Why is it so hard to find bait herring right before the big Juneau Salmon Derby?

This bait freezer contains absolutely nothing. Like other Juneau stores, the directors of Harri Plumbing & Heating say they have been out of bait herring for at least several weeks. (Matt Miller / KTOO)

Juneau-area sport fishermen gear up for the weekend Northern golden salmon derby. But empty shelves in bait freezers all over town have plenty of them asking: where’s the bait herring?

Brian Wallace walks down the narrow, steep stairs to his basement and opens the door to his freezer.

“That’s it. It’s the only thing I have left,” he said, pulling out a single small tray of frozen bait herring.

Wallace says the herrings are smaller than he likes. He is also concerned that they will not stay hooked.

“To me, the bait, they look a bit mushy,” Wallace said. “The flesh on it just isn’t strong enough for me to be confident.”

Brian Wallace is saving his one and only tray of bait herring for day one of the Golden North Salmon Derby in Juneau on August 13th. (Photo by Matt Miller / KTOO)

An avid fisherman who goes out as often as he can, Wallace keeps this small bait tray for the first day of the derby because he can no longer find any in town.

We have registered with several Juneau stores that typically sell bait herring. They all said they were out. Some have been out of stock for months.

“Oh no! It’s sad to hear that!” Said Rachel Stewart, co-owner of Jerry’s Bait in Port Ludlow, Wash., “It’s the company that produced and distributed Wallace’s bait.

“We were only able to fulfill orders from our customers,” said Stewart.

In a normal year, the volume of herring that Stewart sends to Juneau is sufficient. But this year, something went wrong in the herring bait supply chain.

“So everyone who calls us and normally gets their bait from Canada, we can’t get them bait this year because there hasn’t been enough,” she said.

And this is where it gets complicated. Because it turns out that in Canada, it’s not that they haven’t caught enough herring. They weren’t the right size.

Grant McNeil of Walcan, a wholesaler based in Quadra Island, BC, says they all came in too big. These large herring are used by commercial fishermen. Sport anglers like a five to six inch fish. But McNeil says there just weren’t many of these fish this year.

“I was down about 90% this year in what I was able to put on tray bait, which is huge! McNeil said. “Like 90% less on a specific product is a huge anomaly.”

Jim Kearley, owner of Victoria-based Growler Cove Bait Company, says there’s another problem. He remembers a dozen businesses in the region that fished for bait herring 25 years ago. Now he says there are only two.

“Over the past 10 years it has been very difficult for them to get the right size,” Kearley said.

So, without the herring bait in town, what can sport fishermen do to land that big king or winning money?

Derby officials and biologists from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game suggest a flasher and a hoochie, or a spoon or a plug. Maybe add a little herring scent. Or maybe you still have an old thug packet stuck in the freezer.

Wallace says he could actually use his last herring platter to catch something else, like a halibut.

“Then I use halibut guts for more bait,” Wallace said. “Works great! Just cut the stomach in half, stick it on, and it’s a nice, tasty treat.


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