ANCHORAGE - A world-class river for sport king salmon fishing is closed, leaving outfitters and guides wondering where all the big fish have gone as clients cancel and take their business elsewhere.
The Nushagak River in southwest Alaska north of Dillingham is not the only river in Alaska where king salmon returns are shaky, but it is perhaps the most surprising. This summer is turning out to be the second-worst year for Nushagak kings on record. The worst was in 1986.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Jason Dye said Thursday that the kings should have shown up by now but haven't, and likely won't.
The closure announced Monday is bad news for Steve Hieb, general manager of HRM Sports LTD, which boasts having the only flush toilets on the river. He said two clients who flew in Wednesday without knowing of the closure want to catch the first plane out of camp.
"They called and they want to leave today," Hieb said. "It is very frustrating for everyone."
There are only two other clients in camp and he's taken 10 cancelations so far, resulting in about a $30,000 loss, he said. HRM guests pay from $2,000 to $4,000 a trip depending upon the length of stay.
The closure took everyone by surprise, but there were warnings that something was wrong this summer on the Nushagak, Hieb said. The river was closed only after Fish and Game reduced the catch limit and then moved to catch-and-release only. It also prohibited the use of bait.
As of Wednesday, only 32,000 fish had swum past the sonar counter. The closure was triggered Monday when the estimated size of the spawning stock fell below 40,000 fish.
"The fish should have moved by now," Dye said. "The fish just aren't there."
Last year, more than 81,000 kings were counted.
Sport king fishing on the Nushagak began June 15 and normally lasts until the end of July.
Permanent structures are not allowed along the river, so much of the business is fly-in to camps where guests stay in tents. HRM is large and diversified enough that the closure won't cause it to go under, Hieb said. However, that likely is not the case for many other camps along the river that rely on the king business to stay afloat, he said.
"There are some that won't be back next year," Hieb said. "There are a lot of serious sport fishermen who love to catch these kings and that is why it is so devastating to those camps."
On a typical season for kings on the Nushagak, High Adventure Air in Soldotna flies 64 guests out to its camp. Guests pay about $2,000 for four days, said Mark Bell, who has been flying clients to the river for over 20 years.