Skagway’s Pullen Creek StreamWalk. (Emily Files)

Historically low king salmon numbers prompted strict management strategies for a range of local fisheries near Haines and Skagway this year. Sport fishing for Chinook is nearly non-existent in the Upper Lynn Canal in 2017.  There is only one spot in the area where anglers are allowed to keep their kings.

Starting Saturday, Skagway’s Pullen Creek and pond are open to sport fishing for king salmon.

“It’s obviously in high contrast to the regulations in Lynn Canal and other areas of Southeast for our wild system,” says Brian Elliot. He’s a Chinook stock assessment biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Haines.

“So it may seem weird that we’re liberalizing the fresh waters of Pullen but those fish are hatchery produced and they’re available for anglers to catch them and release or keep them, whatever they want to do,” says Elliot.

That’s the big difference here. The kings returning to Pullen Creek and pond are hatchery produced, not wild stock.

“The run is not natural to Pullen Creek,” says Elliot. “Chinook require certain flows and substrates for spawning success which are simply not in that drainage. In years past when we have reached our brood stock collection goals, we’ve opened up the fresh water to allow anglers to catch the remaining fish that are just milling around.”

Fish and Game used to manage hatchery-produced Chinook in Skagway. They stopped managing the brook stock a couple years ago.

But, fish from the project are still returning to the area.

“What we’re seeing returning to Pullen Creek this year and Taiya Inlet are four-year-olds from our last release, which was in 2015, we released 229,000 smolt that year,” says Elliot. “So we’re going to see two-ocean fish, or four-year-olds returning this year. And three-ocean, or five-year-olds, returning in 2018 and that will pretty much be the end of that run.”

Chilkat kings are a big concern this year. The fish are facing about a 10-year downward trend. And the 2017 forecast is pretty dismal. It’s the lowest prediction in over 25 years. An effort to conserve Chinook has led to delays on the local subsistence fishery, extra regulations on the commercial fleet, and a near closure of sport fishing for kings near Haines and Skagway.

But Elliot says research has shown Chilkat kings are not at risk of being caught in Pullen Creek or pond.

“We feel very confident that there will be no incidental take of Chilkat wild fish,” says Elliot.

Just how many fish will be available for anglers in Skagway? According to Elliot, it’s hard to say. Fish and Game doesn’t research the run like it used to.

“In years past, when we were operating the weir in Pullen Creek, it was much easier to quantify the return,” says Elliot. “And we also ran a creel program to interview sport charter people on their catches and we got to sample their catch throughout the year. The weir project was discontinued after 2013. And this year we’re not conducting the creel survey in Taiya Inlet at the Skagway dock. So we do not have a good feel for the abundance returning this year.”

Elliot says irregular returns are part of what led to the discontinuation of the hatchery project.

“It’s not predictable,” says Elliot. “Our returns to that system have been highly variable through the years, throughout our project over there. And that’s one of the reasons that the project is no more. Because we just had these gaps in our ability to collect gametes. So that really hurts the returns year after year.”

The bag and possession limit is four king salmon of any size. Sport fishermen have to purchase a king salmon stamp in addition to a sport fishing license. The fresh water is open for fishing through September 14. Salt waters near Haines and Skagway are closed to Chinook retention for sport fishermen through the end of the year.