Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Sockeye Salmon, Grizzly Bears and Poachers in Redoubt Bay

August 3, 2011
Underway Gulf of Alaska on East coast Baranof Island
Position: 56°42.7N 135°27.6W @ 10AM

Today we are sailing from Redoubt Bay on the outside waters off Baranof Island. As of 10AM we are about 20nm south of Sitka, Alaska and likely bound for Sandy Bay about 25nm to the South. The weather today could be characterized as the calm before the storm as we have high wispy clouds and eerily Halloween type clouds all of which indicate a change in the weather. NOAA is forecasting a front to move across the Alaskan Panhandle later today packing fairly strong SE winds so we're hustling to our next anchorage. Winds are pretty light at the moment, but we do have a southern swell and some wind chop already.

August 2, 2011
Anchored in Redoubt Bay

Spent the morning fishing and landed two pinks and two sockeye salmon with the addition of the Sockeye we've now caught all five Pacific salmon species. Saved a few nice fillets for the bbq and then ran a batch of eight pint jars in our pressure canner. We've been sampling some of our previously canned fish and it's delicious and will make for some phenomenal appetizers once we've left the land of plenty here in Alaska. We'd previously made plans to meet up with our Forest Service Redoubt Lake weir crew friends Joe, Megan and Pat to check out Lake Redoubt and make a run to the forest service cabin at the North end of the lake. So after they finished with their work for the day we met up bearing a gift of a freshly caught crab for them to snack on later. We then made the seven mile run up Lake Redoubt dropping some materials off along the way at their fertilizer storage location. The forest service cabin was cute A-frame right on the glacial river that feeds the lake, including a public row boat, a huge supply of fire wood and a remarkably remote location. Those looking for a great get away might consider a float plane ride to the cabin for a week. Contact the Forest Service for details on renting the cabin.

Back to the boat we took the dinghy over to the falls coming out of Redoubt lake to watch one of the bigger Grizzly bears feed on salmon as they made there way up the falls. It was very intense getting on dry land near the base of the falls and then climbing up below the bears. Not so much of a worry about the bear wanting to eat us as they are busy eating the fish. But the more pressing and real risk in this particular case was the other four bears in the immediate area waiting their turn to feed at the falls. The big bear currently feeding was not in a sharing mood so he'd run off the competition whom was lurking in the woods nearby watching. Considering one of the four bears in the wings was a sow with two cubs we were on hyper alert to ensure no one would be surprised by the other. We kept our land based viewing to a minimum, just long enough to watch the huge Grizzly snatch a fish out of the water and lumber towards shore. Then back to the dinghy.

The falls get lots of use by local fishermen whom some have permits to dip net salmon out of their turbulent waters, which is not so easy. One small boat fisherman was lingering near the falls, but the fisher was not dip netting, but illegally snagging fish right beneath a huge sign stating "No Snagging". This is wild Alaska so you need to tread lightly when on the frontier, but this guy was clearly a bad apple arrogantly and blatantly snagging fish after fish. I watched the guy park his boat in a huge school of fish at the base of the falls and indiscriminately foul hook fish after fish with a huge weighted barbed treble hook. He'd gaff the fish and throw the fatally wounded less desirable pinks back in the water to be perish and be wasted. What a jerk!

As we passed by the guy on the way back to our boat he had the guile to offer us a 'small sockeye' that he'd just illegally caught with blatant disregard for the fishing regulations. Knowing that I'd been watching I think he was trying to buy us off with a fish.

This pissed me off and I told him he needed to stop illegally fishing and that it was greedy unsportsmanlike a-holes like him who ruin things for everyone. At this point the guy said 'No' he wasn't leaving and there was nothing anyone was going to do abut it. Now I was fired up and let fly a few more thoughts on the matter and my intent to report his poaching activities to Alaska Fish and Game of which he said nothing would happen. Arrogant bastard. The boat was a bright red aluminum skiff around 17' long with a center console and powered by a silver Honda 40hp? outboard. The AK registration number was mostly worn off, but read AK6047L with the last letter(s) perhaps missing. . The guy was around sixty of average height with a full grey beard and likely form Sitka. I hope AF&G cites him for his arrogant disregard for the law and wasting of a precious natural resource. Kathy was not happy with me taking a stand for a general dislike for confrontation and perhaps a justified fear of retribution by the poacher. We all have to pick our battles and this was mine. More words flew with the jerk and finally he headed out of the bay at full speed as I called the USCG to have them relay the report on to Alaska Fish and Game as we were out of cell phone range and needed the VHF radio and Coast Guard to relay the message. I wish Forest Service Joe would have been around as he could have issued a citation on the spot.

