March 04, 2021

The Bristol Bay Ecosystem: What types of fish can you catch in Bristol Bay?

As wild seafood providers who also love to fish, the Kurians and the rest of us on the Pride of Bristol Bay team make a big effort to soak up as much of Bristol Bay as we can each summer. It’s important to Steve to get the crew of the F/V Ava Jane off the boat for a few days and offer the chance to get upriver, where the water shallows, the fish turn color and tributaries thin to a few hundred capillaries per stream. 

Although we are not experts, it’s easy for our customers to see themselves in our lifestyle when we share these stories of catching a trout on a fly-rod after a summer of gillnetting. 

Some of the best fly-fishing in the world takes place every summer in the remote regions of Bristol Bay, Alaska. 


What types of fish can you catch in Bristol Bay? 

What types of fish can you catch in the Bristol Bay watershed? The answer to this question is two-fold. 

There are a few commercial harvests that take place throughout the year in Bristol Bay, and the ADF&G biologists work tirelessly to understand and protect the ecosystem and its species through research and regulation. For example, our target species during the commercial season is sockeye salmon, which we sell in bulk here at Pride of Bristol Bay. However, we sometimes catch other species of salmon (there are five total Pacific salmon species). This is allowed, so long as you are using the appropriate gear and fishing during allocated times. 

The tradition of catching all five species during one set aboard the commercial gillnetters is called a Grand Slam - one 150 fathom net with a King, Coho, Sockeye, Chum, and Pink salmon coming aboard the boat in one haul. 

For this to happen, a lot of things need to line up perfectly. Maybe, you’re “fishing late,” meaning milking out the season through early August when the coho (Silvers)  and pinks start running. Maybe it’s an odd year: the pink salmon return to the spawning grounds only every two years, unlike the other species that return to the freshwater riverbeds each year. Although your odds are better for coho and pinks later in the summer, maybe you got lucky in June when the king run is happening because the water is colder in June. 

Alas, it is truly a unique set but something fun to shoot for each summer. Plus, seeking it out, helps the crew stay vigilant in their species sorting. 

Pride of Bristol Bay fisherman sort our species on board? 

Like sports fishers, commercial harvesters in Alaska are required to record their catch by species and send that information to the Alaska Department of Fish & Game. Each year, the F/V Ava Jane and other gillnetters in Bristol Bay load up with, usually, a three to four person crew. 

The boats we work with have a particular focus on quality and thus the role of that fourth crewmember is to bleed the fish as soon as they come aboard. This process helps ensure the best quality of the fillet. The bleeder spends a lot of time looking into the eyes of the fish - which is typically a good place to identify the species of salmon - then sorting them into different baths of ice water according to species. 

To tell the difference between the salmon species, it is easiest to identify the fish when whole - and even easier when the anadromous fish reach fresh water, which is when they start to turn color. 

Photo Credit:Fishingbooker

Sockeye headed upriver fresh from the ocean have blue/green backs with dark gray tails and an eye with a ring around it, the “sock-eye.” The king salmon, or Chinook, are the largest, have spotted tails, and large teeth. The silver, or cohos, are more football shaped, with rounded, spotted, backs and a smaller pupil in the eye. The chum, or dog, salmon are sometimes larger than sockeye, have larger pupils, and silver stripes in their tails. Finally, the pinks are the smallest, generously spotted and have a humped back, which is why they are also known as humpies. 

Experienced fishermen or chefs can also identify most species of wild salmon by the fillets. Keeping the skin on is helpful in identifying the species but the color of the flesh can also be a strong clue. Sockeye salmon fillet meat is bright red when fresh or thawed, which is why sockeye salmon are also known as red salmon. 

Ok, so all five salmon species can be found in the Bristol Bay watershed. What about other types of fish? 

Believe it or not, it’s not just salmon you’ll find in Bristol Bay. To answer this question, we turn to more experts of Bristol Bay: year-round residents, who icefish and know the land better than anyone, and upriver lodge owners, who can run the river in jetboats with an eye not on the riverbed but on the banks, looking for bear and moose. (By the way, for a look at what other animals can be found in Bristol Bay, check out our other post, here.) 

Sports fishing activities are, like commercial folks, totally dependent on the time of year, weather, and cycles of the ecosystem. As a broad overview, the sport fishing season begins in Bristol Bay in late June when guiding operations are helping clients fish for Arctic char, rainbow trout, grayling, northern pike, as well as king, chum and sockeye salmon. 

Later in the summer, for upriver sport fishers, the focus switches to Arctic grayling, Dolly Varden and rainbow trout, which are all resident fish of the watershed - unlike the salmon which are transient. So, in August, excitement rumbles when the elusive, transient silver salmon begin to show up. 

Bear Trail Lodge, in King Salmon, Alaska (yes! That’s the real name of the town) created this helpful chart to outline which fish are available when sport fishing in Bristol Bay. 

It’s not just for sport, either. In the winter in Bristol Bay, many locals and year-round residents also ice fish for pike and smelt. You can see more of this subsistence fishery by following United Tribes of Bristol Bay on instagram and their hashtag #BristolBayWinterFish. 

Salmon and more, all worth protecting 

In summary, many species of fish can be found in the region. Bristol Bay’s unique watershed is known for its huge population of salmon as the region provides over half of the world’s wild sockeye salmon. However, the rivers and lakes of this region are filled with other species of fish that are beautiful to admire, fun to catch and many that are also good eating.

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