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Captain’s Log: Silverbrites

Captain Eric Jordan chases Keta salmon

    Silverbrite salmon is the trade name for the species Oncorhynchus keta. Sitka Seafood Market uses the term keta for this salmon species.

    Captain’s Log is a blog series featuring stories written by our fishermen. You can get in touch with Eric Jordan and his adventures on the F/V I Gotta on our member-exclusive Facebook group, Sitka Salmonsharsians.

    Sitka, AK. 1988.

    As the August fog began to lift from the mill-stained waters of the Eastern Channel, a large keta salmon burst through the mist, springing up and splashing away from the slow drift of our 38-ft F/V I Gotta. The fish confirmed that the run of keta salmon predicted to return to the Sitka area was here. Keta, also known as chum, silverbrite, or dog salmon in Alaska, are one of the five species of salmon that frequent the Northeast Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea.

    My problem was that as the skipper of a troller, I was only licensed to harvest salmon with hook and line, and no troller had ever enticed commercially-profitable numbers of keta salmon to bite this close to their spawning destination. I had spent hundreds of exasperating hours with countless combinations of lures failing to get keta to bite. I was on my way to a coho salmon bite about two miles offshore of Cape Edgecumbe, about 12 miles away. My fishing partner reported a catch worth over $1,000 a day in that area. Could I afford to invest another fishing day on a likely futile effort to get the keta salmon to bite? As I reluctantly concluded that I could not, I sped up the engine and turned the bow toward the cape. I noticed 25 bare hooks with freshly-painted orange swivels drying above the galley stove. With the image of these hooks lingering, two more salmon rose out of the water and skipped away, their shiny silver scales shimmering in the sunshine.

    It is easy to see why these keta earned the name silverbrite. Photo by Eric Jordan.

    “Let’s throw in the gear,” I shouted to my crew as I slowed the engines and turned the boat back up the bay. My crew—my wife, Sarah, and sons Kris (12) and Karl (10)—struggled into their deck clothes as I lowered the poles and jumped into the troll pit with the bare hooks. Sarah, susceptible to seasickness, exclaimed, “Wow! Calm waters, no wind, no ocean swells, no competition. Oh yeah, let’s load the boat right here.” I overheard Karl remark to Kris, “Maybe we will spend another night in town and can make that pickup basketball game the guys were talking about last night.”

    “Well, at least my crew is enthusiastic about this fiasco,” I thought to myself as I replaced the hootchies and spoons on the starboard light line with flashers and bare hooks.

    Hootchies and spoons are commonly used for coho salmon. The hootchies are often attached to a flasher, the green and blue plastic pieces in the bottom of the gear setter.

    Salmon trollers carry a wide variety of lures. Photo by Eric Jordan.

    “I’m going to try the pink bugs we got them to bite on last year,” Kris said as he got to work setting the port side. The pink bugs were small hoochies that had worked for keta and pink salmon offshore. The bare hooks with orange swivels were based on a recommendation from Pat Wood, my fishing partner who was having more and more success using bare hooks for keta and pink salmon offshore.

    “Here are the short leaders we tied up last week,” Karl stated, as he helped us convert and stow gear.

    "Silver bay, silverbrites, silver dollars,” sang Sarah, as she started setting up the deck for major production. In the winter, Sarah works as a music teacher and occasionally will sing a bit, but not when we are fishing. That was, until now. She continued singing and doing a “salmon” dance as she arranged the fish-cleaning troughs, rinsed the deck, and sharpened the cleaning knives.

    “It would be so wonderful for my family if these fish would bite,” I thought to myself as I finished setting my starboard heavy line.

    “Look at your light line work,” commented Karl. I quickly glanced at the sounder, “70 fathoms of water under us, it must be a darn king,” I said pessimistically, hardly believing the keta would bite.

    Ten years earlier, I had been hand trolling in the Excursion Inlet in the midst of a school of five to ten thousand keta and had a line start to work. It turned out to be just two cohos and a king salmon. I had suffered through another disappointment.

    “I don't think it is a king,” said Sarah, “I think it is full of keta salmon.”

    “Check it out, Dad,” said Kris.

    Karl and Kris Jordan, like many children of commercial fishermen, became deckhands at an early age. Photo by Eric Jordan.

    I engaged the hydraulic power gurdy to pull the wire line in with anticipation. As the tension of the line was transferred from the pole to the block and gurdy there was a horrible whine from the hydraulic lines.

    “Speed up the engine, the gurdy is lugging down,” I shouted to Kris. One thing we had learned from our limited success in catching keta offshore was that the slower you trolled the gear, the better they bit. I set the engine speed as slow as it would go, and with a load on the line, the hydraulics were protesting.

    Sarah, who had been watching this line work as we set the other lines, sang out, “It’s full of fish!”

    “This is the line with all the bare hooks,” I said to Karl. “Wouldn’t it be something if that’s what they want?”

