Coho season slow, but anglers stay hooked

Posted: Sunday, September 30, 2007

Beyond a fence line of giant spruce trees, a blackened beach composed of shale boulders stretches horizontally forming a small peninsula. Whitish barnacles and rusty orange seaweeds garnish the embankments of the incoming tide while a thick fog warps the waters from the sheepish sky. One figure sticks out from the natural landscape - Percy Douglas in a dark green raincoat. He stands at the end of the rocky outcropping, legs apart, for balance.

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Attached to the pole, one arm is high and the other arm is low. Rotating his waist, he draws back his rod, flinging a cast into the murky cove. He is fishing at False Outer Point for coho, otherwise known as silver salmon.

"Catch anything?" I ask.

He shakes his head and states plainly, "Nothing...not nothing."

He backs up his big smile with a little chuckle and says, "I come out here just for the hell of get away from everybody for a little while."

I ask him how the season's going and he says, "I know it's been pretty slow. I've been out to Point Louisa and it's just dead out there, too. Either the season is going to be real late or there is not much fish, one of the two."

As the region assumes the worst and watches for the return of one of Southeast's most important harvests, Douglas' opinions are ringing loud and clear throughout the fishing industry. From commercial to sport and on down to recreational casting, the silver salmon of Southeast Alaska seem to be keeping us on edge. The problem with this year's poor Coho return is not just that the numbers are low; rather it is the effects that the low numbers have on the people of the communities. As autumn wanes, many residents assume the season is a bust, while others offer hope or attempt to keep things in a perspective.

Ross Soboleff was born in Southeast and raised here in Juneau. He works for the state of Alaska, but runs a part-time power troller fishing business on the side. Soboleff points out how a good salmon return is not a guarantee anymore.

"One of my really good friends, who has fished for years and years, has seen years when on September 10th, it is all just did not pay to go out and try to catch any more. In a normal year people would be fishing on the outside in the summer time and then come September, a lot of guys hang out across the sound or Icy Strait area or they are able to start fishing closer to home and still catch a lot of fish. Fishermen do the best they can in the first part of the season, but where they really make your money is at the end of the season. So, this year, they kind of haven't been able to do that...the numbers just haven't been that good."

Brad Elfers owns and operates Juneau Flyfishing Goods. Elfers is familiar with the local stream conditions and how well anglers are doing around Juneau. He held that the fish have been trickling into the streams since late August and although the first run was on par with typical conditions, the later runs did not build, but remained kind of slow.

Elfers said, "Coho fishermen are usually pretty dedicated and are working real hard to get what they can get. They are still out there trying and it's good to see that they haven't given up yet, you know! It's been nice to hear that people have been releasing a lot of the wild fish because they aren't sure whether the run is going to be a strong one and then focusing their harvesting on the Douglas Island Pink and Chum fish. It has been nice to see a sort of self-imposed conservation on a year that there could be a thin run and allow the fish a chance for a future run. And then on a year of a big, big run, they don't have to feel bad about taking home the limit."

For Juneau's anglers who focus on taking home their daily limit and concentrate their efforts on snagging, the coho run at DIPAC is an entirely different story. According to one local, this year is going a lot better for snaggers then last year.

Don Frank is a second-year snagger who believes this year's Coho are proportionally a pound or two bigger then last year's smaller fish. Frank noted on one day around Sept. 20 that three big runs of Coho came through the area. A day later, Frank described the luck as "not so good," but by looking around, the untrained eye would never know. Silver salmon are scattered all over the beach. A four-pack down by one guy, a few over there by another guy. Almost everyone on the beach has at least one fish stashed safely away from the water's edge. Walking down the gangway to the dock, it is impossible to not check out the six fresh fish stashed up against the fence. The essence of the situation is that the guys down at DIPAC are knocking them dead!

Without polarized sunglasses, which rid the water of its glare, one is unable to see what the buzzing conversation is all about.

"Ooo, look at that big one!" one angler says.

"There they are! Over there!" another yells

Zing, whiz, pzzz. Weighted treble hooks go flying, sometimes crossing over someone else's line, but no one cares, especially when someone snags a fish. In between casts, Frank said this year's run is about two to three weeks behind schedule but stated that the runs have really picked up over the last few days. How much has it picked up, one asks?

"Well, I can limit out every day," Frank humbly replied.

And he is not the only one who can do that. Frank speculates that five to 10 people a day are catching their daily limit. For those who are unfamiliar with snagging limits, the limit for snaggers is six Coho salmon per person per day, and right now the fish are as bright as Coors Light silver bullets. Stocking up the freezer with five salmon per day can require a sizable storage unit. Although somewhat rudimentary, some locals consider snagging an underestimated form of subsistence and their hard consistent efforts are paying off.

Mike Jaenicke and Jason Shull work for Alaska Department Fish and Game Division of Sport Fisheries. The two specialists shared some insight concerning the coho salmon and the way the sport fishing season has unfolded in 2007.

Jaenicke, the Marine Harvest Studies coordinator, considers yearly study results as tools by which to make inferences. Jaenicke's cumulative harvest rate study documented the success of people catching sport fish and does not establish an estimation of overall specie abundance. His study determined that for every sport fishing pole in the water, the catch rate was down 37 percent from the 10-year average. Although this statistic does not appear good, Jaenicke mentioned that what people really want to know is if this is the worst year and the good news is that, no, it is not the worst year.

In terms of his study's results Jaenicke said, "This year is actually a little bit better then it was in 2000. If you look going back into the 90s, '95 and '97 were actually worse then this year. In terms of the big picture, it may have been a poor year, but we have seen worse in terms of the sport fishery."

Jaenicke concluded that any downtrodden spirits of anglers this year is due to the past success of recent years.

"I think that what happened this year is that people got used to the really good coho fishing from 2001 through 2006, and they got used to that really good fishing success. Now that we are back to normal or a little bit below normal, their expectations are, well...they are not used to poorer years. Our derby numbers were down too. The 2007 total coho take during the derby was 55 percent less then in 2006 and 44 percent lower than the 10-year average. This year's derby timing was not good either, because it was earlier ... rather then later in the month."

As Shull goes on to explain, the timing of this year's coho runs did not assist the derby fishermen by any means.

Shull, an assistant area biologist, points back to last winter's unusually long and harsh conditions as the number one culprit for this year's Coho behavior and speculated on the season's regional returns.

"Of all the environmental factors, the winter we had last year certainly changed the behavior of the fish regionwide, if not statewide, not just for coho, but for all fish," Shull said.

She explained that juveniles tended to leave the streams later than normal, adult runs were stretched out, and generally the fish tended to return later than normal.

"Obviously, based the numbers that we are looking at, it certainly wasn't one of the best years, and I think that did set some alarms off with some people," Shull said. "I don't know that anyone could argue that there was great marine coho fishing in the Juneau area this year. I think it was pretty obvious it was below average fishing for cohos."

The Taku timing seems to be adjusted late this year and the river's projection is basically average, but they are showing up late, Shull said. And the same is holding true on the Chilkat.

"The last several years had fairly high abundance and in comparison to this year and the contrast was pretty great because of the high abundance in the last few years," Shull said.

From a reproductive standpoint, Shull is finding that the coho are making it into the streams and that the fresh water fishing seems to be decent.

Elfers hasn't completely given up hope on the season and emphasized that there is most likely a lot more fly fishing ahead stating, "The creek fishery is peaking right about now - the 20th of September to the first week of October - and then things typically start to die out, but this year could go later. I mean, if the fish are just pushing now, there could be a wave or two behind them, and we may be coho fishing into mid-October. There is always Coho out there; it is just a matter of how many."

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