Why is Wood River sockeye escapement breaking records this year?

Jul 10, 2018

Incredible. Unbelievable. That’s how Fish and Game officials are describing this year’s record-breaking sockeye escapement up the Wood River. KDLG’s Austin Fast headed to Aleknagik to find out how they get those numbers and why so many salmon are passing the counting tower this year.

Isaac Reynolds (left) and Andrew Reynolds are on the three-person crew keeping count of sockeye escapement round the clock at the Wood River tower near Aleknagik.
Credit Austin Fast / KDLG

In four summers counting sockeye salmon on the Wood River, 22-year-old Isaac Reynolds has never seen another day like July 2.

"There were so many fish packed in next to each other that it looked like one fish to me," Reynolds said. "It was like a highway going upriver. There were no gaps. There were fish stacked on top of one another all swimming upstream. It was like a big conga line."

By day’s end, 1.1 million reds swam past the tower, setting a new daily escapement record since they began counting the river in 1956.

Peri Lee Pipkin shimmies up the Wood River counting tower to track salmon escapement.
Credit Austin Fast / KDLG

"Tim, we're getting some crazy counts up here," Reynolds radioed up to Tim Sands, area management biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. 

"What'll happen will happen. There's nothing I can do about it," he told Reynolds.

That Monday, Sands had to get up in a helicopter to see for himself.

“I've flown a lot of surveys over the year and seen big days up there, and what we saw was just incredible," Sands said. "Tom Tucker, the pilot I fly with — neither of us had ever seen anything like it, and I simply wrote down on my survey sheet: unbelievable and a million fish”

Another record fell Saturday, when the Wood River’s season count passed 2017’s record high escapement of 4.27 million reds. At last check Tuesday morning, it’s pushing 5.1 million. Sands expects it will top out around 6 million.

“The escapement's pretty beat up. A lot of those fish will probably die before they get a chance to spawn. It won't really be like we're putting 6 million fish up there. It might be more like we're putting 2 to 3 million fish up there,” Sands said.

Salmon push upstream past the Wood River counting tower on July 6, 2018.
Credit Austin Fast / KDLG

Back on the 30-foot-tower with thousands of salmon slowly snaking past, Reynolds explained he and the two other counters work round the clock for a month. They take turns on 8-hour shifts tracking sockeye on a handheld tally counter at the top of each hour.

“You count exactly how many fish go past in that 10 minutes. Once your time is up, you'll switch. You'll go across to the left bank tower and do the same thing. Then, basically, you take a little break and wait for the next hour to start," Reynolds said.

On busy days, they’ll bump up to counting by threes, then fives and then 10s. Only once has Reynolds gotten up to counting by 25s, and it was on that million-sockeye day.

“Ideally, we'd be able to count each fish individually, but given the limitations of the human thumb and your ability to track fish with your eyes, oftentimes we'll have to estimate,” Reynolds said.

Besides a potential case of carpal tunnel, the counters have to deal with mosquitos the size of pterodactyls and other hazards. 

Andrew Noble of Eagle River counts salmon pushing up the Wood River near Aleknagik.
Credit Austin Fast / KDLG

“My first sample, there was a bear right there," said 20-year-old Andrew Noble of Eagle River, pointing to the trees at the base of the tower. "I saw him again this morning. Small, young looking bear. He doesn’t look like he should be alone unfortunately.”

Dangers aside, Noble and Reynolds are both enjoying their summer camping at Fish and Game’s cabin with its incredible view of Lake Aleknagik.

“You get to relax in a beautiful spot in Alaska and camp life is really peaceful and serene," Noble said.

Reynolds added, "It's gorgeous, and you get to sit out on this mostly quiet river and watch one of the most impressive fisheries in the world swim past you."

So why are there so many more fish than usual swimming past the counters? Sands speculated that warm winters a few years back could have given them a boost in the ocean.

“Any little thing that can make them more competitive or survive at a little bit better rate is all it needs. That, of course, doesn't explain why other systems aren't doing so well. I don't know why we're fortunate and everyone else isn't as fortunate as we are,” Sands said. "That's where my theory breaks down."

He said this year’s big return of 1.2s fits into a pattern of large returns that ADF&G has noted every four years. That means we could see big numbers of this season’s eggs coming back to spawn in 2022.

Contact the author at austin@kdlg.org or 907-842-5281.