Out With the Summer Chum, In With the Fall Chum on the Yukon

Summer chum salmon drying on a fish rack. Fall chum are starting to show up on the Yukon. Photo: Matthew F. Smith, KNOM.
Summer chum salmon drying on a fish rack. Fall chum are starting to show up on the Yukon. Photo: Matthew F. Smith, KNOM.

After a slow start to the fall fishing season on the Yukon, fall chum are finally making their way up river. That’s good news for subsistence fishermen, who say they’re busy along the banks of the river, both fishing and fending off unwanted visitors.

“Fish camps are coming to life again. There was a break between the summer chum and the fall chum, but now the fall chum are starting to show up, so all the bears are starting to come around to the fish camp. If we’re not dealing with flies we’re dealing with bears.”

That’s a fisherman named Basil in Pilot Station. The latest estimates from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game point to about 336,000 fish in the river so far—and the run should see that number more than double before the end of the season. But beyond buzzing fish camps, the healthy amount of fall chums now in the water means commercial fishermen on the lower river are also eager to fish—but many want more time.

“I don’t know where they’re coming up with this 4-hour opening. I know you guys needs to let some fish pass, but with these short 4-hour openings when there’s hardly any fish … you guys should reconsider. Try giving us a 6-hour when there’s fish out there.”

Others, like Marvin in Kotlik, say they just want to be able to catch more fish.

“Wishing that fish and game would allow for more commercial harvest as there’s plenty of fall chum entering the river at all mouths right now.”

But as lower river fishermen are a flurry of commercial and subsistence harvests, the fall chum are still tracking slightly behind schedule—leaving fishermen like Andrew in Ft. Yukon waiting.

“Yeah, I just spoke to a few fishermen this week, and I don’t think there’s a whole lot of fishing activity. We’re kind of between the king run and waiting for more silvers to show up, so people could get back to fishing again.”

Jeff Estensen—the fall season manager on the Yukon for the Alaska Department of Fish and Games—hopes that changes as a third pulse of fall chum entered the river in early August. He says they’re now near Grayling and Kaltag.

“It does take a while for the front end of the migration to make its way upriver. I just talked to some fishermen in Kaltag yesterday, and the report that I got from them is that the fish looked really good, they were really silver, and they were big.”

And Estensen says more fall chum are on the way.

“For the most part fall chum entry into the Yukon River has been very steady. Somewhere in the 3,000-4,000 fish pass past sonar on a daily basis. But as of yet we have not really seen the big pulse, except for that may have changed as of yesterday. We’ve seen two drifts now at our Lower Yukon test fishery, that have had pretty good numbers being caught. Definitely an indication another pulse is coming in,” Estenen says.

To take advantage of those increasing numbers, Fish and Game is liberalizing subsistence schedules to 7 days a week in the upper river.

As for commercial fall chum harvests in the lower river, Estensen says as of this week about 69,000 fall chums have been harvest, alongside about roughly 11,000 coho.

Matthew Smith is a reporter at KNOM in Nome.

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