A food and bait herring fishery opens on April 20 in Upper Cook Inlet, and while it’s small – just 150 tons – it will pay out far higher than any other.

“They get $1 to $1.50 a pound or $2-$3,000 for a short ton. Those herring products are going primarily into the halibut commercial bait fishery or the sport bait fishery.”

 Pat Shields is the regional manager for the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game in Soldotna.

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

“I don’t know why they can command a price of $1-$1.50 a pound, but they have no problem selling it.”

Shields says Cook Inlet’s food and bait fishery serves a small, local market by 10 to 20 fishermen.

“The herring is captured in gillnets mostly by setnet salmon fishermen who are trying to get some money to start the season.”

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

Meanwhile, most fishermen buy pricy herring for bait from the east coast or Canada.  The Upper Cook Inlet herring fishery runs through the end of May.


A smelt fishery – also called hooligan and candlefish –  will open in the region on May 1 and run through the end of June. Up to 20 fishermen will compete for a 200 ton quota using dip nets on the Susitna River.

“They put them in their drift boats bring them back to the Kenai River where they are offloaded and frozen and boxed and shipped to the lower 48. Most of the product goes into one of three markets: the human food, sturgeon bait fishery on the Columbia River or the marine mammal food market.”

Shields says a 2016 study estimated that 53,000 tons of smelt went up the Susitna that one year!

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

 “And then the market on those fish can vary widely. I’ve heard anywhere from $.50 a pound to a couple dollars a pound. It’s  a very unique fishery. A dip net smelt fishery meeting food needs in the Pacific Northwest of the Lower 48. It’s kind of interesting.”

 Both the bait herring and smelt fisheries can be tough, Shields says, and they are open to all comers who get a miscellaneous permit.

 “While they require a permit from the limited entry commission, it is not a limited entry permit. Anyone can get a permit to participate in the herring or the smelt fishery in Cook Inlet.”

 Here’s more  info on the bait herring and smelt fisheries —