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Every year, on July 1st, the deep groan of troller engines might sound around a southeast Alaskan harbor at any hour past 12:01 AM for the summer’s first chinook, or king salmon opening — a window of time targeting, this year, approximately 98,135 king salmon. In the Don A, an old wooden troller based out of Port Alexander, we got a late 3:30 AM, rumbling start.
Winding our way in and around the fjords of lower Chatham Strait, we lowered the trolling poles out into a V and set the gear, dropping the cannon balls into the dark of the ocean and snapping leaders with bait and flashers onto the steel wires, as the gurdies clattered and spun them out below the stern.
And then we waited. Moving slowly through a calm sea, we watched clouds travel along the coast, some classic rock on satellite radio, the occasional whale or sea lion, and the endless flow of black coffee. Finally, hours into the day, Blake Conaway, the skipper of the Don A., pulls up something besides an empty hook.
“It was the worst fishing I’ve ever experienced in my life on the Don A—it was the slowest it’s ever been. I’ve at least caught humpies before; we didn’t even catch humpies today. We just caught one king, and that’s it.”
After we got to the fish tender in Port Armstrong, the Eyak, cranes took the ice bag from the hold and emptied and weighed the fish on deck. There, we realized that many other trollers fishing around Chatham had encountered a similar king opening—one with not very many kings. This fisherman was hoping for a better day.
“I had eight stinking fish and one stinking coho. That’s all? No numbers this time. Can’t win ‘em all.”
Dan Dunn, the captain of the Eyak, noticed their absence as well.
“We’ve only got like a hundred fish on board, maybe, 100 kings, which is not a lot for us.”
But things were not all bad for the fleet. Patti Skannes, the regional troll management biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, says that approximately 548 boats in this year’s fishery have an overall catch rate comparable to past years—with highest catch rates in the southern outside waters, followed by north and central areas on the outer coast.
“When you talk to individuals, the experience ranges widely. Some individuals are doing well, and others, not so well. Right now it looks like somewhere around 10,000 per day that the fleet is catching.”
The preliminary price for those kings is $3.69 a pound, down from the spring fishery price of 5.89 a pound, and slightly below last year’s price of 3.78 a pound. And as those daily, 10,000 fish begin to make their way from troller, to tender, to processor, and maybe eventually to our plates, the fishermen will return, too.
The Alaska Department of Fish & Game expected the first king salmon opener of the season in Southeast to last between 8 and 10 days.
KCAW contributing reporter Diana Saverin is an undergraduate at Yale University, spending her second summer in Southeast Alaska. Her work is funded by the Chase Coggins Memorial Fund and the Robert Berlin Fellowship for Humanities & Sciences.