KETCHIKAN - Crocuses and chocolate bunnies might mark the end of winter in some parts of the nation, but herring eggs announce spring's arrival in Southeast Alaska.
The eggs are a cause for celebration, as illustrated by the Outlook's stop at Thomas Basin, a Ketchikan harbor.
Captain Leo Woods said the boat's crew distributed between 5,000 and 7,000 pounds of free spawn to more than 175 people over a three-hour period in early April.
"Everything just seems to start life all over again when the herring come in," Woods said.
He usually goes to Craig or Klawock after the Sitka Sound commercial sac roe herring fishery to hand out eggs, but pulled into Ketchikan this time.
"It doesn't matter which town you stop in, they clean you out," he said.
Alaska Natives prize the pearly clusters of tiny eggs as a subsistence food. Many of the Outlook's fish eggs were given to elders in Ketchikan and Saxman, crewmember Frank James said.
"It's a lot of work loading and snipping to make sure everybody got some, and everybody did," he said. "We give it to a lot of people who never get it. It's hard to get."
Al and Flora Feller were among the recipients. Fresh herring eggs are a once-a-year treat for the couple. Flora said she likes to dip the eggs in hooligan grease or melted butter and soy sauce.
"It's associated with Easter. We call them our Alaska Easter eggs," she said. "People in the Lower 48 with Native culture enjoy getting them, too."
To get the eggs, James said crew members scoured the woods for hemlock trees without moss, took the branches to the fishing grounds and sunk them with an anchor. They attached a buoy and kept watch for two days, he said.
"The hard work is bringing it up because it's so heavy," he said.
Dolly Garza, a professor of fisheries for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Marine Advisory Program in Ketchikan, said people in Ketchikan happily line up on the docks to wait for herring eggs, sometimes at 10 p.m.
"Ketchikan people are in the unfortunate position of waiting for herring eggs, so we're lucky when the seiners come in," Garza said.