Grab Your Gear and Go - Fall Fishing is in Full Swing
There are a lot of opportunities this month to get out and explore what Alaska has to offer fall anglers. In this edition, we share a few locations and ideas to help you plan your next adventure.
Have you purchased your 2023 sport fishing license yet? If not, be sure to do so before you head out on your next fishing adventure. Visit our online store to get started.
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We'll see you on the water
Collecting King Salmon Carcasses on the Chena and Salcha Rivers
By Tim Mowry | Region III Sport Fish Information Officer
Standing above the water on a platform built onto the front of a 20-foot riverboat with a 15-foot-long trident spear in her hands, Hanna Wuttig scanned the water in search of her prey as boat driver Allison Matter slowly motored up the upper Chena River.
It was a cloudy, drizzly day in late August. Both Wuttig and Matter wore Gore-Tex chest waders to keep them warm and dry.
Spying a dead king salmon lying on the bottom of the river, Wuttig leaned over the padded railing, thrust the spear into the water and strained to pull the muddy carcass out of the water as it hung limply on the end of the spear.
"Nice grab," Matter told Wuttig as she swung the spear and plopped the dead fish in a plastic tote sitting right in front of Matter, who instinctively pulled back with a disgusted look on her face as rotten fish goo splattered out of the tote and on to her waders.
It's a dirty, smelly job but somebody has to do it.
Every year, fisheries technicians like Wuttig from the ADF&G Division of Sport Fish in Fairbanks scour the Chena and Salcha Rivers for rotting, spawned-out king salmon carcasses to collect valuable information for fisheries biologists like Matter, a sport fish research biologist with ADF&G in Fairbanks. They measure each fish, determine its sex and collect scales to age the fish. Often, samples are collected at the same time for other projects at the same time. This season, they collected muscle biopsies from Chena and Salcha River kings that are sent to Salmon Ocean Ecology Program with the Division of Commercial Fisheries to test for stress hormones that can impact run productivity.
"It's pretty important work, but it's pretty stinky," said 32-year-old technician Clint Wyatt, who just finished his sixth season as a fisheries technician in Fairbanks. "It's definitely a unique sampling type."
First-year tech Ruby Scanlon got her first taste of carcass collecting this season.
"I wasn't sure what to expect, but I thought it was pretty interesting," the 19-year-old Scanlon said. "You're just staring at the water waiting to see a dead fish. I never thought I'd be so excited to see a dead fish. It's a little bit thrilling."
But they do stink.
"They're smelly and covered with flies," Scanlon said.
As has been the case for the past several years, both the Chena and Salcha River king salmon runs were well-below average this season, based on visual counts in both rivers. An estimated 1,069 kings were counted at the Chena River counting tower and 1,242 kings were counted at the Salcha River tower. The minimum biological escapement goal for both rivers is 3,300 kings.
The number of carcasses collected is only a fraction of the total Chinook run and the goal is to find 417 of them on each river. This year, crews collected 29 carcasses on the Chena River and 96 on the Salcha River. The biggest carcass, a male king on the Salcha River, was just under 35 inches.
Collecting king salmon carcasses helps ADF&G biologists determine the "composition" of the king salmon runs in both rivers. The primary objective is to figure out what year fish were born, research biologist Allison Matter, who oversees the salmon counting towers on the Chena and Salcha Rivers, said.
King salmon generally return to spawn after being at sea for anywhere from 2-6 years. By knowing the age of the fish, researchers can estimate how different age classes (brood years) fared and what the escapement was for those years. In good years, researchers may see four offspring return to spawn for every parent. In bad years, fewer than one offspring per spawning salmon may return. By feeding that data into tables and modeling past runs, researchers can theoretically forecast future runs.
All of the data collected is related. Escapement estimates, age and sex compositions are fed into the biological escapement goal analysis which tells researchers the number of fish that need to return to the spawning grounds for a sustainable population with a sustainable harvest. Researchers can relate length to age to give them an idea of how big the fish are growing before they make the decision to return to fresh water. Length data is also fed into the mixture model that is used to apportion sonar data. Both rivers have a 30+ year data set of most of this information. Each piece of data is related back to historical, 5- and 10-year averages to monitor for any big changes or indications of concern.
"It's a lot of math and data management," Matter said of the process.
Collecting carcasses may sound simple â€“ you spot a big, dead, rotting fish and stab it â€“ but it's not that easy.
"A lot of it depends on water clarity," Wyatt said. "If it's super clear you can find them pretty easily; they show a lighter white compared to the (river) bottom."
But if the water is murky and the carcass is covered with mud, the decaying fish blend in, making them harder to spy, he said. Light refraction also comes into play because the fish appear closer than they really are.
"You have to spear under them," Wyatt said.
It takes some getting used to for first-time carcass, said veteran technician Matt Stoller, who just finished his ninth season as a seasonal fisheries technician and has served on the carcass collecting crew for several years.
"People that have done it before definitely have an advantage," he said.
