JUNEAU, Alaska -- A strong run of Taku River king salmon this spring and an early return of hatchery fish are contributing to the best fishing Juneau anglers have seen in years.
''For the past three weeks we've had better-than-average catch rates,'' said fisheries biologist Bruce White, who pulled in an 18-pound king on his day off last weekend.
The five-year average for late May is 42 hours fishing for every king landed. Last week it took anglers about half that time to catch a king.
White supervises the Alaska Department of Fish and Game creel survey crews that interview boat anglers returning to area docks and boat ramps. Crews at the Douglas Harbor saw a big change in the catch success around Memorial Day.
''North Douglas has been hot all spring,'' White said. ''Douglas was cold until last week, then it really took off. Both places were really hot last week.''
He said fishing was particularly good south of Juneau, in the waters off Point Dupont, Point Bishop and Point Salisbury.
There's a reason. Most of the salmon caught this spring in Juneau waters are mature fish headed for spawning grounds up the Taku River -- spawner kings about 6 years old. Scientists estimate 30,000 kings have entered the river, making this the strongest run since 1997. Biologists believe a return of about 35,000 kings in the river ensures a healthy fishery and good future runs. That number almost is assured already, and fisheries scientist Scott MacPherson said they may see 50,000 kings by the end of the run.
Part of the reason for the strong run is that the fish had favorable conditions when they were smolts in 1997 and '98. Taku River kings spend a year and a half in fresh water before taking to the sea, unlike cohos and some king salmon further south that head to sea the same year they hatch.
''If they can put on good growth that first year, when they go out as smolt then their survival is pretty good,'' MacPherson said. ''We had a nice spring that year with good light early on -- sunshine to get that phytoplankton bloom going.''
In addition to the solid Taku run, biologists are seeing an early return of kings reared at DIPAC, the Douglas Island Pink And Chum facility. The DIPAC smolts are released at the Ladd Macaulay Hatchery on Gastineau Channel and from rearing pens at Fish Creek and in Auke Bay.
These fish tend to return in mid-June, but this year they seem to be coming in about three weeks early.
''If that continues we should see some fairly strong catches,'' Schwan said. ''The south end should be good for the tail end of Taku fish run. Then the north end slows, then picks up again as hatchery fish come up.''
In addition to the Taku River kings, some kings caught in Juneau area waters are spring spawners headed for the Chilkat River drainage near Haines. These tend to be caught more on the north end of Juneau waters, areas such as the Breadline. MacPherson estimated about 5 or 10 percent of the kings caught are Chilkat fish, 10 to 15 percent are hatchery fish and the rest are spring spawners coming into the Taku.
Scientists are watching the progress of the Taku run and may loosen up restrictions for Gastineau Channel and adjacent waters when an adequate number of fish has moved up the Taku. That should happen early this month.
An imaginary line is drawn between Picnic Cove at False Outer Point and Indian Point at the North side of Auke Bay -- the water south of that line down through Gastineau Channel to the Juneau-Douglas Bridge is designated as the terminal hatchery area. Within that area, which includes Fish Creek and the freshwater ponds there, anglers may take four kings of any size per day.
''This is not in effect yet,'' said fisheries biologist Mark Schwan. ''But soon we'll open our terminal hatchery area. If fish are in the pond at Fish Creek, we want people to catch them.''
The kings tend to bite less and less the longer they stay in fresh water.
''As soon as we know they're around we want people to be able to go after them,'' Schwan said.
Fishing later this summer for Taku River-bound cohos is looking promising as well.
MacPherson said conditions were favorable in the spring of 2001 for young coho and biologists saw healthy, robust smolt headed out of the river. After 14 to 18 months at sea, those fish should be headed back this summer and fall.
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