    “Look at the size of that keta!" cried out Karl as the first leader came up. “It must be ten pounds.” I quickly conked the beautiful keta salmon on the head, slid the gaff into its gills, and lifted it on board.

    “It bit on that bare hook,” I commented gleefully, as I worked my way through the line.

    “It looks like there is one on every hook. I’m going to start working my side,” said Kris.

    “I wonder if they will hit the bugs as well, son.”

    “Twenty-two fish for twenty-two hooks, dad,” stated Karl, who was busy cutting gills and moving fish from the landing bin to the bleeding bin.

    “I love cleaning fish on a steady deck,” quipped Sarah, who already had the first fish in the cleaning trough and was removing the valuable roe from the viscera.

    “Oh my gosh, this line is loading up as I am putting it out! The wire is jerking around so much I can hardly get the snaps on it,” I shouted. The salmon who wouldn’t bite were hitting our bare hooks with a frenzy I had seldom seen in a lifetime of salmon trolling.

    “I’m not getting them on every hook, said Kris, it looks like about ten or eleven on this line.” Very interesting,” I mumbled. Ordinarily, that many nice salmon on one line would be cause for jubilation.

    We quickly established a routine with Kris and I pulling the lines, Sarah cleaning and icing, and Karl bleeding, cleaning, and moving fish and ice. Since we were the only boat in the area it was relatively easy to keep my eyes on the jumpers and work the schools of salmon. The fish were almost all bright, at the peak of their quality. We were experiencing every salmon troller’s dream. Time flew.

    At 3 p.m. I had my scheduled radio contact with my fishing partners. All by myself, flat calm water, and more fish than we could handle. I was hoping my partners were too busy to answer the call. Pat on the F/V Moonlight came back. He was four hours away loading up on pinks. I gave him the coded report. It was tough because I knew I could get away with fishing these keta for days and other fisherman were not likely to notice. But if Pat showed up, with his reputation for production, sharp-eyed commercial trollers going in and out of town would immediately take notice. Even though I would have loved to catchthe fish myself, figuring out how to catch keta was a group effort. I wouldn’t have been able to catch them without the combined efforts of my partners.

    We caught 270 big-bite keta salmon that afternoon and went in to unload and set up the holds for bigger production. Trollers almost always dress their salmon traditionally. But, over the last couple of years, I had initiated round pink troll fisheries with my local processor Sitka Sound Seafoods. [Editor’s note: In commercial fishing, fish “in the round” are whole fish with minimal or no processing] When I delivered the catch, I asked the manager if we could also deliver round-bled, immediately-chilled keta, like we were doing with the pink salmon. He agreed, “Let's try it Eric, the round troll pink program is working well.”

    Pat and my other partners showed up the next day and decided to try the bare blue hooks he had been using to fish pink salmon. He started catching at an even higher rate than I was, so I quickly switched to the bare blue hooks.

    I immediately ordered all the bare blue hooks in town for myself and my partners. Pat caught an unprecedented—and remarkable—600 keta salmon that day. I caught 450 salmon, and we were ecstatic. Pat reminded me of a comment he’d made the year before when we had managed to catch 250 keta in one day: “Eric, they are plankton feeders.” I replied, “I know that, what are you thinking?” And Pat explained, “They eat all day, everyday. They don’t gorge themselves and go off the bite like kings and coho. We may catch hundreds in a day.”

    Our grill-ready salmon burgers are made with wild-caught keta.

    What a prophetic statement.

    Within a week over 70 trollers were catching keta in the Eastern Channel. Other trollers dropping in with more conventional gear did not share in our success, and they would try to see what type of lures we were using. On a trolling boat, separated by the distance necessary to keep the poles and gear from colliding, it is nearly impossible to see the bare blue hooks either in the mouth of the fish as they come aboard, or as they are thrown in the water when setting the gear.

    John Padilla, a local fisherman, was so frustrated that he pulled his gear, ran right up behind the F/V Moonlight, climbed out on the bow with high-powered binoculars, and spied the secret. I happened to be listening in on John’s “secret radio channel” when he called his partners and blurted out, “It’s bare, blue hooks. They are using bare hooks!” Apparently, John’s radio channel was not so secret because about five of the boats on the drag immediately pulled their gear and headed to the gear store 15 minutes away. Unfortunately for them, Pat and I had bought every blue hook in town the day before for our group.

    This was the first week that keta was fished in the Eastern Channel. Sarah and the boys loved fishing for keta in the bay that year. We spent almost every night at home and fished the calm waters near town. As more processors started buying troll-caught keta to recover the value of the roe, we no longer had to gut each fish. Pat and I rebuilt our boats the following winter and added slush ice tanks and brailer bags, minimizing the chore of icing and unloading each fish by hand.

    Sarah was right: “Silver bay, silverbrites, silver dollars!”

    of our Grill-Ready Salmon Burgers and celebrate this amazing fish all summer long.

    to support small-boat fishermen such as Eric Jordan.