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Naknek fishermen cope with slow opener

July 3rd, 2015 | Hannah Colton Print this article   Email this article  

As the Naknek district saw its first two commercial openers on Sunday and Monday, the sluggish start to a large forecast run was making many people in the industry restless.

By Sunday, June 28, the Naknek-Kvichack district's run total was about 434,000 sockeye - less than 2 percent of this summer's expected run of 28.8 million. By comparison, the run total on the same date in 2014 was already nearly 5 million.

The crew of the F/V Lily Ann was in town for some food Sunday at noon after a bust of a first morning fishing. "We caught two red salmon for a good 30 minutes, then pulled in and came back," said crewman Eddie Chuckwuk.

On the beach at Peterson Point, set-netters Sylvia Elford and her daughter Veronica caught just 140 pounds on Sunday. They drove back out to put their net in the water at nine on Monday morning.

"I'm hoping we're gonna get fish today," said Elford. "So far I don't see no hits on my net." Scanning the beach to check out the sites of her relatives and friends, Elford saw just one fish hit a net all morning.

They were, however, catching jellyfish by the hundreds. Elford says this is strange timing, as jellyfish are traditionally expected to signal the end of salmon season in August.

The Elfords believe the run's delay is due to an unusual wind blowing out of the north. "That weird wind, that's what it is," said Sylvia. "It's really stirring up the mud off the beach."

Braden Williams, first-time skipper of the F/V Crimson Hunter had a slightly different theory about the strange wind. "I think this north wind is pushing all the fish out into a ball and they're balling up out in the bay," explained Williams, "and then as soon as this wind dies down they're gonna come in really strong right around the Fourth of July."

Fifth year skipper Dustin Connor aboard the F/V Honey Badger was following the numbers carefully, trying to decide where to fish after finishing repairs to his RSW system. Connor's first choice was to stay in Naknek, but he was concerned about the glut of nearly 600 boats in the district.

But Connor was unflustered about the outlook for this year's run overall. "I don't think I have enough experience up here to really have an opinion on that," he said. "The guys who've been up here 30 years aren't stressing too bad, so I'm not stressing too bad."

Rob Trumble, skipper of the tender Denali, is a 28-year veteran of the fishery. He says he has purchased fish only twice in 20 days of what he feels has been an extremely delayed season. "Every year is different," said Trumble, "but this has been the most different year ever."

Trumble believes a water temperature of five degrees warmer than usual in the rivers is keeping the fish away in the colder bay waters. As soon as the rivers cool, he predicts the salmon are going to come in all at once.

Up and down the main road in Naknek, cannery workers were also getting restless. An employee at North Pacific Seafoods' Red Salmon said many workers were frustrated that they weren't getting enough hours. It's one thing if you're just one person, he said. But lots of the workers have families to support.

At the small-scale processing operation Nakeen Homepack, the eight-person crew spent much of Monday napping and playing cards.

"I've never been here this long and had this much down time," said returning worker Shoshana Wilhite. A delivery of 300 pounds had kept them busy for just an hour and a half that day; they said they spent more time cleaning up than cutting fish.

Whatever the reason for the delay - wind, mud, temperature, or all of the above - many people waiting in Naknek were speculating about a "wall" of salmon that, when it finally hits, could plug up nets and processors alike.

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