Copper River salmon fishery brings season’s first catches, camaraderie — and hope

After last year’s weak run and uncertainty from the pandemic, one of Alaska’s best-known fisheries is underway with a prevailing sense of optimism.

CORDOVA — Last year’s weak sockeye salmon run and the global pandemic created a wave of uncertainty and fear here for people in Cordova. This year, with two Copper River commercial openers under their belt, Cordovans are hopeful.

The usually soggy coastal fishing community is delicately positioned on the eastern edge of Prince William Sound and nestled at the bottom of the Chugach Mountains.

On Tuesday, following the first opener of the year, people took turns snatching pieces of freshly caught Copper River king salmon from the grill — a celebratory first fish tradition that’s rougher around the edges compared to Seattle’s red carpet fanfare.

“2020 was miserable,” third-generation fisherman Matt Honkola said. “To get back to the way things were, I think all of our spirits, we needed this.”

Each summer, king, sockeye and coho salmon return to the Copper River — a roughly 300-mile-long waterway that extends from the Gulf of Alaska east of here north to the Wrangell Mountains.

The fishery is widely viewed as the start of Alaska’s summer commercial salmon fishing season and is the driving force behind Cordova’s economy. The town, with a population just under 3,000, doubles in size with the influx of cannery employees, fishermen and seasonal workers.

“It was just exciting to be back out there,” said fisherman Nelly Hand as she stood with friends and family. “It’s kinda what you dream about all winter.”

Orca Inlet — the corridor fishermen travel from town to the fishing grounds — shimmered in the background as Honkola grilled the bright orange cuts of salmon above a flame and charred pallet remains. He shared his fresh catch with friends, family and fellow fishermen.

Honkola walked a tray of sizzling salmon to a table that also held deer hot dogs, seaweed salad, moose steaks, black cod and halibut — and cheese puffs.

“There’s a lot of things that have been caught in the wild, and I brought chicken!” said Will Brown, prompting an eruption of laughter from the group gathered next to the fire.

Here you go, Captain, Honkola said as he handed a piece to his dad, Bob.

“You just hear it squeaking in your teeth,” Hand said as she popped another piece into her mouth, leaving only oil-soaked fingers. “This is really what it’s all about … come back from an opener and just hug your friends … and get to eat with people you like.”

‘So much more relaxed’

Among fishermen, there’s a strong sense of camaraderie.

“I don’t think I would love it that much if it weren’t for all of my friends,” said fisherman Seth Balint. “We’re kinda all Cordova boys. (We) rely on each other out there.”

This year’s fleet consists of about 400 active permits, according to Jeremy Botz, an area management biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Seven hundred and twenty-six deliveries from the two openers this week garnered a total 3,200 chinooks and 19,500 sockeyes, Botz said.

Although the numbers are lower than preseason projections, feelings of hope and excitement drifted through the docks after the first opener as Cordovans watched, waved and cheered for the returning fleet.

Isla, Nora and Elias Haisman waited for their dad, Kevin, to return Monday night. Nora was excited for this summer’s smoked salmon. “I’d do anything to eat it,” she said.

Not far away, Darcy Saiget waved to her husband while he rounded the corner heading into the harbor.

“Last year at this time, we were so very worried as a small island community … about our town mushrooming in size to double,” she said. “I just feel so much more relaxed now because of our amazing medical response team.”

Botz said, as of now, this year is on track to be better than the 2018 and 2020 sockeye runs.

The celebrations ended quickly as fishermen began preparing for the next opener.

Finding salmon

Out at the mouth of the river, sandbars shift along the shallow waters of the Copper River flats, making navigation precarious.

Challenging weather kept some of the fleet from leaving the harbor Thursday for the second opener. Those who went out ran into consistent swells and strong winds.

Hours after the 7 a.m. start, white-capped waves grew, crashing into the sandbars that separate the flats from the Gulf of Alaska.

After hearing reports from friends who were finding salmon in deeper water, Ben Rubio took his bowpicker to the growing breakers.

His windshield wiper ran nonstop as rain and spray from breaking waves crashed onto his boat’s windows. He smiled as he rode the crest and grimaced as the boat landed harshly on the trough. He pointed out that most everyone else had turned around. A pot with popcorn remnants fell to the floor as loose tools and a salt shaker danced on the table — held in place by a weathered wooden edge.

The swells eventually grew too big, leading him to retreat and set his net closer inland. The battered white and pink gillnet floats bobbed in the choppy jade water.

As he brought in his net, a king and a few more reds landed on his boat. He hoped it had at least paid for the day’s fuel.

Around 6 p.m., a steady flow of Grundens-wearing fishermen delivered fish to waiting tenders anchored near Egg Island. They shared frustrations of sea lions stalking their nets while they waited to hear the poundage — and value — of their harvested chinooks.

Although it was a relatively slow start to the season, the salmon are out there and fishermen are finding them.

Soggy and tired, they quickly accepted offerings of warm coffee and fresh cookies from the F/V Lucid Dream for the ride home.

“It’s a good feeling to know there’s enough fish,” Balint said the next day. “We have a sign of hope we didn’t have with our run last year.”

From 2020: Alaska’s Copper River fishing season kicks off in a year like no other

Emily Mesner

Emily Mesner is a multimedia journalist for the Anchorage Daily News. She previously worked for the National Park Service at Denali National Park and Preserve and the Western Arctic National Parklands in Kotzebue, at the Cordova Times and at the Jackson Citizen Patriot in Jackson, Michigan.