What was commercial salmon fishing like in Bristol Bay?

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Commercial Salmon fishing in Bristol Bay

I began as a deckhand commercial fishing in Bristol Bay, AK when I was 15 years old.  I remember leaving my hometown of Petersburg, AK and heading north on an airplane to an area I had never been, and knew nothing about.  Inside I was nervous and terrified.  When I landed in King Salmon, AK I felt like I had just entered a whole new world.  The land was barren and flat, no trees at all just bushes.  I had never been to this part of Alaska and it was completely different than SE Alaska.  My skipper was there to meet me at the airport.  We hopped into his old 1970’s Chevrolet and drove the 12 miles to Naknek, AK where the boat was stored in the boat yard.  We went right to work.  

For the next 7 days we worked in the boat yard to get the boat ready for the fishing season.  The Bristol Bay Salmon fishery is the largest Sockeye fishery in the world.  The season typically lasts for a month and a half, but the majority of the salmon is caught in a 7-10 day window.  Spending this time in the boat yard getting the boat ready to go is key to a successful season.  If the boat is down for just 1 or 2 days you could miss out on a lot of salmon.

We finally hit the water and headed to the Nushagak district.  The first opener was a nightmare.  The fishing was good, but I had no idea what I was doing.  Bristol Bay is a gillnet fishery.  To remove the salmon from the nets you use a fish pick.  Before coming to Bristol Bay I had never heard of or seen a fish pick.  Learning how to pick fish under fire was overwhelming.  After the first opener I thought I was done for.  I didn’t think I could make it.  Fortunately I didn’t listen to that little voice in my head.  Each opener picking fish got easier and easier.  By then end of the season I was the youngest crew member on board and by far the fastest picker.

Days on the boat were long.  Depending on the openings we were fishing around the clock or 16-18 hours a day.  Finishing my first season in Bristol Bay at the age of 15 was an amazing feeling.  The Bristol Bay fishery shaped me and taught me so much.  The hard work and struggles truly shaped the person I am today and I am grateful for the skipper and crew I worked with.  I returned for 4 more seasons in Bristol Bay.  This fishery helped pay for college and got me the start I needed in the Alaskan Seafood Industry.

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