On Labor Day weekend as I walked the shoreline of the beach behind the former Thane Ore House, a joy of salmon abundance overwhelmed me as if I were in a Rie Munoz painting. It seemed half of Juneau was there and almost everyone was catching big, shining coho salmon.
Among those I recognized were a mine executive, an investment banker, school principal, U.S. Forest Service official and a guy from Hawaii who sells tour trips at a dockside kiosk who is always fishing on his rare hours off. A friend brought a family that visits every year from down south to fill up fish boxes for home. It was a cross section of our summer community and just about everyone had beautiful fresh fish on the beach.
Not that many years ago the Douglas Island Pink and Chum coho run was nothing to get excited about. A friend from Maine visited and the only fish he hooked was the size of a decent trout and it came in without any resistance — it was so limp he didn’t know what to do. I was embarrassed to answer that, yes, it was a salmon. Around the same time, we saw people illegally snagging wild cohos in Cowee creek. Outside cell range, they didn’t even have to worry about being reported and went on with impunity. In the low water of the winter we’d find their giant, leaded treble hooks as we hunted for lures that the Cowee creek trees are so good at catching.
In a short time span we’ve seen a great improvement first in the fish, and now this year in their numbers and access to them.
This is the fifth year since the coho brood stock was replaced with three years of egg taken from a Taku river tributary. Alaska Department of Fish and Game are very particular about the genetics for stocking. Thanks go to DIPAC and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for the work of identifying a local stock with good genes and ample runs from which to take new brood stock without jeopardizing the stream’s population. In the past two years these fish returned much larger and healthier looking than the previous cohos.
This year we saw the first year of returns from an expanded facility that DIPAC has dedicated to production of coho and king salmon for local sport fisheries. It’s the new building behind the main hatchery building. DIPAC would not exist if not for the Macaulay family and other individuals that started it and the support of the local commercial salmon fleet. Much of this additional coho production was imprinted to return to the Thane area.
The Sheep Creek area has big advantages. While big storms and winds roiled local streams and kicked up silt in the Mendenhall Wetlands, the Thane area quickly clears up in the turn of a tide. Shoreline access to the wetlands is limited to the east bank’s long hike in from Sunny point or the airport. The Douglas side has three public access points for nine miles of shoreline. The DIPAC area and the mouth of Salmon Creek itself is ok if you like snagging or fishing right next to other people. On a low tide, the outer sand bar at the Sheep Creek and Thane Ore House area offers nearly a quarter mile of safe, gentle beach, enough room for fly and spin fishermen to spread out and fish without bothering each other. Early in the run the cohos seemed to range up and down the shoreline and many were also caught in the avalanche area.
Step outside Alaska and talk salmon and you’ll hear the close-minded mantra that hatcheries are bad for wild salmon. Sure, that may be true when the hatchery was part of a package deal with a dam or other project to eliminate salmon habitat. Where wild salmon habitat is still intact and viable, nothing could be further from the truth, and hatchery salmon opportunities reduce pressure on wild salmon. The salmon that DIPAC provides for our freezers unequivocally helps our three very small salmon fishing streams: Montana Creek, Peterson Creek and Cowee Creek. These streams cannot possibly make a meaningful contribution to the food needs of a captive population of 30,000 people. This year, there have been fewer people fishing them and those that do have been more content to leave their catch in the creeks to spawn for the future.
Thanks to the DIPAC Thane Coho program, Juneauites can have our fish and eat it too!
• Mark Vinsel is a former president of Raincountry Flyfishers and represents roadside non-marine fisheries on the DIPAC Board of Directors.