Most people know False Outer Point is a good place to fish for king salmon in late April and May. What they don’t know is why.
Bill Heard, a retired scientist with NOAA, has a theory that answers that question.
“I’ve followed this for many years,” he said.
The majority of the chinook caught at False Outer Point in those months are wild Taku River salmon; several have been identified by tags placed when they were smolt, Heard said. A few others have been identified as fish from various hatcheries.
Salmon imprint on different locations as they leave the streams and rivers where they were born, using those imprints as markers to help guide them home. Taku River wild salmon travel down their home tributary, then the Taku River and onward, imprinting at important points along the way.
Imprinting, Heard said, is “an innate part of salmon biology.”
Salmon keep those markers over long periods of time, responding to them only in certain contexts.
A very important point is when they first encounter salt water. Another is when they leave the glacial waters expelled by the Taku Glacier.
“Sequential imprints are waypoints in long river systems,” Heard said. “They’re played back in reverse sequence to reach home.”
Much of that navigation is by smell. Salmon have a sense of smell that makes a dog look “like he didn’t have a nose,” Heard said.
Heard thinks that when the chinook return from the wide ocean along a certain path, the first glacial waters they encounter may be from the Mendenhall River as those waters travel around the north end of Douglas Island. Some of the fish take a wrong turn, heading into Fritz Cove.
“They’re getting a whiff of Mendenhall River water,” he said. “It’s quite similar to Taku River water coming off the glacial icecap … they’re sort of decoyed into Fritz Cove. They don’t go into the Mendenhall River. They mill and wander around.”
Salmon don’t travel in a straight line on their return journey to their birth waters, Heard said. Sometimes they stray to the side, and sometimes they backtrack. After the Mendenhall leads them wrong, that’s what they do. They circle back, getting piled up, Heard believes, at the outcrop that is False Outer Point, also known as Picnic Cove, or, in some circles, Filipino Cove, for a group of fishermen that fished there before it was known as a good fishing spot to the community at large.
“They tend to sort of stack up, especially at low tide,” he said. “They move along North Douglas Highway, past False Outer Point.”
On a good day, anglers catch 30 to 40 Chinook at False Outer Point, Heard said. Seasonal estimates run at between 400 to 600 Taku River kings.
Another interesting point is that shore fishermen tend to be more successful than those fishing from a boat.
“I think it’s because the fish get stacked up right against that point, and often times bait (like herring) tends to hold the fish in there,” he said.
By June, Taku River salmon lucky enough to escape a lower rung on the food chain have all found their way to the right river. Fish caught at False Outer Point after that are usually from hatcheries, some from remote release sites like Fish Creek, on Douglas.
Heard retired after 52 years at NOAA in 2012, but continues to work at its Lena Point campus regularly on a volunteer basis. He’s got several projects he’s working on; his specialties are chinook and pink salmon.
Heard has given talks on his theory in a few places, and plans to condense it down to a scientific paper soon. He’ll also be discussing it at an upcoming conference in Japan.
“If my hypothesis is correct, that event (fish detouring to swim past False Outer Point) has been going on since time immemorial — for thousands of years,” Heard said.