Editor’s note: This is the second of two parts in reporter Molly Dischner’s journey with a Homer fishing family to Bristol Bay on the eve of sockeye season.
DILLINGHAM — About 8 a.m. on June 17, a sportfishing guide tied his skiff to the F/V Eagle Claw and hopped onboard to join our motley crew.
It was the final day of our five-day trip from Homer to Naknek via the Williamsport Road. Skipper Louie Flora, his daughter Sidney and brother Jonathan were headed to fish the east side of Bristol Bay. Soon-to-be west side setnetter Joey Kraszeski and I were just along for the ride.
The Kvichak is about 60 miles long, and runs from Iliamna Lake to Bristol Bay. The upper river is full of braids, and quite shallow.
Not the easiest waterway for a 32-foot drift gillnet boat to navigate.
But George Riddles, who owns a lodge near Igiugig, on the river, and takes clients fishing there daily in the summer, had spent the early part of the summer checking in on how the river had changed from the year prior.
When we reached the shallowest spots, with just a little more than a foot of clearance below the transducer, Riddles knew exactly where to point the boat to stay in the deepest water.
“See that white spot sticking out from all the green? Head for it,” Riddles told our skipper.
Behind us, two more boats tried to follow our exact movements.
We had left Pile Bay, at the eastern shore of Iliamna Lake, the day prior, rafted up with two other Homer-based fishing boats, the Independence and the Solstice.
It took a full day for the three boats to cruise the length of Iliamna Lake, leaving ample time for the captains to talk engines, and the crew (and passengers) to pass the time napping, staring at the mountains, searching for river otters (none spotted), and unsuccessfully recording audio for a radio story.
Our last night of the trip was spent anchored near Igiugig. The three boats disconnected and anchored separately; onboard the Eagle Claw we listened to the radio (and requested our favorite songs), and watched kids swim in the lake and boys fish from boats and the bank as the sun faded.
The lake serves as a large settling pond, and the upper river is crystal clear. As we traveled downstream, we watched tannins flow in at Kaskanak Creek, and then the river get wider, and muddier, the closer we got to Levelock, and Bristol Bay.
Back in the braids, Riddles pointed out trout and grayling and talked about the fishing season so far this year as he helped navigate the river.
His directions got us through the braids relatively uneventfully, although the boats ahead of us had to stop and replace a part after they finished, and there were only a few hiccups in the day.
After five days at sea (and waiting on land), the Kvichak tender line came into sight on the evening of June 17. Finally, the answer to the family-vacation-esque refrain of “Are we there yet” was “YES.” There was wide-spread excitement on the boat (we’re really in Bristol Bay!); but also some melancholy (we have to go back to work!).
As soon as we started spotting tenders and setnet sites, the radio chatter increased, and we learned that some drifters were headed to Egegik for an opener there. It was the only place with catches, although the fish-per-delivery reports from Fish and Game were still pretty low — well under 100 fish.
So rather than follow those boats out, Louie pointed the Eagle Claw up toward the Naknek River to find a tender to re-fill on water, and anchor up in Naknek to stretch our legs and track down pizza before heading upstream to King Salmon to get the boat ready.
The F/V Eagle Claw was back in Bristol Bay.