By Andrew Cremata
At low tide, great blue herons wade in shallow pools at the mouth of the Skagway River. Every step of their stilt-like legs is deliberate, allowing the winged predators to remain undetected by salmon fry with limited avenues of escape. The heron’s head stabs at the water. When it emerges, there is a wriggling minnow in its beak. Then the cycle starts anew.
In the first few days of the second week of July, I wander past hungry herons in search of pink salmon. The trick is to catch them before they appear in the rivers and streams to spawn. Too early, and there aren’t any fish. Too late, and the pinks are already developing humps, which means the quality of their flesh is significantly impacted.
Ocean bright pink salmon are fun to catch and surprisingly good to eat, whether cooked on the grill or prepared in the smoker. With perfect timing, it’s possible to catch plenty of fish with less than an hour’s effort.
While catching early July pink salmon used to be as close to a sure thing as an angler may find in Skagway, in recent years the cycle is entirely out of whack. Conversations with biologists, anglers and regional experts reveal that nobody knows why the runs are suddenly unpredictable. Everyone has an opinion, including me, but nature’s rhythms are mysterious and often operate on scales impossible to comprehend.
Last year, I caught four beautiful pink salmon on July 8. The following day, I caught four more. With enough pink salmon for my personal needs, I stopped fishing but kept an eye on the river to see when the pinks decided to enter freshwater.
One day passed and then another. A week went by. Still nothing in the Skagway River. There were a couple of small pinks in Pullen Creek and a small run out in the sloughs on the Dyea Flats, but what should have been a massive run of fish never materialized.
This same phenomenon was echoed in other parts of Southeast Alaska. Many runs of pink salmon simply never happened. Whirling cycles spanning millennia suddenly ceased.
Other Skagway locals noticed the lack of a pink salmon run and it was a topic of conversation throughout July of 2019. To me, the real conundrum was not the lack of a run but the fact that the run almost happened.
On July 8th and 9th, the pink salmon were gathered at the mouth of the Skagway River in quantities large enough to turn fishing into easy catching. The 8 fish I caught were undoubtedly only a small portion of the salmon that returned to spawn. I’m good at catching fish but certainly not all of them.
Pink salmon have the shortest lifespan of all Pacific salmon found in Alaska. When they hatch from their eggs in the Skagway River, the pink fry evade hungry herons as they travel into the open waters of the Pacific Ocean. Two years later, they return. If they successfully avoid me, they enter the Skagway River to spawn and start the cycle anew.
But what if the pink salmon changed their mind at the last minute and decided to spend another year at sea?
The Alaska Department of Fish & Game website states that pink salmon “mature and complete their life cycle in two years. This predictable two-year life cycle has created genetically distinct odd-year and even-year populations of pink salmon.”
When I first moved to Skagway in 1996, pink salmon only ran on even-numbered years. Around 2006, pink salmon runs began to occur every year. About 6 years ago, runs on even-numbered years ceased but runs on odd-numbered years remained strong.
What does all of this mean? Besides the fact it calls into question assertions made on the ADF&G website, it means that Skagway could experience an unusually strong pink salmon run this July. If my supposition is correct and last year’s returning pinks decided to spend another year at sea, returning fish would be exceptionally large.
The Alaska pink salmon state record stood for 42 years. The fish was caught in 1974 and weighed 12-pounds 9-ounces. Less than 4 years ago, a man fishing in the Kenai River broke the long-standing record by catching a 12-pound 13-ounce lunker.
Imagine breaking a record that lasted for more than four decades. Imagine the pride and sense of accomplishment you would feel at forever having your name etched in stone as an Alaskan fishing legend. Then imagine that three hours later, some other guy fishing in the same river breaks your record.
That’s what happened. When the angler found out that his three-hour-long state record was bested by another fisherman who caught a pink salmon weighing 13-pounds 10-ounces, he said, “Really? Another guy caught a bigger fish?”
Yes. But the better question is why were there two massive fish lurking in the same river at the same time on the same day? Is it possible these pink salmon reached unusual size because they decided to spend an extra year in the ocean, doing whatever it is that pink salmon do?
We will soon have a chance to test this theory. If my hypothesis proves accurate, Skagway will soon be inundated with massive pink salmon the likes of which have never been seen in our Great State. Every cast from the mouth of the Skagway River could be yet another state record.
Perhaps the 14.49-pound world record pink salmon can be bested. That beastly looking humpy was caught in Skykomish River, Washington. I challenge you to take a look at that ghastly creature and imagine the thrill of making Skagway, Alaska the pink salmon capital of the world.
I’ll see you at the mouth of the Skagway River in a few days, pole in hand, ready to hoist high the biggest and nastiest pink salmon that mankind has ever seen. I’m also bringing a six-pack of beer, just in case my theory is total garbage.