But it doesn't take long for first-time carcassers to figure out the tricks of the trade, like looking for fish that get caught up in log jams, root wads and other places where debris collects as it floats down river.
"It seems like they accumulate," Stoller said. "Where there's one, there's usually others."
Sometimes scavengers help pinpoint dead fish.
"We saw an eagle perched in a tree and found a carcass underneath it," first-year technician Mandy Raad said. "We figured that was what he was looking at."
The boat operator plays a key role in the carcass collection process. It's the driver's job to put the spearer in the right position to stab the fish once it's spotted.
"Ideally you want to spot it and get it without having to turn around and go back for it," Stoller explained. "About 20 percent of the time you get them on the first pass."
Getting a scale sample from decomposing fish can be a challenge, too, said Stoller.
"The skin gets really leathery," he said. "You have to dig through the skin and almost saw them off."
Matter, the research biologist who oversees the carcass collecting crew, mainly serves as a boat driver due to the technical aspects of boating on the upper Chena River, but if she has a chance to stab some dead salmon, she jumps at it.
"For whatever reason, I really enjoy stabbing dead fish" Matter said with a laugh.
For technicians like Raad and Wyatt, motoring along a river standing on a platform stabbing dead fish beats sitting at a counting tower for hours at a time waiting for fish to swim by.
"It's one of the projects that I want to get on every year," said Wyatt. "Coming off the counting towers you're ready to do something else." First-year tech Raad, who spent several weeks this summer sitting at a counting tower, agreed.
"It's a good change of pace from being on the counting tower," she said. "I'd definitely do it again; it was fun."
After data is collected, the rotting carcasses are sliced down the left side, so they aren't resampled and returned to the river where they become food for aquatic insects, other fish, birds, mammals and even plants that grow along the riverbank.
Coho Fishing in the Kodiak Island Road Zone
By Kelly Krueger | Fisheries Biologist in Kodiak
The fall season is a favorite time of the year for many anglers. On Kodiak, fall brings cooler temperatures, leaves turning brilliant shades of yellow and red, and plentiful coho salmon fishing opportunities. Coho salmon provide action-packed fishing with their aggressive nature, and they readily strike at lures, flies, and eggs.
In the salt water, trolling for coho salmon generally begins in the first week of July, when coho start to form schools. If the timing is right, trolling for coho can be extremely productive. Popular saltwater fishing locations within the Kodiak Island Road Zone include Woody Island channel, Cape Chiniak, and Monashka Bay. Many anglers use a flasher attached to the downrigger cannonball and troll at 3 to 5 knots. Coho can usually be found at shallower depths (less than 50 feet), but sometimes can be caught at depths upwards of 100 feet. If fishing with another person, try setting one downrigger at a shallower depth and the other at a deeper depth. Apex, fin fighter, and coyote spoons are very effective, along with anything that resembles a bait fish. Green and blue colors work well. A herring cut plug is another option to try if fish are not biting. As the schools move towards shore in August and September, look for jumping coho salmon, which will indicate where the schools are. If you encounter a school at the surface or see birds diving on a ball of bait, try casting a spinner or mooching using a "crippled herring" jig. Coho fishing can get very exciting when you get into a big school right at the surface and the bite is on!
For freshwater fishing, there are 22 major fishable drainages that are road accessible within the Kodiak Island Road Zone. The coho run typically starts in mid-August and continues through October, with most runs peaking in mid-to-late September. However, in recent years, coho salmon have been seen returning to their natal streams as late as November. Anglers typically target coho salmon on the Buskin, American, Olds, and Pasagshak rivers. Other popular locations include the stocked runs at Monashka and Pillar creeks, Mill Bay, and Mission Beach. In addition, Saltery River is popular for those with ATV access. The key to freshwater coho salmon fishing is being flexible. Fishing can be extremely productive or very frustrating, even for experienced anglers. River conditions will dictate how productive coho fishing will be. Coho salmon prefer cool, shaded waters. Look to fish in slower moving waters and areas with plenty of cover. Early mornings can be very productive as it is cooler and there is less fishing pressure. Coho salmon will hold near the stream mouths until significant rain events occur. Try fishing after a flooding event when coho are pushing upstream. For spin fishing, coho salmon will usually strike at bright and flashy lures, especially Vibrax spinners in size No. 4 or 5. Green, blue, purple, pink, and orange are popular colors. If coho are being finicky, try changing colors, or switch to green or pink Pixie. Using bait is another tool to keep in your back pocket. Cured salmon roe or a chunk of herring on a bobber can tempt coho salmon on the slowest fishing days. For fly fishing, a purple egg sucking leech is a favorite among anglers, although other flashy streamers and bright colored flies will also produce fish.
Coho fishing in the Kodiak Island Road Zone can be very rewarding. Keep extra tackle options on hand, switch up your fishing strategy or location, and be prepared for an action-packed fight!
