Strong start to season for gillnetters

For gillnetters in Northern Southeast, the season started off with lots of big, heavy fish and boats from around the region flocking north for a piece of the action.

In the first four weeks of fishing, record number of gillnet boats have fished in the Northern Lynn Canal, the area officially designated 15C. Last week, 240 boats were counted – and that’s up from last year record count of 190 boats for the same week. It also means that according to numbers from the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission, more than half of the total number of salmon gillnet permits in Southeast are being fished in the Lynn Canal these last two weeks.

But, that’s because there are plenty of fish to catch. A total of 385,000 chum salmon were caught last week by the fleet – an average of about 1,600 fish a boat, a hefty haul for a gillnetter. Alaska Department of Fish and Game commercial fish biologist Randy Bachman says the fish are big.

“The average weight on chum is close to 10 pounds so that’s quite a bit larger than it was last year,” Bachman says.

The chums are hatchery fish from Douglas Island Pink and Chum in Juneau and have become the bulk the salmon harvest for Northern Southeast gillnet fishermen.

While the hatchery chum are the target right now for most fishermen, the wild sockeye runs are not being overlooked. Eight thousand sockeye were recorded caught last week by the commercial fleet in the region. Bachman said the Chilkat sockeye run near Haines is looking strong and the fish wheels are showing some of the highest numbers on record .

“The Chilkat Lake sockeye early return seems to be extremely strong. We’ve had good showings, good catches in our fish wheels as well as extremely high sonar counts up at Chilkat Lake early this season. It was a strong forecast for a Chilkat Lake return and it’s looking even stronger than that.”

Biologists expected a less successful run for the Chilkoot, also near Haines, but Bachman said, that run is also looking stronger than projected.

“It’s about three times as good compared to where we were this time last year and well above the escapement during the parent year in 2009,” Bachman said.

The sockeye, like the chum, are lunkers, too, said Bachman.

“The sockeye are also very large this year and probably pushing 7-and-a –half, 8 pounds when they’re usually 6 or 6-and-a-half.”

Processors are reportedly paying between 60 and 65 cents a pound for chum and around $1.80 a pound for sockeye. Those prices are about the same as last year.

While early returns seem positive for the gillnet fleet, fishermen aren’t known to be overly optimistic. Texting from the fishing grounds, Captain Norm Hughes writes “When they say it’s opening strong, that’s nice. But I need a whole month of strong to make my season.”

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