The future of salmon

Future of Salmon in Alaska

By Dan Paull

If you watch the news or pay any attention to things happening in the natural world, it may come as no surprise that our planet is changing. One thing is for sure, in the last 50 years it seems as if we are watching things change before our very eyes.

I seem to remember when I was a kid some 35 years ago that winter came earlier and stayed a little longer. Based on what I see today, winters are later and seem to be more fleeting. One day it is super sunny and 70 and then the next day it is 10 degrees and blowing snow. Our weather patterns have come to extremes.

Not only are we looking at severe changes in weather patterns, but we are also seeing populations of wildlife change right before our eyes. Since most places are warming in temperature, ice formation is not what it used to be. Because of that, it sounds like we are losing a large population of polar bears. Or are we? It is rare for animals in the natural world to cross-breed, however, since the ice has become scarce some polar bears have ventured more onto land and into Grizzly bear country. Years ago, there was “a” report of a hunter harvesting a crossbred “polargrizz.” As of recently, this has been reported several more times. This leaves us to question instead of losing a population could we be seeing evolution play out in Infront of our own eyes? Or is this a downward trend that has not completely unfolded?

I will tell you those two stories to lead into my next. The next, has a lot of variables at play to the tune of do we point the finger at evolution, or do we point the finger at man’s disaster? An even bigger question is what do we do?

When I was leaving Anchorage a couple of years ago, I stopped by a taxidermist to drop off a Sheefish to mount. It was not a monster “only 42”. While I was there, I got to know the taxidermist a little. They were closing the shop soon and moving to South Dakota. When I asked why the explanation I got was that there just is not any fish there anymore. If you just read that, you surely must be as shocked as I was when hearing their decision. As was explained to me by the taxidermist, in the 1980’s it was nothing for them to receive 20 or so King Salmon a year over 70lbs. Now she said if someone was to catch a single 40lber, they really did something special and none of those fish made it to the taxidermist. She went on to explain that sure there are salmon in the river and plenty to catch. Sometimes in recent history, however, it is continually less and less, and they are smaller than they used to be.

Alaska is the biggest state in the union. Its coastline is unbelievably long. When flying from Seattle to Anchorage it is aww inspiring to think about how many fish must live in that blue water of the Pacific Ocean. However, stepping back it is also clear that the fish are not alone. Seals, Wales, and much other marine wildlife call the Pacific home as well. However, there is one that has a significant impact.


To put into perspective what I am referring to, think about this just for a second. The town you live in I am sure has a grocery store and in that store, salmon filets are sold. Now zoom out to the city, zoom out to the county, zoom out to the state. And then the US. How many salmon filets are sold and consumed daily? Now multiply that by 365. It is amazing to me that we have been able to sustain our needs this long. However, the need and demand for salmon continue to grow. We still need to eat.

That said, Alaska closely monitors fish populations, consumption, and future need. Over the years it is no secret that many fisheries have seen fish populations decrease and some to the edge of existence in certain rivers. Because of this, in some areas restocking has assisted the wild populations; however, in many areas, and for some species supplemental stocking is not needed.

I purchased our lodge in 2018 and since then have gotten to know one of the locals well. He has told me many times that you can always tell how healthy a river system is by how bad it smells come late August. The massive stench should be coming from the rotting and dying chum salmon. The dying salmon feeds the entire system from eggs, fry and even decaying body matter. It all plays an integral part in feeding fish, eagles, bears, and even the trees. As he has exclaimed to me many times before, the Holitna and Kuskokwim rivers were once EXTREMELY healthy. Today they are vastly different from what they once were, however, most of Alaska is in the same boat.

On our river system “the Kuskokwim” the king salmon populations currently as I write this are pretty darn low. There once was a time that they were VERRY plentiful, and it was not that long ago, however in the latest years the numbers have been low. That story holds true for many rivers accost Alaska. The Kenai for example is a well-known river system that once was full of large Kings. Over the weekend, I talked to a guide that in 2022 fished hard for Kings in June and July. During those months, his clients hooked and landed a grand total of eight all season. To a lot of guides, this was a lot. Years ago, this might have been a daily average.

