Bristol Bay setnetters close gap on drifters

John Schandelmeier

Bristol Bay, home of the greatest sockeye salmon run in the world. People come from everywhere to exploit and share the bounty. Fisherman, processors, and all of the industry necessary to support them congregate there with the goal of striking it rich.

It's a gold rush that repeats every summer. There are good years and lean years, fishermen who go home smiling, and inevitably those who end the season grim-faced.

Anglers come in two groups -- set netters who fish in skiffs from the beach and drift fishermen in 32-foot boats who search for salmon in the districts.

The drifters always have considered themselves at the top of the heap. They have big shiny aluminum boats that go fast and hold many pounds of fish. They have refrigeration that can cool fish and big crews that pick fish from the nets in a hurry. Power reels and hydraulics aid in pulling gear, so the physical labor is cut to a minimum.

Drifters have always looked down on the set netters who work in the mud and pull by hand. Set nets rarely put in as many fish, so are not considered to be "highliners." However, that view is beginning to change. Set netters are consolidating permits and are handling more fish. Delivery times for the setnets are much shorter than for the drift fleet, so there is not the need for refrigeration; the tenders that hold the fish are cooled.

Drift boats can break down, lose a motor, tangle a propeller in nets, or suffer a number of minor catastrophes that can have a devastating effect on their season. A set net can trash an outboard and be up and running within the hour.

For a set net operation, the cost of setting up is considerably less, as is the original investment. The set nets are catching up. There is now very little difference in the bottom line.

Either way, set or drift, there are no guarantees in Bristol Bay. The season is short; most of the fish arrive in a three-week window. However one fishes, the pace is frenetic and entails a fair amount of risk.

There are many who come to try their hand at the Bristol Bay salmon fishery. The overriding and obvious incentive is money. For members of the local community, it is also a way of life. Almost every family has been fishing for generations and for many, it's the only show in town. There are few other jobs. You fish or you don't eat.

The others who fish the Bay come from all over. Many of the skippers are those who have income from other enterprises or work good, reliable jobs during the offseason. They use their vacation time to work the Bay.

While the skippers are mostly older, 30s and up, the crews are generally young. The vast majority are college age kids with a yearning for an adventure that pays. The mystique of Alaska, coupled with the lure of dollars, is almost irresistible.

The hard work and lack of sleep are eye-openers. Reality is quite different from television. There are crewmen who last little more than a week and others who return every season.

This season is no different than the hundred that proceeded it. Set nets and drift boats, captains and crews, are all waiting impatiently on their boats for the season of bounty to begin. Expectations are high, but it will not be until mid-July until we know what the sea has bestowed.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives in Paxson. He is a commercial fisherman and a two-time Yukon Quest champion.