little Su final coho count came in at less than half of the Department’s spawning escapement goal range of 10,100 to 17, 700. Even when the Little Su sport fishery was open to bait fishing, success rates and consequently participation rates were considerably lower than would occur on years with an on time in river return large enough to make the goal range. Recent rains and slightly higher water levels triggered 253 coho to swim past Little Su Weir on Sept. 2, but according to an ADF&G source there were very few remaining salmon staging behind the weir when it was pulled on Sept. 3.
Deshka Coho — 8,892 and counting
Through Sept. 3, ADF&G had counted 8,892 coho salmon through Deshka River Weir with 4,583 of those coho passing in the last six days including Tuesday. Those fish also seemed to be triggered into migrating past the Deshka River Weir by rain and rising water levels. The Department is hopeful that the Deshka River coho salmon spawning escapement goal may be attained by keeping the weir operating at that location for a few additional days.
Northern District commercial harvests — 72,348 Sockeye and 49,710 Coho
An interesting comparison can be made to the subpar sport coho salmon fisheries at Little Susitna River and Deshka River (two of the largest Mat-Su Valley coho fisheries), whereas the Northern District commercial harvests for both sockeye and coho salmon are already very good in 2019. For sure, lower and warmer than normal water conditions may have affected both sport fishing success and salmon migration timing at both Little Su and Deshka River. Were coho salmon hanging out longer than normal in Northern Cook Inlet waiting for better inriver water conditions? Did the Northern District commercial fishery harvest a larger percentage of returning coho this season than they normally do? Is there some way to better ensure enough Northern coho salmon return to the rivers so that we can return to having more stable coho salmon sport fisheries?
Mat-Su king and coho fisheries run dry in 2019
In addition to a sport king salmon season that saw every fishery targeting wild king salmon closed by emergency order, with only Little Susitna River opened late in the season, the coho salmon sport fishery throughout much of the Mat-Su road system produced sporadic results at best. The in-season restriction on Little Susitna River and then season ending coho salmon closures both Deshka River and Little Susitna River wiped out quite a few people’s fishing and vacation plans. Extra dry hot weather combined with wildfire to burn homes and businesses, and close other fishing areas to public use from the road system. I am hopeful for a positive change in 2020.
I believe the economic value of the sport and personal use fishery in Northern Cook Inlet is much larger and benefits many more Alaskans than the Northern District commercial fishery. I believe allowing liberal directed commercial harvests of Northern king salmon and Northern coho salmon by management plan increases the frequency and severity of emergency restrictions and closures to the much more conservatively managed king salmon and coho salmon sport fisheries. I believe it is way past time for more common Alaska users to have a more reasonable and consistent opportunity to harvest Northern Cook Inlet and Mat-Su Valley salmon returns. Will the public insist on a change of course during the 2020 Upper Cook Inlet Board of Fisheries Meeting in February? Time will tell.
Andy Couch has guided Mat-Su Valley salmon fishing trips for more than 35 years. The view expressed in this column are his own personal views.