FAIRBANKS - Pike fishermen in Minto Flats will pay the price this summer for what was a record subsistence pike harvest this winter in the Chatanika River.
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The Alaska Department of Fish and Game on Tuesday issued an emergency order reducing the daily bag and possession limit for northern pike in all lakes and flowing waters of the Minto Flats area, which includes the Chatanika and Tolovana rivers, from five fish a day to two, only one of which can be 30 inches or longer.
The order takes effect when the fishery opens on June 1 and will remain in place until it closes Oct. 14.
The reduction is mandated by the Minto Flats Northern Pike Management Plan when the harvest in the Chatanika River subsistence pike fishery exceeds 750 fish, according to lower Tanana area management biologist Audra Brase with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks.
Reports from subsistence fishers indicated more than 1,200 northern pike were harvested this winter. The state closed the fishery on Feb. 23 as a result of the high catch, the largest since the management plan was adopted in 1998.
Most of the harvest came from the same spot, just upstream from the confluence of the Chatanika River and Goldstream Creek.
"They tend to congregate there," said Brase. "They're not there every year - sometimes they are and sometimes they're not.
"This year some people found them and really cleaned up," she said.
This is the first time a reduction to the bag and possession limit has been instituted since the management plan was adopted, Brase said.
The department notified local guides as soon as possible so they could inform their clients of the change when booking trips to Minto Flats, she said.
Bill O'Halloran, who owns North Country River Charters, is one of two Fairbanks guide services that offers pike fishing trips in Minto Flats. The reduced bag limit won't have much effect on his business, O'Halloran said, because most of his clients release the fish they catch.
"For us, it's not a giant issue; we seldom keep close to a limit," he said. "We always try to let the big guys go because it perpetuates the fishery for us."
O'Halloran was "completely supportive" of the reduction.
"I think the fishery is more important than a big bag limit," he said. "People don't need to fill a freezer with pike. They're better fresh."
A few of the local fishermen that Rick Gold of Marina Air Inc. flies out to Minto Flats each summer like to catch their bag limit of five pike but most of the tourists he caters to don't keep fish unless they eat it for lunch or dinner, he said.
"There are some guys who want to go out and catch five fish because they like to put them up for winter but most of the tourists just return the fish back to the lake," said Gold, who flies anglers out for day and overnight trips in Minto Flats.
Gold, like O'Halloran, supports the reduced bag limit if it will ensure the health of the fishery but he also said the department should examine the winter subsistence fishery on the Chatanika River to make sure fish aren't being wasted.
"I don't think people are really subsisting on northern pike," Gold said. "A lot of them feed the fish to their (sled) dogs."
O'Halloran, too, said he heard disturbing stories about the subsistence fishery that involved fish being wasted.