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Yukon Fish Camps ‘Coming to Life Again’ as Fall Chum Move Upriver

Strips of salmon drying at camp before they can be smoked. Photo: KNOM file.

After a slow start to the fall fishing season on the Yukon, large numbers of fall chum are making their way up river.

“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” said subsistence fisherman Basil in Pilot Station, sharing his thoughts on the weekly Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association weekly teleconference.

What’s good for fishermen, Basil said, is also good for unwanted visitors also looking for salmon meal.

“All the bears are starting to come around to the fish camp,” he added. “If we’re not dealing with flies, we’re dealing with bears.”

The latest estimates from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game point to about 336,000 thousand fall chum in the river since the run officially began in mid-July. The run should see that number more than double before the end of the season; managers are calling for a total fall chum run between 700,000 and 800,000 fish.

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 four hour opening,” a commercial fisherman in Pilot Station said. “I know [ADF&G] needs to let some fish pass, but with these short four hour openings when there’s hardly any fish … you guys should reconsider. Try giving us a six hour when there’s fish out there.”

Others, like Marvin in Kotlik, 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,” he shared with managers on the call.

But as lower river fishermen are busy amid a flurry of commercial and subsistence harvests, the fall chum are still tracking slightly behind schedule. That’s leaving fishermen like Andrew in Fort Yukon still waiting.

“I just spoke to a few fishermen this week, and I don’t think there’s a whole lot of fishing activity,” he reported. “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 ADF&G, hopes that changes soon, as a third pulse of fall chum entered the river in early August. He said those fish are near Grayling and Kaltag this week.

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

And there should be more where that came from, Estensen said, as favorable winds in Emmonak and along the coastal delta are pushing more fall chum into the Yukon.

“For the most part fall chum entry into the Yukon River has been very steady. Somewhere in the 3,000 to 4,000 fish pass past the sonar on a daily basis,” Estensen said. “But as of yet we have not really seen the big pulse, except … that may have changed as of [Monday]. 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.”

To take advantage of those increasing numbers, ADF&G is liberalizing subsistence schedules to seven days a week in the upper river.

As for commercial fall chum harvests in the lower river, Estensen said as of Tuesday about 69,000 fall chums had been harvested, alongside about roughly 11,000 coho salmon.