The coho return to Juneau has been outstanding this year. Big, big fish. Even the “small” coho are big and fat. I caught many during August in the ocean around Juneau when the coho were on their way to the Berners, Taku and Chilkoot rivers, and to the local hatchery, Macaulay Salmon Hatchery.
The hatchery return was started with wild fish collected from a tributary from the nearby Taku River, as is the practice here in Alaska. We use local stocks in our hatcheries to produce fish for harvest. Since a portion of salmon returns — both hatchery and naturally-produced fish — stray, using this local stock means that any fish that might stray will likely be of similar genetic makeup to the streams they stray to.
As the salmon season winds down in mid-September, most of the coho have gone up their natal rivers to spawn. And the coho returning to Macaulay Hatchery take up residence in downtown Juneau.
Macaulay Hatchery is located on Gastineau Channel, a narrow waterway that separates downtown Juneau on the mainland from Douglas Island. The channel begins at one end of Douglas Island, and ends at the other end of the island, connecting with Stephens Passage at either end. Coho salmon return to the hatchery from both ends of the channel.
The location of the hatchery creates a highly accessible fishery in Alaska’s capital city. Fishers can access the channel by boat or on foot from both Douglas Island and the mainland. There’s also a drive down dock at the hatchery for those who aren’t very mobile.
Veterans of this fishery know that fishing in September is generally better from shore. The north end of Gastineau Channel is very shallow, and when the tide is low, all that’s left underwater is the deepest part of the channel, which a person can walk across in most places in rubber knee boots. This obviously concentrates the returning salmon, and the fishing is good.
Experienced fishers have their favorite spots. Some arrive an hour or two below low tide to see if any fish that came in on the last tide remain in the tide pools as the tide is still going out, waiting for the tide to change. It’s usually a pretty easy situation to asses if many coho salmon are present, as they will be jumping or porpoising all over – many times right next to you. If there are no cohos at your spot, you wait. You can see fellow fishers up and down the channel leaning on their fishing rods, enjoying the day, and waiting for the tide to change and start flowing towards downtown Juneau and the hatchery.
That’s when the fish come. From my position in the channel, I can see them jumping a half mile away as they move toward me. Then they’re a quarter mile away. Then 100 yards. Then they’re there. Sometimes the fish will bite a lure or fly, and you catch them in the mouth. Sometimes they won’t, and you snag them.
My fishing partner Jeff and I drive to the trail head at 9 mile creek on North Douglas leading down to the beach, put on our waders, and trek the half mile or so across the mudflat to what’s left of the water in the channel. We only have an hour or two to fish until the tide comes back in and we can still make it back across the sloughs to the trail without going over our boots. I’m armed with a heavy spinning rod, heavy line and lures — both big spinners and casting spoons.
I hook my first fish. It makes several runs as I horse it to the beach. I get it to the beach, stun it with my gaff, break a gill to bleed it, tie one end of the stringer to the fish and the other to my pack, and put the fish in the water.
I see Jeff is upstream and he’s got one on, too. Soon I hook another. And another. This goes on for the next hour or two. A fish on every few casts. I lose about as many as I land. Some throw the hook. Some break the line. Some break the lures themselves. Jeff has a lighter reel than mine, and soon a big coho overworks his reel and it seizes up.
Jeff comes down to my spot, and I let him fish with my rod while I work the gaff. I land fish for him, and for a fly fisherman who had come down the channel and was politely walking around us to leave us this run of water. I invite him to join us as there’s plenty of room. And lots of fish.
He deftly flip his fly easily across the channel. Then he hooks up, too. He’s able to keep his fly off the bottom and out of the seaweed a lot more effectively than we can with our lures. It just takes him a little longer to land his fish. Soon I’m landing fish for Jeff and the fly fisher, and another fly fisher who has just arrived. When I look up and down the channel, there are people fishing in both directions. Not elbow to elbow like the Russian River, but neatly spread out along the mudflat. Everyone looks like they’re from Juneau, as the height of the summer tourist season has long since passed. There are about equal numbers of women and men fishing.
People tend to fish according to the tide schedule and their own schedule. Some try to catch just one or two a day because they may not have the time to process bigger volumes of fish at a time. Others find it more efficient to catch many fish at once because they have the time and know-how and cleaning partners to process many fish at a time. Others don’t have a plan. They’re just fishing. And then there’s people who would like to catch more fish, but don’t yet have the skills who befriend a person who can catch fish and doesn’t need so many, and so a lot of sharing goes on.
It’s pretty easy for new comers to learn this fishery. All it takes is a drive or bike ride along the channel at low tide to see where lots of cars are parked or where lots of people can be seen fishing. Many times you can see people who have a fish on, with the coho salmon splashing on their line.
The hatchery releases about the same number of coho salmon each year, so in years of good ocean survivals like this year, the hatchery got the necessary broodstock to refill their permitted number of eggs into the hatchery early on, and ADF&G doubled the bag limit of coho salmon in Gastineau Channel from six to 12 fish per day. No streams have naturally spawning stocks of coho salmon in the channel, so overharvest of wild stocks was not a worry.
Jeff and I soon have about a dozen fish, but we’ve made a rookie mistake. We didn’t plan for success. While I had a stringer, I did not bring a means of easily carrying the fish to the truck. The fishing veterans all have rubber back packs which they haul their fish back inside plastic bags. So Jeff and I each tie our loads of fish on a stringer and start hauling them back to the truck, with their tails slapping the grass in the mudflats all the way. We won’t make that mistake again.
We divide up our fish. I plan to smoke and can mine, so I cut the salmon sides into portions for smoking, dredge them in a dry brine mixture of 50-50 salt and sugar, let the pieces brine for about 40 minutes, then rinse them off thoroughly. I put them in the smoker with just the fan on for a day or two until a nice pellicle forms, then put on a single batch of alder chips for a light smoke, then spend an evening canning the fish.
Southeast Alaska residents are fortunate to have hatcheries with returns of coho and king salmon near many of its communities. Craig, Klawock, Whale Pass, Ketchikan, Petersburg and Sitka all are located in sites geographically appropriate for hatchery releases that are isolated from wild stock systems and allow a discreet harvest of the hatchery returns. Like Juneau, people fishing for returns in the other towns can fish right from a beach near the road with a rod and reel.
Even though it’s late September, fresh coho salmon are still coming in. My friend Andrew came by last night, with his son who is in middle school and his daughter who attends UAS, to vacuum pack his fish on my packing machine. He moved here several years ago from Sierra Leone, where I worked in the Peace Corps in the 1980s, and enjoys this salmon bonanza about as much as a person could. He caught 12 fish in an hour on Saturday, Sept. 22 and said he was the only person there. He said new, bright fish were still coming in and that there were “fish everywhere!” He’s a great cook, too, and the coho salmon flavor mixes so well with the traditional West African dishes he regularly shares with my wife Sara and me.
• Mark Stopha of the Alaska Wild Salmon Company lives in Juneau and writes for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s online magazine.