On the other side of the fence, there is an upside. The Sockeye have been on the increase all over the state. The Kuskokwim for example at one time never really had a run of sockeye to speak of. Today that runs is growing by the year and is a welcome site. The Bristol Bay area is seeing record numbers of sockeye year after year. How long this trend will continue, nobody knows but for whatever reason it is it is a welcome sight.

On another note, the silver salmon have had their difficulties. In 2019, we experienced a drought that no one has seen. The river had dropped to its lowest level ever. Two weeks of 90-degree heat plagued our area, and the rest of the summer was in the 80s. Once the silvers made it to our part of the river, they made it to resting areas and held tight until the cool fall rains. During this time, we were able to hook and land 100-120fissh to the boat a day. Since the limit is only five, we caught and released most of these fish. Since then, on average during most years we have seen 50-60 fish brought to the boat a day, until last year (2022). This past year (2022) was an anomaly as we barely saw any silvers at all. In fact, the numbers were so low ADFG shut down sport fishing altogether on the Kuskokwim drainage. Now that does not mean we did not see any, it does mean the numbers were very low. Does this mean we will never see 100 fish days again? I do not know, however, after speaking with a friend that owns another lodge in a different part of the state, I am optimistic that we will see good numbers of silvers again. As he has explained to me, having been a lodge owner for the last 20 years there was one year they had seen a bad run of silvers but after that everything was back to normal. Regardless we are watching the run and crossing our fingers.

The last of my two cents is that I think we will be ok. What I mean is some populations are slowly increasing. Some are steadily increasing, and some have an up-and-down cycle to them. Overall, the total numbers seem to be down, but they are doing well. On the other side of the fence, I think that the pike and sheefish that feed on these will be simply fine. As I mentioned I see some populations of salmon increasing and some populations have a bit of a flow to them. At the end of the day so far it seems that overall we are holding our own.

When I purchased the lodge one of my main criteria was to make sure we had something to fish for besides salmon. Our river system has great populations of Pike and Sheefish. So, if a guest were to come and fish with us and for whatever reason, the salmon runs were off, we still had plenty of other fish to go after. The salmon runs all over Alaska are in some ways up and in some ways down. One thing is for sure, Alaska is still just as wild and beautiful. What they say is true, beautiful fish do live in beautiful places.

A River In Time

A River In Time

By Jeff Woleslagle

He woke oddly refreshed and for the first time in a week, his back didn’t hurt when he rose from the bed. “You were dreaming again George” Nancy said, as he walked into the kitchen. He reached for the coffee pot to fill a mug already waiting on the counter. “Was I?” he grinned. The dream was fresh in his 80-year-old mind and he was a little startled at having it for the second time in four days. He had never been kind to have recurring dreams or to even remember them at all really. Sure, there was the occasional odd one, that somehow slipped from your slumbering subconscious to the conscious, waking part of your brain, but those were usually quickly forgotten. Flowing from memory like dry sand through parted fingers. Everything about this dream seemed so vivid. So real. The sights, the sounds, the smells, the landscape – all of it.

He recalled the first time he had the dream about three months ago. Back then, it wasn’t as clear. He remembered stringing his fly rod and making his way down a stone path to a beautiful river shrouded in the morning mist. The day held promise he thought. Gazing through the low fog, he saw there was another angler already thigh deep in the flow and he looked vaguely familiar. He knew he recognized this person’s unique casting form and the rhythm and cadence with which he worked the line. He tried to step into the inviting water and at that moment he woke up. The image would linger in his mind for much of the day and it was over dinner when he finally connected the casting form with the angler. His uncle James had been wounded in World War Two, on D-Day. Taking a piece of shrapnel to his left arm on the beaches of Normandy, but he was lucky to leave that place alive. Many in the platoon he stormed the shore with that day did not. He didn’t lose the function of his arm from the injury, but nerves and a tendon were severed, and they would never be the same. It gave his casting a jerky form, but he compensated amazingly well. He was one of the best George had ever seen at putting a fly right where it needed to be. James had been the one to introduce him to fly fishing and it ignited a lifelong passion for the sport. H Hh

