Smelts are swimming up the Kuskokwim River. That means king salmon will soon follow, and with them, fishing restrictions.
Like prior years, state managers with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game are predicting a below average run for kings, an estimated 115,000 to 150,000 fish. That’s roughly the same number as last year’s run. State regulations to conserve the kings will begin rolling up the river next week, beginning Tuesday, May 28.
On that date, the state will close the main-stem to gillnets from the Kuskokwim River mouth to the Tuluksak River mouth. Kuskokwim River tributaries will also close to gillnets, including the Kwethluk River drainage, the Kasigluk and Kisaralik River drainages, including Old Kuskokuak Slough, the Tuluksak River drainage, and the Aniak River drainage. All other Kuskokwim tributaries will remain open to gillnets beginning 100 yards upstream from where they meet the Kuskokwim.
Also beginning May 28, any king salmon caught in a fish wheel, dip net, beach seine, or hook and line must be returned to the water alive. After May 28, gillnet closures will begin rolling up the Kuskokwim main-stem, shutting down another section of river every five days.
On Saturday, June 1 the river will close to gillnets from the Tuluksak River mouth to Aniak. On Thursday, June 6 the river will close from Aniak to the Holitna River mouth, and on Tuesday, June 11, the river will close from the Holitna River mouth to the Kuskokwim headwaters.
In a press release, state managers say that they intend to take a “cautionary approach during the early part of the season" and to base fishing periods on “in-season run assessments and input from the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group.” The group is formed of Kuskokwim residents, and they’ve voted to allow one 4-inch mesh gillnet opening per week during these front-end closures to allow for whitefish harvests.
There is a huge caveat to these restrictions. On June 1, federal managers take control of the Kuskokwim from the mouth upstream to Aniak, and will have the power to override restrictions in these waters at that time.
Though state biologists predict a below average run for kings, they expect average runs for chum, red, and silver salmon.