Boat hauling a lucrative Bristol Bay business to be in

Aug 4, 2017

As fishing winds down, hundreds of drift boats are hauled back out of the water in Naknek, most inside of about one busy week. For the boat haulers, it can be a tricky but lucrative business on the front and back end of the fishing season.

Allen Williams stands on the boat trailer to run the hydraulics and to guide Karl, his father, into the water.
Credit Caitlin Tan KDLG

It is 2 p.m. and Karl Williams is behind the tractor wheel, hauling a boat out of water. He has not slept in 48 hours. He said he has to work with the tides to pull boats out, and when the tides are out there are repairs to take care of.

“It’s just something that’s gotta get done,” he said. “Don’t have time for coffee. Just something that has to get done. Tide doesn’t wait for anybody, just have to keep going.”

There are about 1,500 drift gill net boats in Bristol Bay, and 600 of those are hauled in and out of water by Williams.

He owns and operates the business Anchor Inn Boat Storage in Naknek. He is in the last push of the season hauling boats out of water.

Karl Williams owns Anchor Inn Boat Storage. This salmon season he is responsible for the haul-in and haul-out of 600 boats.
Credit Caitlin Tan KDLG

The process starts with a long list of boats needing haul out. Carl said he does about 35 in a 24-hour period, with each haul out taking about 15 minutes.

His son, Allen Williams, rides on the trailer to guide Karl into the water, but also to run the hydraulics. He said he often gets people on boats who are new to hauling out.

“It was dark out and we were picking out of the beach just down the river here Silver Bay’s ramp now,” Allen said. “I was waving to them to come over her, but here he is to the left of the trailer looking at me. He was looking at me going, “What?” I’m like you missed the trailer by a boat width.”

Allen Williams helps guide the 'Illusion' onto the boat trailer. He and his father work with tides to pull boats out of the water and little sleep is involved.
Credit Caitlin Tan KDLG

Once the boat is out of the water Karl drives it to one of several boat yards in the Bristol Bay Borough. He has several trailers, so with long hauls such as to the airport he may leave them on the trailer until low tide.

Then he works quick to haul boats to yards closer by while the water is up. His clipboard tells him what spot to park the boat, which is typically a tight fit and often left cluttered with cars or junk.

“We put a boat down last night over there and it’s in the wrong spot but no keys to a pickup to move it and two cars in one spot,” Karl said. “We got no way to move it unless we lift it up with a squirt boom and destroy their car.”

The 32' drift boats are parked, stood up jack stands and wooden blocks underneath. Within a few days, here and elsewhere this process rebuilds Bristol Bay's signature fall and winter scenery of hundreds of dry docked fishing vessels lining the roads.

On this day, Allen Williams is showing Justin Gilbert how to do this safely.

“These ramps, you can’t do that,” Allen said. “Lift them up. Watch these poles that they’re not going to slam against the bumpers. They’re loose right now.”

Gilbert said, “Oh boy.”

Once all the stands and blocks are in place, Karl starts up the hydraulics to lift the boat off the trailer.

And just like that the tractor is off. Karl wastes no time and heads back for the next one, with his crew still riding on the trailer. 

Gilbert said they have to keep moving quick to keep their customers happy.

“You gotta keep up maintenance and that tractors going in the water you know. So you gotta make sure fluids are up. There’s really no breaks,” Gilbert said. “So once they’re done pulling out boats they gotta go back and make sure everything is working on the tractor.”

Keeping up with the 600 boats on the agenda is no easy feat. Allen has been up since 8 a.m. the day before.

“Caffeine, nicotine, alcohol,” he said.

Like everything about a Bristol Bay summer, the boat haul outs will peak and then quickly taper off. It costs between $250 to $500 per haul out, depending on boat size and distance, making this a lucrative post-season business to be in.

Reach the author at fish@kdlg.orgcaitlin@kdlg.org, or calling the station at 907-842-5281.