When the Taku gill net catch was much greater

Posted: Friday, May 27, 2005

I spoke to Scott Kelly, the head of commercial fishing for Southeast Alaska, and asked him how the king salmon season was going. He said that the Stikine River looked really good, but so far the Taku was disappointing.

"We manage for escapement," he said, so if the return is poor then the fishery has to be shut down. The department is hoping for 42,500 fish.

The conversation reminded me of a time when the gill net catch on the Taku was much greater.

One of the best books about Southeast Alaska was "This Raw Land" by Wayne Short. He tells of his family's experience living at Warm Springs Bay on Baranof Island, starting in 1946.

In 1957, Wayne took a job as a fish tender skipper hauling gill net fish to the Excursion Inlet cannery. He worked for Norman "Pete" Holm, who owned and leased a fleet of fish packers.

Wayne ran the Apex 1, which served Port Snettisham, and his brother, Duke, was the captain of the Hannah C.

Here, in Wayne's words, are the full complement of other skippers:

"Jim Brown, middle 30s, dark-complexioned, ex-gambler, bartender, cab driver, Texan, was skipper of the Rio De Oro and serviced Taku Inlet, which was just north of Port Snettisham.

"Bob Horchover, soft-spoken, good looking man in his 20s, was skipper of the Theo E and was servicing Portland Canal, 300 miles south on the Alaska-Canadian border. Bob attended dental college in Seattle during the winters.

"Linnie Bardason, flaxen-haired, 6-foot-7 giant of Icelandic extraction, was skipper of the Neptune and serviced Chilkat Inlet to the north. Linnie had been a tender captain since his late teens. During the winters in Seattle, he took college courses in business administration."

Here is Wayne's description of the "Supreme Commander":

"Norman Holm, 36 years old, average-sized, Harvard man, ex-naval officer, fisherman, promoter par excellence, owner of the five tenders, whom we called the Supreme Commander."

The 1957 season had been abysmal, but in September, a monster run of chum hit the area. In addition to the boats above, Holm chartered Jack Crowley's Lassie and Harry Marvin's Yukon Maid.

At the end of the season, Wayne earned nearly a clear $10,000, at a penny a pound for the million pounds from Port Snettisham.

A year later, I met Pete Holm at my father's office in the Juneau Cold Storage building. Holm still managed his fleet, and in the spring he bought king salmon for Excursion Inlet at Taku. Since the cannery was not yet running, my father took the kings and processed them at Juneau. As I recall, it was a big run.

In later years, Pete moved to Kodiak where he became a successful marine insurance adjuster. His sons are still active in the fish business there.

• Elton Engstrom is a lifelong Alaskan, retired fish-buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau.

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