Herring and smelt at Upper Cook Inlet are fisheries that pay out nicely for the few who participate, and both are open to all.

Ten to 20 fishermen usually take part in the bait herring fishery that runs from April 20 to the end of May. A combined take of 150 tons can be taken from four areas by set or drift gillnets, although nearly all comes from the upper east side district.

“It’s a pretty small quota but we’re not reaching the quota of up to 40 tons on the east side. We’re catching about 25 to 30 tons and all of that product goes into the bait market for halibut fishermen, either commercial or sport.”

Pat Shields is commercial fisheries management coordinator for Lower and Upper Cook Inlet at the Fish and Game office in Soldotna.

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The catch might be small, but it fetches big bucks as bait.

“Currently the fishermen are selling that product for $2,000 to $3,000 a ton, or $1.00 to $1.50 a pound.”

In contrast, the average price for herring caught for their roe at places like Sitka, Kodiak or Togiak averages 12 cents a pound, or a few hundred dollars a ton.

The herring is frozen and sold throughout the year and Shields says demand far exceeds the supply.  He speculates the price is so high because there are so few bait herring fisheries in the state.

The smelt fishery has a 200 ton limit and is open from May 1 through June. Fewer than 20 fishermen participate in what Shields calls one of the most interesting and challenging fisheries in the state.

 “It’s done with dip net at the mouth of the Susitna River.   People usually take a drift boat across the mudflats of the Susitna River. That’s eight or nine miles of mud that you have to navigate with winds coming and meeting in that area from three different areas – Knik Arm, Turnagain Arm and Cook Inlet. Some people refer to it as a cesspool because the waters are just swirling and it’s shallow.”

The boats head back to the Kenai River to offload their catches where it’s frozen, boxed up and shipped out.

“Then it gets distributed along the west coast for human consumption, where Columbia River smelt fisheries are very restricted or closed.  Also go into the bait market for the sturgeon fishery and marine aquarium market.”

Fishermen can get a nice price, twice – 25 to 75 cents a pound for their catch, and up to $2.00 a pound   after it goes to market.

Estimates peg the annual smelt run to the Susitna River at 53,000 tons but Shields says the catch remains very conservative.

“And the reason for the small limit is that this is a beluga critical habitat area and this is a forage fish that is considered very important to that species.”

Both the smelt and herring fisheries are open to anyone interested but require special permits from the limited entry commission. Shields encourages anyone interested to give the Soldotna office a call.

“Anytime you have an interest in what we call these smaller fun interesting fisheries, please give us a call and  we’ll do all we can to help you get involved in them.”