The first gillnet opener on the Lynn Canal starts at the same time every year: the third Saturday of June. That’s whether or not the fish are ready.
Jones Hotch is walking down the path from his garden to his smokehouse. He opens up the door to the smokehouse and gestures to a stack of cottonwood logs that he has ready to go.
“I call it our most important house,” he said with a laugh.
“Even from our home, because it gets all our food ready for us. We still like eatin’ our salmon.”
But there aren’t any fish in here, nor any skiffs on the water. In Klukwan, the banks of the Chilkat are quiet. He closes the door and looks out at the swollen river.
“[We’re] waitin’ to see… the river’s too high now to catch anything,” he said.
When the river is high it’s hard to net fish, so fishermen wait for the level to drop.
Hotch has been catching fish on the Chilkat since he was a boy. He says the fish are a little late this year.
Nicole Zeisler is the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s area manager for the Haines commercial fishery. The department just resumed fish monitoring on the Chilkat and Chilkoot. She says the lack of fish is standing out.
“These numbers are pretty low in the wheels and through the weir,” she said.
ADF&G just resumed monitoring the weirs and fish wheels on the Chilkat and Chilkoot. The wheels on the Chilkat between Haines and Klukwan spin in the current, but if you’re driving down the highway you’re unlikely to see many fish in the baskets. Zisler says that may be due in part to the high water.
She says that the gillnet fleet in the Lynn Canal isn’t seeing many fish yet either.
“I would say overall, it’s low. The catches in the gillnet fleet was low this opener,” she said.
That has some fishermen grumbling, but it’s not unusual. It’s early in the season and too soon to tell whether this is a slow start or a slow year. Ziesler says they’ll know more about the strength of the run by next month. She’s waiting for some more robust data before she makes any judgements.
“It’s just a little too early we just got the project up and running and so numbers are just trickling in. Things are really, really slow. We could be a late run or an early run we just don’t know,” she said.
Back in Klukwan, Jones Hotch will judge the return by how many neighbors are filling their boats and smokehouses.