Bristol Bay, Alaska is about to flood with salmon and fishermen alike. Just a few months ago, the tides, which swing sometimes as much at 24 feet in a six hour window, broke up the ice in the shallow parts of riverbeds and the few muddy inlets. Later this month, the king salmon will head up the Nushagak River in one of the strongest remaining runs in the world.
Meet the Crew
Then in June, fishermen like Steve Kurian and crew will change the oil, test the hydros and mend the nets in preparation for the sockeye salmon run expected in the second half of that month. Bristol Bay’s fishing fleet is about 1,400 boats strong, which may be local to villages like King Salmon, Pilot Point and Coffee Point or have been hauled up the Alaska coastline from other Pacific Coast port cities like Bellingham, Washington or Half Moon Bay, California.
This year, the bay will welcome four crew aboard the Kurian’s F/V Ava Jane.
- Seasoned returners Matt Korenaski and Logan Martz will join Steve from central Pennsylvania!
- Jakes Take will meet Bristol Bay for the first time as a greenhorn from Colorado.
- Griffin Hanes will join them for peak as a greenhorn as well, from central Pennsylvania. Because of the large volume of salmon expected in mid-July, many crews will hire a fourth person to help pick fish and keep things running smoothly.
Together, these four will set the net, pick the fish, and put the Pride of Bristol Bay quality standards into practice to provide the wild sockeye salmon we’ve become known for.
As for what they can expect? Only the wild places know!
The fish will return, of that we are certain. Years of data and teams of biologists, as well as real-time on the water test-fishing, will help tell the story of the Bristol Bay salmon season in 2021. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s annual pre-season forecast encouragingly states that all river systems are expected to meet their spawning escapement goals!
In fact, the overall projection of fish returning to Bristol Bay is 6% larger than the most recent 10-year average at 51.06 million sockeye salmon.
Laine Welch of Alaska Fish Radio goes more in-depth into the ADF&G forecast here. An impressive group of scientists from University of Washington research and produce a forecast each year including Daniel Schindler, Curry Cuningham, and Chris Boatwright. You can hear from them directly and get to understand the historical data in their presentation on the 2021 Bristol Bay Sockeye Salmon Forecast.
As always, the harvest will be carefully monitored by Alaska Department Fish & Game and their expert area management biologists during the salmon season from June - August. The biologists will use all the information available to them to dictate when fishermen can put their nets in the water, how long those nets can be in the water and even what size the web is.
Because Bristol Bay fishermen use gillnets, the mesh (or web) size helps determine which size fish can be caught. For example, in order to preserve King (or Chinook) salmon stocks, fishermen are restricted to web with diamond-shaped holes smaller than six inches. Because the head of the King salmon is most often bigger than five and a half inches, they do not get caught in nets of smaller mesh.
To understand the imperative role of the biologists better, you can watch Steve’s interview with Tim Sands here.
Everything else in the bay moves with a little less certainty.
- It is too early to predict the weather, although captains across the bay will be listening carefully and constantly to the weather radio broadcasts to make safe choices for their crew and gear.
- Boat breakdowns are rare but especially unpredictable.
- Moments of complete frustration may be followed by something as spectacular as a gray whale or grizzly bear sighting.
And this is what we live for! Well, plus a few sport casts as well. If time and weather permit, Steve and the crew will take a few days on either side of the commercial season to fly fish on the riverbank.
From worms to fly rod to Bristol Bay
Pride of Bristol Bay co-owner, Jenn, has spent the past few summers back home in central Pennsylvania raising Ava & Tommy, whose interest and desire to know the ways of the salmon as intimately as their mom and dad continues to grow! Although it has been a few years since Jenn and Steve were operating the boat side by side, the goal is to one day fish as a family. The kids are doing their part by growing like weeds and learning how to work hard helping with chores back home.
Even during a childhood thousands of miles from one of the world’s most famous fly fishing locales, Steve learned to love fishing. “As a kid it seemed like fishing season openers were holidays in my family,” he says. “I started on a little trout stream here in Pennsylvania just fishing worms as a kid.” Later on he would be old enough to make the trip to the Jersey coast with his father to try saltwater fishing. Ava and Tommy are making these same strides at home and will soon be able to switch from worms to gillnets.
When Steve moved out west to further pursue a career in forestry, he found the fly rod on the Green River in Utah. There has been no looking back!
He carves out time each busy summer season to step away from the fast-paced commercial fishery in Bristol Bay and sport fish before racing home to be with Jenn and kids. “I think it’s important for the crew to see and experience Bristol Bay away from the commercial fleet. Getting upriver and adventuring in the tundra is an important part of understanding why this place is so special. I’m hoping to get them out there again this year,” Steve says.
Once the F/V Ava Jane is cleaned and winterized for the season, Captain Steve will take the crew upriver for a day or two of sport fishing with one of the many great outfits in the watershed, to cast a few flies for rainbow trout or a late-season coho salmon. After all, salmon aren't the only fish who call Bristol Bay home.
Find us fishing with a drift net on the deck of the F/V Ava Jane or exclusively with a fly rod from the river bank, the bow of a jet boat, or in a small raft cruising down a small tributary of the bay’s many rivers. We look forward to both ways of doing it next month.
Thank you, Bristol Bay, for welcoming us year after year.
We can’t wait to see you!
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