Let's say you're sportfishing for coho in late August at your favorite drag.
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One day, you catch your limit. The next few days: no bites, nothing.
Is that it? Is the season over? Has the entire population simply moved upriver?
Don't put a tarp over the boat just yet. The peak catch rates for coho are usually in the last few weeks of August and into the first two weeks of September.
"It should stay good for quite some time," said Brian Glynn, Juneau-area management biologist for the sport fish division of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "In certain streams there could be variation in the time a certain stock might return.
"Coho are pretty abundant in general," he said. "Many streams have coho in them, and they all have subtle variations in their timing - three-week, four-week differences. Fish have been re-entering the Taku for a month now, and the fish that are bound for Montana Creek have been nosing up in there this past week."
Juneau-area coho catch rates for sport fishing have hovered around the five-year average, Glynn said. But they were far better than average in late-July, right before the Golden North Salmon Derby.
"If you were out on the water, at least somebody in your boat caught a coho," Glynn said. "It wasn't all that uncommon to hear that people were coming back, limiting out."
The coho returns in the Taku River have been higher than anticipated, Glynn said. The number of in-river fish two weeks ago was double the average for that time of year.
Ketchikan, Gusatvus and Sitka rates have been below the five-year average for the last four weeks. Craig's rates were poor until early August, then improved considerably from Aug. 7-20 and fell in line with the five-year average.
In the troll fishery, the coho catch rates for the Southeast Alaska region peaked in mid- to late-July, then abruptly dropped, said Leon Shaul, coho research project leader for the commercial fisheries division of Fish and Game.
Juneau has been a bright spot compared to the rest of Southeast Alaska, he said.
Coho trolling is closed for five days for conservation. The season reopens Monday.
"It looks like a fairly weak return so far," Shaul said. "On the other hand, some of the other salmon, like the sockeye in the Taku, have been late. We could say there's still a strong late coho component. It's not uncommon to see early peaks like that, and then a drop-off."
Juneau-area coho runs usually peak in September.
"I doubt that you're looking at the backside of the run," Shaul said. "There are some early runs that have come through the upper Taku. The main Taku run would probably peak the second week of September. The Lynn Canal fish have peaked closer to Sept. 15."
For sportfishing, it may seem like the number of fish are dropping off in early September. But the abundance could actually be increasing.
"When you look at sport fishery catch rates, it peaks out in late August," Shaul said. "But if you look at the catch rates for gillnetters in Lynn Canal or near the Taku, it peaks a few weeks later. The fish are tending to spend less time feeding as they mature. They begin heading more toward the river. They're not feeding and milling around, but concentrating on migration."
Pink salmon catch rates are at their lowest since 1987, Shaul said. Pink rates often mirror coho rates because the two fish are on the same one-year ocean cycle.
"The pink runs have been good in some of the major systems and larger rivers, and weak in some of the smaller streams," Shaul said. "There was a drought a few years ago that could have affected the pink survival in some of those streams and the rearing coho at the same time."
Hook noses and the tension of the egg skein in female cohos are two signs that the fish are becoming more mature, feeding less and preparing to head into the rivers. Heavy rainfall, like what we've seen this summer, does not have a major affect on salmon as they're migrating through the outer coast, Icy Strait and Cross Sound. But it does influence their choices as they reach the river mouths.
"Certainly, when you get rainfall they start moving upstream," Shaul said. "They use that opportunity to get up closer to the spawning grounds."
Korry Keeker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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