The boat tipped alarmingly to starboard. The coffee pot, frying pan and dish soap simultaneously headed for the galley floor. No matter, one doesn't forget how to ride a bicycle, nor does one forget how to handle Bristol Bay weather in the cabin of a gillnetter. Forty-five years in the commercial fishing industry trained me to catch the pot, pan and soap -- plus take a sip from my coffee cup without missing a beat. The Bristol Bay sockeye season started with a bang this year!
No, there isn't much in the way of fish. It is the fishermen. Everyone came early this year. Drift boats were in the water a full week early. Loaded setnet skiffs headed to beach camps days ahead of last year's schedule.
The reasons are twofold. The sockeye run of 2013 was at least a week early. The fishermen that were in the water by June 16 last year made good money. The price of sockeye was the highest in years; all of the major processors settled out at over a dollar and a half per pound. No one wanted to miss that opportunity in 2014.
Ah, well; it looks like the fish run of this season is on a more normal run timing. Fish prices again look good and there are two new major players in the fishery. Silver Bay Seafoods and Extreme Seafoods are newcomers to the Bay, with substantial processing capacity and apparently deep pockets. Buyer competition drives up fish prices.
Along with the rising fish prices comes the increase in entry permit prices. A drift permit that could be had for $90,000 dollars just over a year ago has doubled in value. Correspondingly, nets, lines, parts and groceries also have experienced a jump in worth. In Naknek, a kicker can of gas (6 gallons), will cost you 36 bucks at the fuel dock, over $40 at the gas station. At the store, a 30-ounce jar of mayonnaise has a $15.69 price tag!
It is easy to spend several thousand dollars every day in the boat yard while preparing for the red salmon season to come. Setnetters must have everything they possibly might need with them. Motors and gear need to be in top-notch condition. Parts are not often available on the grounds or in town. Most of the time they need to be ordered. Should a fisherman miss a day or two during the peak of the season, it could mean $20,000 dollars at today's fish prices. A blown hydraulic line on a drift boat during an opening could turn a great season into a mediocre one. Equipment needs to be in tip-top shape.
On the ocean, the condition of gear should always be stellar. However, not many years back, with fish prices hovering around 70 cents, most fishermen made do with less. Yeah, a new net reel would be nice, but this old creaky Fiberglas job will make it another season!
There were seasons in the '90s when 10 or 15 grand was pretty fair. It might cost eight to get the boat in the water, and after paying the crew at the end of the season, a job at McDonald's might look pretty good to the skipper, especially if he could eat there for free.
Fishing has always been a risky business. It is not for the faint-hearted. Commercial fishing qualifies as the most dangerous job in Alaska. It is not a sure thing. Yes, fishermen can make really good money some years. However, during my first season as a fisherman, I worked from June 1 well into September and made right at 800 bucks. I was hooked.
Hurry and get ready. Hurry up and wait for an opening. The wind will blow. Nets fill with sticks. It rains in torrents. Seals eating fish from your net will drive you to drink. Never mind, kiss your girl, pull on the Xtratufs and head to B.Bay; the fish have begun to arrive and the season is starting with a bang!
John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.