How you fish on the Kuskokwim River depends on where you are. According to local fishermen, how you fish near Upper and Lower Kalskag is unlike anywhere else on the river. Fishermen in these communities claim that their unique situation requires unique fishing regulations and are meeting with tribal, federal, and state managers Tuesday, June 19 to negotiate a solution.
Mike Savage has been fishing in the same eddy on the Kuskokwim River since 1959. Savage lives in Lower Kalskag and began fishing this eddy as a child. Over six decades, he’s learned to read it well.
“And every year it changes," he said. "You know, you got to look at it."
But this year he can hardly see it. The river water is about 2 feet above average and nearly swallows his fishing spot.
“It’s hardly an eddy at all because of high water,” Savage said.
An eddy is where the current hits something solid, like rocks or the bank, and flows back on itself, creating a reverse current on the downstream side of the obstacle. Fish congregate in the swirling water, making them ideal fishing areas, but when the water is high, eddies wash out and disappear as the river flows over what was previously a barrier.
Around Upper and Lower Kalskag there aren’t many eddies to begin with, and this year they’re smaller than usual because of high water rushing over them. Some eddies nearly disappeared after high water during breakup tore off sections of river bank. This means that the two communities that make up the Kalskag section of the Kuskokwim have a lot of fishermen and not a lot of places to fish. Many fishermen take turns drifting.
“If there are three or four boats," Savage explained, "it’ll be an hour to an hour and a half before we make another drift.”
There’s another limiting factor: timber. Trees line this section of the Kuskokwim and fill the river, snagging and tearing nets. Savage says that his brother-in-law had to cut a new, 6-inch mesh gillnet during a recent opening to free it from a snag.
“And we spend two hours, an hour trying to mend it,” Savage said.
That’s time spent not fishing during an opening that only lasted 12 hours. High water means more water and more timber flowing into the river. That’s less places to fish and more snags. On top of that, there are no non-spawning salmon tributaries near Kalskag where fishermen can driftnet outside the main river. So when gillnet openings occur, all the Kalskag fishermen are taking turns drifting their nets in the same few eddies and stopping often to unsnag and mend them. By the time the fishing period closes, no one has had time to do much fishing.
Mike Savage wants to change that by extending the openings to 24 hours for the Kalskag area. Savage represents the Middle River on the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group. Tuesday afternoon, he and other Kalskag representatives are meeting with the managers from the tribal, federal, and state entities in hopes of coming up with a solution.
Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge Manager Ken Stahlnecker oversees the Kalskag federal waters. Stahlnecker announced last week that he’s willing to work with the Kalskag communities and can change the rules through a federal emergency order.
This is not the first time Kalskag has had special rules. In 2016, the feds made an exemption to include Kalskag under state regulation. Kalskag lies less than 50 miles downstream of the refuge boundary on the federal side, but the community’s fishing style and circumstance more closely match the upper river on the state side. Including Kalskag under state regulation for the remaining season is another option that Savage wants considered.