On Sept. 4, a lone angler (upper left) works his way down Ibeck Creek, the most popular coho fishing spot along the Copper River Highway. Normally, the banks would be lined with fishermen. (Dick Shellhorn photo)

To protect coho salmon returns and ensure sport fishing opportunities in the future, the Alaska Department of Fish and Games (ADF&G), has reduced the bag and possession limit on coho salmon on the Copper River Highway from three fish to two fish per day and prohibited the use of bait. 

The restrictions were announced on Sept. 7 and are effective from Friday, Sept. 9 at 12:01 a.m. through 11:59 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 31.

The Copper River Highway streams include all freshwater drainages crossed by the highway from and including the Eyak River to the Million Dollar Bridge, and including Clear Creek at Mile 42 downstream of the Carbon Mountain Road Bridge.

“Water levels and fishing conditions in the Copper River Highway streams have not been ideal over the last few weeks. Once high-water conditions subsided, catches of coho salmon have continued to be low for anglers. In addition, during an aerial survey flown on September 6th, low numbers of coho salmon were observed, and we need to reduce the sport harvest to help ensure escapement for future coho salmon returns in the Copper River Delta,” stated Jay Baumer, sport fish area management biologist.

An aerial survey of the Copper River Delta Drainage on Sept. 6 yielded an estimate of 11,240 coho salmon with an estimated desirable range at this point in the season of 18,286 – 38,285.

While the survey was incomplete, conditions on the streams that could be surveyed was fair to good. At that time water levels in the streams were relatively high and angler effort was currently low, but with the aerial survey indicating a lower than anticipated coho run, the restrictions were adopted to ensure reaching the Copper River Delta escapement goal of 32,000.

The ADF&G had to adopt similar harvest restrictions in 2019. It has also closed the upper reaches of Ibeck to sports fishing for several years.   

Baumer provided interesting statistics on the overall harvest of silver salmon over the past several years as well as the number of sports fishermen involved.

The data came from ADF&G Fisheries Management Report No. 21-31, titled “Sports Fisheries in Prince William Sound Management Area, 2007-2019,” dated October 2021. Its findings were based on voluntary ADF&G Alaska Sport Fishing Surveys.

For example, the Copper River Delta gets about 6,374 Angler Days of effort annually.  If one figures the major of these days come during a 30-day period running from mid- August to mid-September, that means the average number of anglers is roughly 212 per day. Normally, the peak effort occurs around Labor Day weekend. 

The average sports harvest of coho for the Copper River District was 15,555 from 2007 to 2016, and 11,726 from 2017 to 2019.  The report broke down the harvest totals into four distinct areas.  For 2007 to 2016, it was Eyak: 6,709, Ibeck: 9,772, Alaganik: 2,109, and other areas: 1,341.  For 2017 to 2019, the averages were Eyak: 4,649, Ibeck: 5,546, Alaganik: 2,093, and other areas: 907.

It is also interesting to note that the Sports Fishing Surveys distinguish between “Catch” and “Harvest.”  Harvest reflects fish that were caught and kept. Catch totals, which reflect fish caught and kept as well as those released, ran about 20% higher than the harvest totals.    

On average, the Copper River District produced 20% of the coho harvested in the Prince William Sound Management area, which includes Valdez, Cordova and all of Prince William Sound. The total average harvest for all those areas was 88,783 from 2007-2016 and 60,834 from 2017-2019. 

The data verified that Ibeck appears to be the most popular area along the Copper River Highway. Anyone who has driven through the restricted speed limit zone lined with vehicles at Mile 7 can attest to that.

However, given the growth of fall coho fishing throughout the Copper River Highway area, it is safe to say rare is the silver salmon in any of the stream systems that has not seen some sort of lure on its way to upriver to spawning grounds.

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Dick Shellhorn is a lifelong Cordovan. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 50 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town. Alaska Press Club awarded Shellhorn first place for Best Humor column in 2016 and 2020, and third place in 2017 and 2019. He also received second place for Best Editorial Commentary in 2019. Shellhorn has written two books about Alaska adventures: Time and Tide and Balls and Stripes. Reach him at dshorn44@gmail.com.