The next time he had the dream, he waved to James standing in the middle of the river and James waved back. He went upstream so as not to disturb his uncle and at the base of the next pool was another angler already claiming it. This one had his back to George and again it was somehow familiar. When the fisherman turned to face the bank, George felt his chest tighten at the sight of his older brother. He hadn’t seen Max in so long he could barely remember. It had been what, 20 years since the accident? Probably many more than that. Max was known for his frugality and he wore an old tan vest that was threadbare in places. George had bought him a new one as a Christmas present, but it was a gift he never got the chance to deliver. The memories he had of the two of them fishing together washed over him in waves. There was the giant brown trout Max caught below the falls on a tributary to Lake Michigan that was as beautiful in coloration as it was large, stretching to almost 25 inches. George watched him fight the fish on the light tippet for almost 15 minutes before it came to the net. Max would wear the smile from that encounter for over a week. There was a time in the Adirondacks that they both took one step too many into a river that was running high. They lost their footing at the exact same time and were swept downstream to a small spit of sand jutting out into the flow. There were some lost fly boxes as well as bruised bodies and equally bruised egos, but they were ok. They sat on the bank for a time in silence, cold and soaked to the bone, and then Max began to laugh that infectious laughter of his. Before he could stop himself, George too was busting a gut. They laughed until their sides hurt and then Max said “Lets dry out and go get a cup of coffee. My treat.” George shot back with “You didn’t hit your head on a rock, did you?” in disbelief at his brother’s offer to buy. Again, a hearty round of laughter ensued. It was after that trip that they got matching wading sticks so they could always check the depth in front of them. Overcome at the sight of his brother, George lifted a foot to step into the current and make his way over and suddenly his eyes shot open. He looked at the bedroom ceiling and smiled. It was great to see Max again, if only in his sleep.

A week later, again the dream came to visit. This time the air held that freshness that only the early morning hours can possess. A grouse was drumming on a distant log and the trout lilies were in the splendor of full bloom. Again, he waved to James as he walked along the path and worked his way upstream. When he got to the next pocket, Max was concentrating intently on a fish rising in front of him and George felt compelled to move up to the next pool. Rounding a bend, he immediately recognized the angler who sat on the far bank with his back against a sturdy oak tree. George froze in his tracks as he watched in disbelief. His father lifted the old blue steel rod from where it rested in the center of a forked stick that had been placed in the soft earth to hold it. He gave the rod a quick sweep to set the hook and there was a brief battle before he netted a gorgeous specimen of a brook trout. The small hook that was attached to the black cotton line had been baited with a lively red worm. He watched his dad carefully remove the hook and then add the trout to a small rope stringer that held three others, all about equal in size. His father then became aware of George’s presence and looked at his son and smiled. He waved and George could see the calloused and rough hands of a man that had spent most of his life working hard to provide for his family. He didn’t fish much, but when he did he thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. In direct contrast to his hard-worn hands, he had blue eyes the color of faded denim that projected kindness and caring. When those eyes locked onto George’s, George was overcome with emotion. Here was the man who had taught him so much about the important things in life. So much of it George had learned just from his example, with few words being exchanged in the process. He went to wade across to embrace his dad and found himself suddenly wide awake.  The best dream yet, George thought.

The following day as George was walking back to the house from the garden, he felt a sudden pressure in his chest. His left arm went from tingling to numb. Nancy saw him fall to his knees and she screamed as she ran toward him, already dialing for an ambulance. She cradled his head until she heard the wail of the sirens in front of the house. Time stood still.

At the hospital, the monitor showed a flat line and she clutched his hand tightly. Not wanting to let go. Never wanting to let go. She would stand in that pose for over an hour before succumbing to exhaustion. As her hand slipped from him, he was gazing at a river shrouded in the morning mist. He walked along the stone path and for the first time, when he stepped into the sparkling water he didn’t jerk awake. His uncle James motioned for him to come closer. He looked vibrant and happy. “One heck of a caddis hatch right now George. Got any in a size 14?”