Anglers looking to bag a few coho salmon in Haines, Alaska this year might need a little more luck than usual.
Coho returns on the Chilkat River could be one of the poorest on record.
As of Sept. 25, fish wheels on the Chilkat River had counted 566 coho, only 35 per cent of the average for that date.
However, officials are hopeful that they will meet the spawning goal after a strong pulse of fish came in on Sept. 25 and 26.
“Right now, we’re tracking towards probably making the lower end of the escapement goal, which as of a few days ago was uncertain,” said Brian Elliott, assistant area manager with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
The goal is to get between 30,000 and 70,000 fish back to their natal streams for spawning.
Officials estimate the escapement by doing a visual count of spawning fish along certain sections of streams.
Every year, the same areas are counted in the same way, and that number is used as an index to estimate the total for the river system.
Last year, officials estimated that close to 70,000 coho reached their spawning streams.
The department also keeps track of coded-wire tagged salmon caught by the commercial gillnet fishery.
Those returns have also been poor this year, indicating a low survival rate for the smolts that left the river last year, according to a department report.
But all is not lost for sport fishers hoping to catch a few this year, Elliott said.
“Our abundance is below average. That’s pretty much for certain at this point. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t good angling opportunity.”
Because people can choose to fish either the Chilkat or the Chilkoot River from Haines, there are more chances of finding what you came for.
“The fact that we have two systems helps buffer in case one of the systems is a little depressed,” said Elliott.
The Chilkoot River coho run is much smaller than the Chilkat run, but it appears to be strong this year.
Officials do not monitor that run as closely, but by Sept. 12, when the weir was removed from the river for the season, 139 coho salmon had been counted there, which is more than double the historical average.
Currently, the bag limit for coho on the Chilkat is three daily, with a maximum of six in possession.
On the Chilkoot, the bag limit is two daily with two in possession.
But you can’t fish to the limit on both river systems, Elliott said.
“I think that’s maybe the number one thing that anglers get confused about.”
If you fish to the limit on the Chilkat, you cannot fish at all on the Chilkoot.
If you take the maximum allowed on the Chilkoot, you may continue to fish on the Chilkat until your cumulative total has reached the limit for the Chilkat.
Bag and possession limits could be lowered for the Chilkat if it appears that the coho will not meet the spawning escapement goal.
The commercial fishery has already been limited by forbidding fishing in the Chilkat Inlet anywhere north of Seduction Point, Elliott said.
“That’s a conservative measure to allow returning fish a little more breathing room on their way back home.”
The sport fishery for coho on the Chilkat really gets going through the month of October, but fishing opportunities exist right through December, Elliott said.
Returns on the Chilkat for other species of salmon were poor this year as well. The estimated abundance of large chinook salmon was 1,627, which is short of the 1,850 to 3,600 goal.
Sockeye salmon fared better, with over 100,000 counted at the Chilkat Lake fish weir, well above the escapement goal of 70,000.
Counts of pink salmon on the Chilkat were about half of average.
The sockeye count on the Chilkoot, on the other hand, was the largest on record. The pink run there was slightly above average.
Contact Jacqueline Ronson at