Waiting for Salmon

Infinite Patience – Bald Eagle scanning for salmon, Chignik Lake, May 20, 2019

Each year from June 1 when Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists begin counting at the weir on Chignik River till late summer when they remove it, an average of over 700,000 Reds (Sockeye Salmon) are tallied making their annual spawning run up this watershed on the remote Alaska Peninsula. In 2015, the number was a staggering 1,123,898 and that’s after a million Reds were taken by commercial fisherman in Chignik Lagoon, the saltwater estuary the river debouches into. Because Alaska persists in the foolishness of allowing “intercept” fisheries further out at sea, it can be difficult to determine precisely how many salmon are headed for the Chignik watershed – perhaps two million on average. Nonetheless, over that past nine years an average of 780,000 Sockeye Salmon have been counted at the weir.

Last year that number plummeted to just 540,000, and that was despite a nearly complete closure of the commercial fishery. It was, quite literally, a disaster. The cases of beef stew, generic peanut butter, lentils, canned fruit cocktail and boxed mac and cheese freighted in by government agencies didn’t begin to offset the economic and psychological hole the Sockeye collapse created.

As I write this, eager neighbors are already setting nets. Here and there an early-returning fish is showing up. But “early” is the operative term. Even in good years, the run doesn’t get going until the first week of June. Sometime during the second week of that month, the first counts of 1,000 fish a day might begin. Later in summer, daily counts will top ten thousand. The Chignik’s feeder streams will be carpeted with spawning fish. Brown Bears and Bald Eagles will be everywhere.

In a good year.

For now it’s still early.

Everyone is waiting…

…and hoping.

They enter the river with muscles of steel, bright as new dimes. By the time they’re ready to spawn, they will fill clear tributaries in a carpet of crimson. They are the lifeblood of the Chigniks. Reds…

 

All Quiet at The Lake

Dawn, late February, Chignik Lake, Alaska

It has been a winter unlike our previous two at Chignik Lake – quiet, even by the quiet standards we’ve become accustomed to. Pine Siskins, dozens of them, have taken over the White Spruce Grove. A raucous lot, it may be that they’ve driven off most other birds. In any event, the Dark-eyed Juncos and other sparrows of past years have been all but absent, and we’ve not seen a sign of Golden-crowned Kinglets, Redpolls or wrens. There’ve been fewer, far fewer, ducks on the lake this year as well. Perhaps this unusually warm Alaskan winter has given waterfowl other open water to choose from. And while we did spot our first ever winter-white Short-tailed Ermine as well as a pure white Collared Lemming awhile back, otherwise wildlife has been scarce, a very occasional fox, otter or seal notwithstanding.

A friend has been setting a net and catching a few Sockeyes. Mirror bright, free of sea lice and small at just 22 inches or so, they are almost undoubtedly representatives of a resident lacustrine population – kokanees that never migrate out to sea but spend their lifecycle in the lake. One such fish is on the dinner menu for this evening. I will poach it whole in a broth of clam juice, lemon and saffron. The broth in turn will serve as the base for a salmon bisque.

As quiet as it has been, Barbra and I remain as busy as ever. There are unending lists of new recipes and baking, many thousands of photographs from previous adventures to edit, Barbra’s duties as a teacher to attend to, literature to read and study and future adventures to plan for. We’re looking forward to slightly warmer weather when we can more comfortably work on our fly-casting. We’re both on pace to be in shape to run a half-marathon this summer – our first in 10 years. Meanwhile, I’ve been putting in full days and then some between putting together articles for magazines and my new interest, learning to play an acoustic steel string guitar. The quiet provides a pleasant backdrop for these activities.

Only three months till Sockeyes begin returning to the Chignik River. Biologists are forecasting a strong run. It’s raining on the Lake this morning, but there’s new snow on the mountains. A neighbor reports hearing our owls make “strange noises” lately. Spring is coming.