KENAI - Soldotna fisherman Charles Schmelzenbach couldn't stay away. He embarked Thursday as the captain of a commercial sockeye salmon driftnetting boat for the first time in 10 years.
Schmelzenbach rejoined a fishing industry that many feel has fallen upon hard economic times, in the shadow of lower prices per pound, smaller fish returns and less of a share of the harvest from earlier years.
But money wasn't what motivated his comeback.
"I missed it," Schmelzenbach said. "I got back into it because I love it, and I love being on the water. This is a lifestyle."
Schmelzenbach fished for salmon in Prince William Sound for 20 years before selling his boat and his limited entry permit to open Loon Lake Resort in Soldotna with his wife, Cathie. But he said fishing was a family operation he couldn't stay away from for long.
"I have my kids fishing," he said. "And my grandkids. There's year-round work involved. and it teaches them responsibility. There's a lot of downtime in the winter, but there's still something for them to do. Hanging nets. Repairing boats."
Schmelzenbach said his two sons resisted fishing with him when they were younger.
"When my sons were kids, they'd complain that they were missing football practice and soccer," he said.
Now, one son fishes out of Cordova and the other in Cook Inlet. And he said his daughter returned from Hawaii to fish with him, and his grandsons go out with his sons.
The fishing industry isn't what it used to be, however.
According to the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission, last year Cook Inlet fishermen averaged a gross pay of $13,053. That's a little more than 10 percent of the $114,417 that the same number of fishermen took home, on average, just 10 years before. It leads some to question why anyone would get into commercial fishing.
"If there's a new fisherman getting into the business, he ain't too smart," said Wayne Kvasnikoff, the Nikiski plant manager for fish processor Ocean Beauty Seafoods.
"I would at least tell him good luck."
Seattle permit broker Matt Schneider, of Graves and Schneider Inc., said only 20 commercial salmon limited entry permits have traded hands this year. He mentioned one client who wanted to sell an entire turnkey package permit, boat and gear.
"He said, 'What am I going to get for it, chewing gum?"' Schneider recalled. "When they're not getting any fishing time and not getting any prices, who wants to go out."
Fishers like Schmelzenbach, however, see the time as right to jump into the fishing fray.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game commercial fisheries biologist Jeff Fox said there's less risk now than there used to be.
"In 1991 to 1992, the average drift permit was worth about $200,000 to $225,000. Now they're about $17,000. The risk of losing a lot is fairly minimal, but you're not going to make as much money," he said.
Schmelzenbach said time was on his side when he vacated the industry in 1992. He wouldn't reveal how much he sold his permit for, but he hinted that he didn't walk away from the deal in bad shape.
"I got out right at the peak," he said. "I think the gloomy and doomy side of fishing are the guys who bought their permits high, and now can't even make their interest payments on the loans for those permits."
Schmelzenbach said he's had his share of hard times as a fisherman. He moved to Alaska in the early 1970s to become a teacher and initially fished for Cook Inlet herring before embarking on a salmon fishing career in Prince William Sound.
"There was a time when a cannery in Canada didn't pay us and went out of business. And there have been a few cycles where there were low runs," he said.
So now, with about $50,000 invested in his return to the Cook Inlet fishing scene, Schmelzenbach said he feels little pressure.
"I'm really positive about the fishery. I think it's gonna get better. And if it doesn't, I had a good time."
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