Bristol Bay's only brailer maker outfits local fish holds

Jun 4, 2016

Diane Hill is the chief and (so far) only seamstress for Bristol Bay Brailers, LLC, a new business in Naknek.

For now, Bristol Bay Brailer headquarters is Diane Hill's kitchen.
Credit Hannah Colton/KDLG

While fishermen tune up their boats, there are many other workers also gearing up for the salmon season. Welders, net hangers, and cannery workers are all streaming in to support the industry.

This year, a Naknek family has established another piece of that fishery puzzle: a homegrown brailer operation called Bristol Bay Brailer, LLC. 

Audio transcript:

“I have millions of grommets, these are all grommets…”

I’m standing with Diane Hill in her kitchen. “This is where all the magic happens,” she jokes.

On a wide table, across from an industrial sewing machine, there’s a grommet machine. It punches those little metal rings into the black, vinyl-covered, polyester mesh fabric Hall.

“I’m setting up the grommets, and now I’ve got the strapping in place, and here we go,” she says, pressing down on a floor pedal that activates the machine. “It’s so fun, I love this!”

Hill is the manager and chief-and-only seamstress of Bristol Bay Brailer, LLC.  Her husband, Bill Hill, his two brothers Nathan and Karl, and their business partner Russell Phelps co-own the company.

They’re all fishermen, and Hill says they’d been talking for years about the need for locally produced brailers.

“We were like, why don’t we make brailers here? We’ve been buying them from other places, but we’re in the heart of fishing, so why don’t we buy them here?” Hill said. “And there was some money available in a grant from the Foraker Group.”

Bristol Bay Brailer was among nine area businesses selected last fall in a competition funded by Anglo-American.

Hill has been a skilled seamstress for years, but she just started sewing with the plastic brailer material over the winter.

If you haven’t been on a fishing boat lately, a quick definition: a brailer bag is the bag that sits in the hold and gets filled with fish. “And then when you get to the tender, they hook it up and haul it out of your boat and dump the fish in the tender,” explains Hill.

And just like boats, nets, and cooling systems have changed over time with new technologies, brailers have evolved considerably over the years.

“We dug one up over here,” says Hill. 

Hill uncovered a decades-old brailer bag in her yard in Naknek.
Credit Hannah Colton/KDLG

She leads me into the front yard, where a recent weed-whacking mission has uncovered an old brailer bag from the ‘70s. It’s made of knotted orange rope, and you can see how the 2-inch netting would put big cross-hatches in the fish.

“And this really damages the fish,” she says. “And this bag here would probably hold a good 1500 lbs., which, they just don’t do that anymore.”

Most brailers are smaller now, holding up to 800 or 1,000 pounds. And most are made of a smooth mesh fabric to keep the salmon in better shape. Hill says the company NOMAR in Homer was one of the first to make these fabric bags. 

And just a few years ago, when fish prices were better, she says Bristol Bay fishermen would just order in new bags from Homer or wherever their preferred company was based.

But now, money is tighter for many salmon fishermen. And with the push toward chilling fish and refrigerated sea water systems, Hill says there’s more of a need for custom brailers.

“You know, people putting in RSW or doing a flush deck, that will change the size of your bins. I’ve got a client right now who did that, so he just needed a few bags to fit in bins that are now a different size.”

Besides being able to deliver to Bay fishermen more quickly than big companies, Hill says being small-time allows her some freedom to be creative. She’s constantly tweaking her product to make it better.

For example, she points out a spot on the bottom of a brailer. She says there would normally be a grommet there to hooks up to a tag line, which is how the brailer gets pulled up to dump fish.

“And it just seemed so over-designed, because it doesn’t hold any weight,” Hill says. “It just kind of compromises the bag when you’ve got another hole in it.”

So she got rid of that grommet, and put a heavy-duty strap in its place.

“And I had somebody, when I delivered a bag to them yesterday, they said, well, they normally have a grommet here, and I said, well, yeah, but we’re gonna try something new.”

She’s just continuing a tradition in the fishery, of taking a product that works and making it better.

“The whole industry’s getting better, so why can’t the bag get better?” she says.

After this summer, the Hills are hoping to move their operation out of their kitchen and into a new building. They eventually want to hire 5 locals. And they imagine expanding beyond brailers to make slush bags, backpacks for collapsible kayaks, and more.

Half-joking, Diane says maybe she’ll make totes to sell to cannery workers to lug their 24-packs back from the liquor store.  

Learn more at Bristol Bay Brailer, LLC.'s Facebook page