Mat-Su Coho Sputter or Peak?
As I mentioned in last week’s column coho (silver) salmon numbers in the lower Little Sustina River have been low, and another week has not changed that fact. If anything it only goes further to confirm it. Other Mat-Su prime Mat-Su sport silver salmon fisheries have been suffering through the same fate. When I talked with Mike Hudson, owner of 3 Rivers Fly & Tackle on Wednesday August 3, he knew of no location in the entire Mat-Su Valley with good silver salmon fishing— where people could reasonably expect to catch a limit of either 2 or 3 salmon.
Coho salmon runs to numerous locations through out the valley and are harvested by Mat-Su Valley residents and visitors alike in larger numbers than any other salmon species in the area. Saying they are an important Mat-Su sport fish and economically important to the Valley is an understatement. They are also one of the most readily available sources of prime eating salmon in the Valley on a normal year. All of this leads to the question — where have all the coho gone?
The potential for a lower than normal coho return may have likely been predicted from the small parent return of these fish that occurred in 2012. The final coho weir count that year for Little Susitna River was 6,770 compared to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s weir-based Sustainable Escapement Goal range of 10,100 - 17,700 fish.
Commercial coho salmon catches in Upper Cook Inlet have not been particularly poor this year, however, the Department of Fish and Game has been granting liberal commercial fishing opportunities in the Central District of Upper Cook Inlet. Based on increased fishing time and expanded harvest area during the 2016 season, it is highly likely the commercial fleet has been harvesting a higher portion of what is likely a lower than normal Mat-Su bound coho salmon return as it attempted to migrate up the inlet.
Last week some Department fisheries biologists were offering the thought that the 2016 coho salmon run may simply be late in arriving. After another week without any significant increase in coho salmon numbers in Mat-Su Valley streams this thought seems less and less likely. Furthermore, the top 5 coho salmon harvests by the Upper Cook Inlet drift fishery occurred on August 25 (11,000), July 14 (5,392). July 15 (5,081), July 11 (4,901) and August 1 (4,401), so the Mat-su coho migration through the Central District already seems to be in decline. Much more probable is the thought that the run may simply be lower than normal, rather than late, and may need additional protection in order to achieve escapement goal ranges at Mat-Su Valley locations. Note: at this time all of the Upper Cook Inlet coho salmon escapement goals are located in the Mat-Su Valley’s Knik Arm portion of Upper Cook Inlet. These locations include Little Susitna River, Fish Creek, and McRoberts/ Jim Creek. Hopefully a Deshka River or Susitna River coho goal will be added in the near future.
Bait Restriction Likely on Little Susitna River Fishery
With only 1,695 coho salmon counted passing Little Susitna River weir through August 2, it seems highly likely that the Little Susitna River could be closed to bait fishing before the bait fishery is scheduled to open on August 6. Without such a restriction it is likely the Little Susitna River sport coho salmon fishery my need to be closed early in order to achieve the Department’s established escapement goal range. Even with a restriction closing the use of bait there is a likelihood the Little Sustina River sport coho fishery could still need to be closed early in order to attain sufficient spawning escapement. The Department mentioned the likelihood of an emergency bait restriction on the Little Susitna River fishery as the first item in its August 3 - 9 Northern Cook Inlet weekly fishing report. It is interesting to note, however, that the Department has not mentioned any potential restriction to either Central District or Northern District commercial fisheries in order to help attain this and other Department established coho salmon escapement goals in Upper Cook Inlet. Note: 25% of the Little Susitna River coho return typically passes the Little Susitna River weir by August 4 — so in order to remain on track to attaining the escapement goal minimum of 10, 100 fish, at least 2,525 coho salmon should have passed the weir through Thursday August 4.
Jim Creek Coho Numbers Very Low
During the 2015 season the Department closed the Jim Creek sport coho salmon fishery in an unsuccessful effort to attain the McRoberts Creek tributary escapement goal range. Through August 2 last year, 171 coho salmon had already passed the Department’s Jim Creek weir compared to only 21 coho salmon passing the same weir on August 2 of 2016.
Deshka Coho Sport Harvests and Escapements Sputtering
In discussions I’ve had with Mike Hudson, and fishing guides, Ben Allen and Pat Donelson, sport coho salmon catch rates and harvests have been dismal at the Deshka River. According to the Department’s website, through August 2, only 517 coho salmon have passed the Deshka River weir in 2016 compared to 1,915 coho salmon having passed the weir at the same time last year.
Fish Creek a Bright Spot for Coho Salmon Escapement in 2016?
The Fish Creek youth only fishery will open this Saturday and Sunday August 6 and 7 from 6 am to 6 pm each day. All participants must be under 16 years of age, with the Saturday and Sunday only fishery for anglers of all ages opening the following weekend. The Fish and Game Department mentioned that fishing should be good this weekend based on Fish Creek weir counts. Through August 2, 2016 the Fish Creek weir-based coho salmon count is 877 fish compared to only 455 coho counted in 2015. One must consider, however, that because of lower 2016 sockeye salmon escapement numbers there was no Fish Creek dip net fishery this year, and last year the dip net fishery harvested a significant portion of both coho and sockeye salmon migrating up FIsh Creek during late July. For that reason, without the personal use fishery in 2016 one would expect coho salmon escapement numbers should be higher at this location.
While this may be a luke warm fishing report at best —anglers should also remember that this is traditional peak season coho timing at many Mat-Su Valley locations, and because of lower than normal coho salmon numbers throughout the valley coho salmon sport fisheries may be restricted or closed later in August.
Good Luck and FIsh On!
Andy Couch is a member of the Matanuska Valley Fish and Game Advisory Committee and the Matanuska Susitna Borough FIsh and Wildlife Commission, and is a Mat-Su Valley salmon fishing guide