HAWK INLET - Before salmon return to their natal streams north and south of Juneau, chances are that they will first slip through Icy Strait and then bump in confusion against the western shoreline of Admiralty Island at Hawk Inlet.
"This is a very fishy shore,'' proclaimed Scott McCallister, skipper of the 58-foot purse seiner Owyhee, on Monday as he navigated his boat near the inlet's prominent rock outcrops.
Testing by the Alaska Department of Game and Fish aboard the Owyhee showed positive results, which virtually guarantees Hawk Inlet will be opened to purse seiners in mid-July. "It looks good,'' said Kevin Monagle, Juneau Area Management Biologist.
That's not always the case. Hawk Inlet is a controversial shore, due to the rich mixture of salmon found there. Since 1989, the department has conducted a pink salmon test fishery for four days in mid-summer before deciding to open it to purse seiners.
Without careful management, a decades-old controversy at Hawk Inlet that has caused conflict between different fisheries could flare again. A "positive" result is one that shows high abundance of pink salmon, Monagle said.
In a good year, a purse seiner like McCallister can pull up enormous numbers of pink and chum salmon - the bread and butter of his large-volume-gear outfit - but may also pull up large catches of sockeye salmon. The latter are highly anticipated downstream by gillnetters.
"It's like an interception fishery,'' said Dave Harris, a Fish and Game biologist in Juneau who is a former commercial fisherman.
Fish and Game biologists only open Hawk Inlet to purse seining if their annual test fishing shows strong numbers of pink salmon.
There are other factors that enter their calculations, but most important, "there has to be a real abundance of pinks," Harris said. Monagle and Harris spent all day Monday on the 58-foot Owyhee with McCallister's crew, counting netted fish, collecting samples of sockeye scales and slitting a small percentage of the fish to determine their gender.
The data they collect will be used to estimate species abundance, whether the fish are native or hatchery-bred and, in some cases, where sockeyes spawned. As part of a state contract, McCallister will receive 90 percent of the catch value and the Fish and Game department will receive the rest, using the money to fund its salmon management program.
On Monday, the Owyhee crew pulled in 245 sockeye and a few kings and coho - in addition to 3,118 pinks and 1,997 chum salmon. "We're doing real good,'' McCallister said, estimating the day's catch at $7,000-$8,000-worth of fish.
Though he may net a good number of sockeye and chum - which fetch higher prices than pink salmon - McCallister feels strongly that pinks are under-rated. He appreciates their flavor - milder and less-oily tasting. "Deep-fried pink salmon nuggets, tempura battered - there's nothing like it,'' he said.
"Most of these people (in Alaska) think they're maggots. They take them off their lines and throw them away ... I can't convince the rest of the world,'' McCallister said.
Harris had to agree that in some respects, pinks get a bad rap. "They're nice to catch on a rod. They probably fight better than any of the other salmon, pound for pound."
The downside? "They may be only two to three pounds," Harris said, chuckling.