A forest of trolling poles in Sitka's ANB harbor, July 2015. (Rachel Waldholz/KCAW)

A forest of trolling poles in Sitka’s ANB harbor, July 2015. (Rachel Waldholz/KCAW)

Winter trolling for king salmon in Southeast Alaska is over — a full six weeks ahead of schedule.

The Alaska Department of Fish & Game says the combination of good prices and high abundance lured more boats than ever to the winter fishing grounds.

Historically the winter troll fishery runs through the end of April. This year, the Alaska Department of Fish & Game closed things down on March 8.

Grant Hagerman is the assistant troll biologist for the department.

“There’s money to be had. There’s a lot of fish around. Over the last few years, more guys have become interested in that.”

Last year, winter trolling closed on March 25 — and that was a record. Sometimes there will be a late-season burst of interest in trolling as the weather improves, and ADF&G will have to scramble to stay ahead of things as fishermen close in on their target of 47,000 kings.

But that wasn’t how it happened this year. Hagerman says more fishermen battled through Sitka’s not-especially-nice winter to take advantage of pretty good fishing, and high prices.

“It’s tough weather and the days are short. Over the last 10-15 years, the dynamic of the fishery’s really changed. There used to be fewer permits, and it was a fishery that would go through April. And now with this increased effort we’re seeing — with the abundance of fish — these early closures.”

Almost 90-percent of the fishing happens in Sitka Sound, and Hagerman says more trollers from out-of-town stuck around this winter to participate.

Winter king landings have averaged between 15-25 fish per boat, with the fish themselves coming in at about 10 pounds each. This is smaller volume of fish, but the price was excellent: starting at around $7 per pound, and finishing close to $10.

Hagerman believes that the relatively weak king salmon season last summer is contributing toward the fleet’s increased effort this winter. Trollers only had one king opener last July, and trolling for coho salmon was down.

It’s unknown what this winter’s great season will mean for the coming summer. Those numbers are still in play. King salmon harvests are regulated by a treaty between the US and Canada through the Pacific Salmon Commission. That’s the organization in charge of predicting the future.

“The coastwide forecast should be out at the end of the month, and the abundance index. It was a little delayed last year and there were some issues with the preseason forecast. So we’re waiting on that. In addition to what this year’s preseason forecast will be, we will also get a post-season adjustment. So we’re kind of in limbo. We don’t know what our target’s going to be for summer yet.”

So fishermen will have to wait a while to learn what’s in store for the summer. In the meantime, many trollers will get some unexpected time off.

“So we could be looking at over a month off the water for trolling, which is also unprecedented.”

Even though trollers will be tied up, sport fishing is open, and the weather in Sitka feels more spring-like all the time. Hagerman says, “There’s nothing like a king salmon in March.”

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