Clouds and mist cover mountaintops in Taku Inlet in 2017. (File photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska)

There are some promising returns of younger, wild-stock king salmon on one Southeast Alaska river this spring. Returns of fully-grown chinook are still disappointing but the increase in younger fish could signal a rebound in future years.

Low numbers of kings on the Taku River near Juneau and other Southeast rivers prompted the second year of closures for commercial and sport fishing for parts of the region. The Taku has a forecast for just over nine thousand adult kings this year, the second lowest ever. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game uses tangle nets and a fish wheel to count fish swimming up that river.

“In both projects we’re seeing a good number, what I would view as an average number of jacks, that’s precocial males,” said Ed Jones, fish and game coordinator with the department’s sportfish division. “They’re smaller chinook salmon, come back as younger age fish. And that’s influencing the catches. Everybody’s hearing about it but right now it’s not looking like the catches of adult or the larger fish, the older age fish is any different than what we forecasted. It’s still not looking that great. But the jacks look to be up in abundance and that’s definitely a good sign. We’ve been waiting for about a decade to see that happen so that’s a promising sign for the future.”

Those young fish returning to spawn before growing to full size can signal the relative strength or weakness of future years’ returns. Jones said that river is also is seeing increased numbers of the smallest, three-year-old jack kings that have spent just one year in the ocean. In these days of depressed stocks, an average run would be an improvement.

“We have I think two average brood years or maybe an average and above average brood or parent year coming now in the Taku,” Jones said. “That’s a good sign because, you know it’s one thing to have just a good parent year come through and cycle through but what we want to see to get out of this period of poor production is back to back to back good brood years, parent years. And that’ll truly get us out of it.”

Meanwhile the forecast for the Stikine River near Wrangell is 8,250 fish. That’s not even half of the average and well below escapement goals. Jones said there are no signs of adult kings on that river outpacing the forecast either. The department only uses the tangle nets for counting on the Stikine.

“The fish wheel’s a very good representation of the age structure that’s coming in the river,” Jones explained. “They catch basically all sizes of chinook salmon, whereas the nets are designed to catch the larger fish and the smaller fish go right on through them. So we really don’t know what’s happening on the Stikine in terms of jacks. But generally speaking the two rivers cycle together. So I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s also good numbers of jacks coming in the Stikine but we just can’t tell right now.”

Last year 8,344 kings made it back to spawn on the Stikine and 7,271 on the Taku. The fish can swim hundreds of miles up those rivers to spawn, typically sometime in August.