FAIRBANKS — Dip-netters champing at the bit to scoop salmon out of the Copper River at Chitina are going to have to hold on to their hip boots.
Thanks to the latest breakup on record, salmon are running about two weeks late and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has delayed the opening of the popular personal-use dip net fishery to June 10, at the earliest.
There’s a good chance the opening could be delayed even later, based on the number of fish the department is seeing — or not seeing — at the Miles Lake sonar counter.
As of Tuesday, only 46 salmon had been counted at Miles Lake, which is located about 70 miles below the Chitina dip net fishery. That’s in sharp contrast to the almost 120,000 fish that ADFG was projecting to have passed the sonar counts by that date.
“Fish still haven’t hit Miles Lake,” Scott Maclean, assistant area manager for ADFG in Glennallen, said.
State regulations require the dip net fishery to open by June 18 and the opening may be closer to that date than tentative June 10 opening announced on Wednesday.
“If sonar counts continue to be low, the opening at Chitina is going to be delayed even further,” Maclean said.
The dip net fishery was initially scheduled to open June 7 but that was pushed back based on lagging sonar counts.
While only 46 salmon have been counted at Miles Lake, commercial fishermen in Cordova have caught almost 600,000 red salmon near the mouth of the river. That’s almost half of what ADFG was projecting for the entire season. Whether or not the high commercial harvest numbers are a result of fish holding at the mouth of the river or a sign that the run is a strong one is unclear at this point. ADFG is projecting a run of 2.2 million reds.
“All indications are the run is pretty strong but we just haven’t got anything by the sonar yet,” commercial fisheries biologist Jeremy Botz in Cordova said. “There’s lot of miles of river below sonar; we don’t know how many fish are stacked up in the lower river.”
ADFG began operating the sonar on the north bank of Miles Lake on May 16 but the first fish weren’t recorded until May 25. The department wasn’t able to get the sonar in on the south bank until earlier this week because there was still ice on that side of the lake.
The Copper River is running extremely high and cold as a result of snow melt in tributaries due to recent hot weather, which could be preventing fish from entering the river, said Maclean, in Glennallen. The water temperature in the Copper River is barely above freezing, which is about 20 degrees colder than the ocean.
“Usually at this time of year the water isn’t nearly this high,” Maclean said. “At Copper Center the river is just about over the bank.
“Even when fish do decide to come in that’s going to slow migration,” he said.
Mark Hem, who has been ferrying dip netters to fishing spots along the Copper River at Chitina for 30 years, worries that the cold, high water is holding early-run fish back and making them easy prey for commercial fishermen.
“They’re catching lots of fish because those fish aren’t swimming up the river,” Hem said on Wednesday. “Those are all the early season, wild fish that upriver users are complaining are already hurting and now they’re just hammering them.”
Hem is hoping ADFG will curtail commercial fishing until more fish show up at Miles Lake.
“The longer the river stays high like this the longer it’s going to hold them back,” he said. “All a guy can really do is the watch sonar counter and see what happens.”
But Botz said the department has taken a conservative approach to the commercial season so far. The commercial fishery didn’t open until May 16, which is a few days later than normal; the department has kept areas inside the Barrier Islands closed to commercial fishing; commercial fishing periods have been limited to only 12 hours; and one period was pulled last week due to the low sonar numbers, he said.
There have been no reports of fish being caught by susbsistence fishermen above the McCarthy Road bridge, Maclean said. Several fish wheels in Chitina were lost as a result of the high water, some of which were in the water and some of which were sitting on shore, even though they were tied off to anchor them.
“A lot of people didn’t even have them in the water; they were sitting on shore,” said Hem, who lives in Chitina. “The water came up so fast because of the hot weather. I’ve never seen the river this high where the fish wheels are above the bridge. It’s just raging.”
This year’s season is starting out much different than last year, he said.
“At this time last year there were so many fish up here that fish wheels were catching 100 to 150 fish a night,” Hem said. “It’s definitely a weird year, but I do believe when fish do come there should be good fishing. There should be a lot of fish trying to move through here when they get here.
“That’s going to be my hope, at least,” he said.
Contact outdoors editor Tim Mowry at 459-7587.