August 1, 2011
Anchored in Redoubt Bay

We pulled into the bay in early afternoon and anchored in front of the falls to take in the sights. The Forest Service had erected a fish weir above the falls for the purpose of counting the fish as they passed collecting scientific data. Two Grizzly bears were walking across the weir trying to decide which fish to eat next as a few local fishermen tried to get some of the sockeye via dip net. The dip net fishermen have subsistence fishing permits for Redoubt falls and attempt to net fish as they make their way into the turbulent waters. From our observations a very difficult proposition with most fishers going home empty handed. After some time we moved the boat to a Forest Service mooring buoy to the west of the falls and set out in the dinghy to explore the area a bit. Around this time a Forest Service boat arrived and started unloading gear on the beach near the trail head to the lake above. The crew of three was armed with high power rifles and shotguns so we figured it was a great time to tag along behind the Forest Service crew as they made their way up to the lake. They had plenty of gear to haul including a heavy outboard so we pitched in carry the gear. The supervisor Joe was really friendly as were Megan and Joe's visiting friend Pat. Joe invited us to check out their on site cabin and even observe as they got to work counting fish for the day. Delighted at the opportunity we enthusiastically accepted the offer and ended up spending the next three hours under the tutelage of the Joe and Megan. Joe has been working on the fish counting and data collection at Redoubt lake for the last six years and was super willing to share his wealth of knowledge. From their modest living quarters we took off via skiff to the fish weir. During the peak of the fish run there were as many as seven Grizzly bears feeding on fish at the falls. Joe and Megan had names for each of the bears as their job entailed working in very close proximity to the bears several times a day. The fish weir erected by the Forest Service temporarily blocks the upward migration of the fish until they can be counted. The bears capitalize on this situation by cornering the fish behind the weir and chowing down on the freshly caught salmon. Approaching the weir the first order of business was to run the bears off so Joe and Megan could get to work counting the fish and collecting weight, length and scale samples from about 10% of the fish. As we approached the small 8 by 10 work float connected to the weir Joe honked an air horn to run off the bears. Then we tied to the float and Kathy and I jumped on to the steeply sloping metal grating of the weir to watch the scientist get to work. Keeping a sharp lookout it wasn't long before the bears returned and Joe fired off five rubber bullets from his 12 gauge shotgun to add a little sting to his warning to the bears to get lost. Counting the fish and collecting the data is no small task. A sample of 10% of the fish need to be captured, sedated in a broth of 180 proof everclear and clove oil in lake water, have the adipose fin clipped, then weighed, measured and a scale sampled before being revived in tank before release. Lots focused activity while the bears try to sneak back in for the fish. At times Joe and Megan have become the unwilling spectators as the hungry bears clash in battles over the fishing grounds and at times run across the weir at full speed chasing each other. This as one would imagine is quite the rush as angry bears charge by. Once you see the photos of the weir you can then visualize how intense this would be. Needless to say we were pretty tuned in to our surroundings as we observed the scientist all the while the bears lurked in the bushes nearby. As soon as we got in the skiff and started the motor it was as if a dinner bell had rung and out the bears came to resume their fishing. Very cool!!!

We invited the crew out to the boat and had a great time sharing stories and planning a trip with them the next afternoon.

Joe walks a log above the weir.
Redoubt Lake Forest Service Team assembles on the work float to start marking fish and recording data.
Two Grizzy bears on a log behind the weir after we scare them off the weir.
Bigger Grizzly behind the weir that we'll be on in just moments. Too bad my good camera was broken or I could have scored some amazing shots.

Megan on the weir. Removing some bars to count fish as they pass the weir into the lake. Not the high power rifle on her lap? Occasional Grizzly bears will run across the weir at full speed chasing one another while the team is on the weir. Talk about an adrenaline rush!

Pat transfer a Sockeye from the pen to the table to be measured, weighed and have scale samples taken before being released.
Taking the stats from a Sockeye salmon on at Redoubt Lake weir. L-R: Megan, Pat and Joe.
A Sockeye Salmon in the 'control group' having the adipose fin removed.
Kathy and Megan crossing the weir.

Fish holding pen.

Clear waters on a beach we explored on Coronation Island where there are lots of caves and wild animal tracks like wolf, bear and dear.

This is a small bear print.

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