Longtime Nushagak fishermen say they've never seen a year like this

Jul 13, 2017

The total run to the Nushagak  in Bristol Bay has surpassed the all time record for the district. Those who have spent many, many decades fishing at Nushagak Point weigh in on the unprecedented season.

Doug Cooper in his cabin on Nushagak Point
Credit Nick Ciolino/KDLG

Every year there are many who return to the cabins at Nushagak Point to spend the season fishing setnet sites in the district.

When the salmon are running, the rows of small cabins lining the beach are peopled with everyone from greenhorns fishing their first season, to family members supporting the fisherman, to those who have been fishing the Nushagak district for more than 50 years.

KDLG’s Nick Ciolino spoke with some fisherman from the set-net community at Nushagak Point, who, this season, have fished the all-time largest run of sockeye to ever swim past their cabins.

AUDIO TRANSCRIPT:

The pilings of a long since closed down salmon cannery stand erect on the rocky beach. Just beyond you can see the roof of Doug Cooper’s cabin, peering over the tall grass. Cooper has been fishing his set net site at Nushagak Point since 1951.

“When I started here there were just three or four of us setnetting at Nushagak Point, and now the setnets start here at the marker and go all the way for—whatever it is—20 miles clear to the outer marker out on the cape without any breaks hardly. So it’s just wall to wall setnets now.”

Over the years, Cooper has seen people come and go. He has seen the two canneries on the point close down, and he remembers the fire that burnt down the Russian Orthodox Church at the top of the hill, but he says he has never seen a run to match this year’s.

“I’ve never seen it like this, where the fish started June—well we started June 21—they actually went by in huge numbers before the opening. They must’ve started maybe the 17th or so, going by in huge numbers here, and then they have been present ever since in large numbers, which is totally unique.”

Fishing on the Wood River in the Nushagak district.
Credit Nick Ciolino/KDLG

The run has been substantial enough to overwhelm the processor, Peter Pan Seafoods, who has been forced to place Nushagak setnetters on daily limits. While many fisherman express frustration with the limits, Cooper says the restrictions have made fishing easier.

“It’s not a popular thing to say, but the closures by the cannery actually help us on some level, because nobody’s fishing for a while; the fish move up to where we are, and then when we put our nets out and they’re there for us, instead of being filtered out by being open 24 hours a day.”

Cooper’s neighbor on Nushagak Point, Tom Rollman, manages a large operation of a couple dozen crew members fishing multiple permits.

He says when the fishing is wide open he deploys his crew in shifts, but the limits have changed that strategy.

“When we catch the two thousand pounds per permit we’re finished for that 24 hour period. So we just send the whole crew up until they get our quota and then they come back. Where normally they would be twelve on twelve off—two different crews.”

Curtis Olson, better known as ‘Ole’, is the self-proclaimed Mayor of Nushagak Point and has fished in the district for 37 years. He was medevaced out when his gall bladder turned septic during last year’s season and considered retirement. 

He says he’s glad he continued to fish, because he was able to participate in what he calls ‘the greatest run ever in the history of the Nushagak district.’

“This has been a sight to see. I mean, the greatest migration ever of salmon ever to the Nushagak district and I lived to see it. And you know it’s kind of a wonderful thing”

On July 11, the Nushagak salmon run surpassed the previous record of 15,738,332 fish set back in 2006 … and it’s still going.

Contact KDLG fisheries reporter Nick Ciolino at fish@kdlg.org or 907-842-5281