Slow Fall Chum Run Leaves Yukon Smokehouses Empty

Slow fall chum runs have kept subsistence fisherman from being too active on the Yukon River this past week, but as Chinook continue crossing the border, officials say their numbers are well above escapement goals.

“As far as I know, everybody’s smokehouse is empty, waiting for fall chum,” said Fred Huntington in Galena.

It was a sentiment echoed by many calling in to the weekly teleconference for fishermen and managers along the Yukon last week. That wait has been going on for two weeks now—ever since fall chum officially started running around July 18, creating a midseason lull for many fishermen between summer and fall chum runs. Bonnie Borba, the fall chum research biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said the first pulse of fall chum would be making its way upriver by the end of July and into the first week of August.

In all, the fall chum run on the Yukon is expected at between 700,000 to 800,000 fish. It’s a moderately-sized run that Fish and Game’s Jeff Estensen said may be slow, but they are on their way.

“[Fall chum] certainly will be getting there,” he told callers. “They’re making their way up. I did get a chance to talk to a fisherman in Holy Cross a couple of days ago; he mentioned there’s definitely signs that that pulse was definitely going by Holy Cross. So they did see them, so by all accounts it definitely seems like we have a pulse of fish going upriver.”

The fall chum run should be enough for escapement, subsistence, and commercial needs, Estensen said; already, commercial harvesters in the lower river have caught nearly 27,000 fall chum.

But Huntington pressed managers to loosen gear restrictions for mid- and upper-river fisherman who are  still trying to meet their subsistence needs. Right now, he said, he has to travel downriver to Koyukuk to catch the fish he needs.

“It would be helpful to us, because (of the) price of fuel here, and the lack of fish in our smokehouses, it would help quite a bit if we were able to just go out here with our five gallons of gas, that we could possibly have [Districts] 4B and C open for drifting,” he asked. “Get our ten fish or whatever we want to get, rather than going to Koyukuk and trying to get a hundred.”

While fall chum slowly move upriver, the Chinook continue moving into spawning grounds in Canada. As of last week, nearly 65,000 kings have now crossed the border. Stephanie Schmidt, the summer season manager for Fish and Game who oversaw the king salmon run, said beating the upper-limit escapement goal of 55,000 fish is a victory for everyone involved.

“This run is still well below average, well below what we used to see a couple of decades ago,” she began. “However, thanks to the tremendous conservation efforts on behalf of fishermen up and down the river, we’ve been able to achieve escapement goals on all of our Alaska drainage projects so far. And we’ve now achieved the upper end of the escapement at the border. And thanks for working to make sure these fish get on the spawning grounds so we can try and rebuild this run for the future.”

Another update on the fall chum in the Yukon will be available for fishermen to weigh in on Tuesday.

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Matthew Smith is a reporter at KNOM in Nome.

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