Dust off the hoochies, shine the spoons. It could be awhile before Juneau is flush in herring bait again.
Local fishermen snapped up the last packages of herring from stores last week, but one of two major producers that sell the bait in Alaska said it probably won't fill all 200 backorders until July. Jason Bunch of Puget Sound Herring said some of the orders are so large the Washington state company will only partially fill them until there's enough herring to go around. And although fishing fleets in Washington are targeting herring now, the fishing is slow, he said.
"We haven't been catching fish really until a couple weeks ago, which is somewhat unusual, but not really. It's generally slow this time of year as far as fishing goes," said Bunch, vice president of the company, which sells most of its herring in California and Alaska.
Bill Pirie, an official with Walcan, a British Columbia company that is another major Alaska supplier, said it's highly unlikely the company will harvest more herring bait until winter.
"The stocks required for this product line are caught during the winter months," he said.
Bunch attributes the shortage partly to a new sport fishery for spring king salmon on the Columbia River, which he said opened this year for the first time since 1977. Bunch said that fishery drew tens of thousands of fishermen who depleted the company's herring inventory. Also, Walcan didn't catch enough herring to fill its orders.
"There's only two places - us and Walcan. If Walcan doesn't catch fish, we have to come up with the excess, which we normally have. But this year due to the Columbia River, we just don't have it," Bunch said.
Walcan came up short because the herring changed their migration route off British Columbia, making it difficult for the company to catch the fish, said Pirie. Walcan usually intercepts herring as they enter the Gulf of Georgia at the north end of Vancouver Island, but last season the fish weren't there, he said.
"In the last two years, they have entered the gulf almost exclusively from the southern route. Once they get into the gulf, they're in this great big body of water that's difficult for us to effectively catch them," Pirie said.
"We hope to make some adjustments in the manner that we fish those stocks, and if we have the same situation in the future we hope to find some solutions."
Pirie said herring stocks off British Columbia are healthy and emphasized the current shortage at retail locations is not due to a shortage of herring at sea. Officials with Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans did not return phone calls by the Empire's deadline.
Meanwhile, Bunch, of Puget Sound Herring, said smaller producers on the West Coast probably will help meet some of the demand. Pat Shea of Super Bear grocery store said he's in contact with other suppliers on the West Coast and hopes to have herring soon. However, he's concerned high demand will crank prices into the stratosphere.
"If they catch fish, the price is just going to skyrocket because the waiting list right now - and I'm sure everybody in Southeast is on the waiting list - is in the thousands," Shea said.
Although some anglers use lures to catch salmon, local retailers contacted by the Empire believed most sport fishermen favor herring.
Kathy Dye may be reached at email@example.com.