Why is it so hard to find bait herring just before Juneau’s big salmon derby?

Empty freeezer
This bait freezer contains absolutely nothing. Like other Juneau stores, managers at Harri Plumbing & Heating say they’ve been out of bait herring for at least several weeks. (Matt Miller/KTOO)

Juneau area sport fishermen are gearing up for this weekend’s Golden North Salmon Derby. But empty shelves in bait freezers all over town have a lot of them asking: Where is the bait herring?

Brian Wallace leads the way down the narrow, steep stairs into his basement and opens the door of his freezer.

“That’s it. That’s the only thing I have left,” he said, as he pulled out a single, small tray of frozen bait herring.

Wallace says the herring are smaller than he likes. He’s also worried about them not staying on the hook.

“To me, the bait, they seem a little mushy,” Wallace said. “The flesh on it, it’s just not solid enough for me to be confident.”

Just a single tray of bait herring
Brian Wallace is saving his one and only tray of bait herring for the first day of Juneau’s Golden North Salmon Derby on Aug. 13. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

An avid fisherman who goes out as often as he can, Wallace is saving this one little bait tray for the first day of the derby because he can’t find any more in town.

We checked in with a bunch of Juneau stores that usually sell bait herring. All said they were out. Some have been out of stock for months.

“Oh, no! It’s sad to hear that!” said Rachel Stewart, co-owner of Jerry’s Bait in Port Ludlow, Washington. That’s the company that produced and distributed Wallace’s bait.

“We’ve only been able to fulfill orders for our customers,” said Stewart.

In a normal year, the volume of herring Stewart sends to Juneau is enough. But this year, something went wrong in the bait herring supply chain.

“So, everyone else that’s been calling us that normally gets their bait from Canada, we can’t supply them with bait this year because there hasn’t been enough,” she said.

And here’s where it gets complicated. Because it turns out that in Canada, it’s not that they didn’t catch enough herring. It’s that they were the wrong size.

Grant McNeil of Walcan, a wholesaler based on Quadra Island in British Columbia, says they all came in too big. Those big herring are used by commercial fishermen. Sport anglers like a five- to six-inch fish. But McNeil says there just weren’t a lot of those fish this year.

“I was down this year by about 90% in what I was able to put up on trayable bait, which is massive!” McNeil said. “Like 90% down on any specific product is a huge anomaly.”

Jim Kearley, owner of Growler Cove Bait Company based in Victoria, says there’s another issue. He recalls as many as ten companies in the area catching bait herring 25 years ago. Now, he says there are only two.

“In the last probably 10 years, it’s been very difficult for them to catch the correct size,” Kearley said.

So, with no bait herring in town, what can sport anglers do to land that big, winning king or silver?

Derby officials and Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists suggest a flasher and a hoochie, or a spoon or plug. Maybe add some herring scent. Or maybe you still have an old package of hooligan stuck in the freezer.

Wallace says he might actually use his last tray of herring to catch something else, like a halibut.

“Then I use halibut guts for more bait,” Wallace said. “Works great! Just chop the stomach in half, stick it on there, and it’s a nice, beautiful tasty treat.”

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