Cast and Blast
By Jake Wieliczkiewicz | Sitka Assistant Area Management Biologist
Padding around the house in the predawn darkness, you practice your stalking. Slinking between rooms to fetch the final few pieces of gear, you are invisible. The perfect predator. A ghost among the shadows.
The microwave screams; your breakfast burrito is ready.
Between frantic sips of too-hot coffee, you slip into the straps of your chest waders. Swinging on your pack, you pull your fishing rod from the corner and head for the door. It clatters against the steel of the rifle already slung over your shoulder. For today you are the ultimate harvester, a woodsman unrivaled. Today you head out into Southeast Alaska for a good old fashion "cast and blast".
Fall has always been a time of harvest. As the daylight wanes, the earth throws forth her bounty. As if to tease us for telling bigger fish stories than what our pantry shelves might reflect, mother nature gives us one last chance to fill the cache before the snow comes. In Southeast Alaska, we are blessed with an abundance. Berries, mushrooms, fish, and deer, all laid out before us in a final banquet. The "cast and blast" aims to load the larder with the final two.
Many Alaskans count the passing time not with the calendar, but as the salmon run. King's run the vanguard as spring spills into summer. As the sun fills the sky, so fill the streams with sockeye. As we tip into later summer, next return the chums, then the pinks in swathes. In Southeast Alaska, the coho salmon patiently wait their turn. As fall storms swell the river, coho begin their return to the deep, cool pools they look forward to for years. Many an outdoorsman think longingly of these pools too, as they hold some of the world's best coho fishing.
Sneaking out early in the crisp fall morning, anglers can make their way to these deeper holding pools that coho so fancy. Often hidden under a ceiling of over-ripe pink salmon, these fish school and linger as they prepare to spawn. There is a delicate art in getting a lure down deep enough to attract a coho without first grabbing the eye of passing pink. A pink Vibrax or silver spoon will usually do the trick, as long as it has enough weight to sink quickly. Once on plane with the coho, they often readily bite, even in freshwater. But beware! These fish are crafty and will soon catch on to your plans, seemingly passing word amongst each other that there is no such thing as a free lunch. When this happens, it's time to move on for a while, as better luck is often had with unaware fish rather than trying to coax a bite once you've been busted.
As early fall begins, Sitka blacktail deer season opens for the year. These nimble deer prefer higher altitudes in the summer but begin to move lower as the colder weather arrives. Often seen nibbling on beach greens in the early hours, these deer also enjoy a cool freshwater drink. It is not uncommon to encounter a deer by the river or enroute to an upstream coho hole during the early dawn. Should you make the decision to fill your pack with a veritable surf and turf, be sure to practice appropriate bear safety. As bears gorge in the lowlands on late summer salmon, a deer taken by the water may be an attractant. The sound of running water can dampen the sound of a curious approach, so always maintain your guard.
As daylight dwindles, the outdoorsman turns home. The fading rays cast a kaleidoscope through the frosted trees. With your pack and heart full, you trod back through the dry yellow grasses of the approach. As you plant your boot a bit too deep in the frigid mud you think "I'm glad I wore my big fuzzy socks."
Send us your best shot!
Did you take any good pictures this year of fishing with friends or family? If so, consider submitting a few shots to the 2024 sport fishing regulation summary cover photo contest.
Every year the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G), Division of Sport Fish, publishes four regional Sport Fishing Regulation Summary booklets - Northern, Southcentral, Southeast, and Southwest.
ADF&G is now accepting photo entries of youth anglers and families or friends fishing together for the cover photo contest. We also encourage anglers to submit images showing the diversity among those who fish in Alaska. The submission deadline for photo entries with a completed and signed Media Consent Release Form is 5:00 p.m. Saturday, October 31, 2023.
A maximum of three photos may be entered. For photo submissions to be considered, all photos must be accompanied by a completed Media Consent Release Form. Please include the name of the body of water or drainage in which the photo was taken and information about the angler(s) in the photo. Photos that show evidence of fish and game violations, unethical, or unsafe actions or advertisement will not be considered â€“ this includes youths in a boat without a life vest.
Please email all photos and a completed and signed Media Consent Release Form to the appropriate region where the fish was caught to the following individuals:
- Northern Alaska | Tim Mowry in Fairbanks, email@example.com
- Southcentral and Southwest Alaska | Katelyn Zonneville in Anchorage, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Southeast Alaska | John Driscoll in Juneau/Douglas, email@example.com
For more information on the contest, please visit this webpage.
Two New Videos Focus on Rockfish in Southeast Alaska
We recently posted two videos on our YouTube channel that focus on rockfish in Southeast Alaska.
The How Are Rockfish Managed in Southeast Alaska? video details how sport fish management of rockfish occurs in Southeast Alaska.
The Southeast Alaska Rockfish Maturity Sampling video highlights the process of collecting samples from black and yelloweye rockfish.
Field to Plate - Recipe of the Month
Hot Alaska Pollock Sandwich by Chef Chris Cosentino
Here's a delicious recipe for Hot Alaska Pollock Sandwich by Chef Chris Cosentino from the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.
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