Managers expect a healthy Nushagak king salmon run this year

May 23, 2017

The Nushagak River in western Bristol Bay supports an average catch of 60,000 kings between commercial, subsistence, and sport fisheries. Biologists expect it will meet its in-river escapement goal of 95,000 past the Portage Creek sonar this year, though ADF&G no longer issues an official forecast.

Sports fishing for king salmon with the Mission Lodge in June 2012.
Credit KDLG

The Nushagak River consistently supports one of the largest king salmon runs in the world, maintaining productivity through recent seasons when Chinook numbers have been down statewide. On average, the commercial fishery lands 42,000 kings, subsistence fishermen take 12,000, and sport fishermen keep 6,000. KDLG's Nick Ciolino has more on the outlook for 2017.

Audio transcript: The Department of Fish and Game no longer posts a formal forecast for the run, but data showing high escapement numbers in parent years suggests another healthy king run for the Nushagak this season.

“The last couple years has been really productive. We’ve exceeded the in-river goals. So I would say as of right now I’m cautiously optimistic,” said ADFG’s top Bristol Bay sport fishing biologist Jason Dye of this year’s projected run. “All the signs are pretty good, but anything can happen,” he said.

The goal for in-river escapement is met when 95,000 fish pass the sonar near Portage Creek. If the run struggles, Dye can add sport fishing restrictions to lower the bag limit and effort, the commercial fishery can add mesh size restrictions, and lastly the subsistence harvest could be curtailed. The last time sport restrictions were issued was July of 2014.

Credit ADFG

To further the understanding of this king run—which has been outperforming many others—Dye will take part in a catch and release mortality study this season.

“We’re going to be catching fish via hook and line, mirroring the sport fishery in terms of the gear type, and we will be putting a radio tag into each fish that we capture and then tracking those fish for five days,” said Dye.

If a tagged fish stops moving, the radio signal will change to let biologists know the fish has died from handling. If a fish dies after five days of being caught, it will not be counted as a catch and release mortality. The hope is that this data will help answer some questions about the effect of the heavy sport fishing effort on Nushagak kings.

“It would get us definitely a better handle on what is actually escaping to spawn,” said Dye.

A similar study done in 1991 on the Kenai River yielded a mortality rate of less than ten percent after kings were captured, handled and then released. Even if Dye’s study only proves similar results, the data collected by this two-year experiment will allow ADFG to track future salmon runs more closely.

“You get a better idea of how many fish are actually spawning, and then you get returns off of those spawning numbers, and it just basically improves all your numbers,” said Dye.

Last year 125,000 kings were counted as escapement in the Nushagak River. The run surged early, surpassing the escapement goal before the July 4 holiday.

Effort is already open to sports anglers and subsistence fishermen. The Nushagak attracts thousands of anglers from around the world for some of the most reliable king fishing in Alaska. River lodges are booking their first clients for the second week of June.

Contact the author at fish@kdlg.org