Eells (yes, pronounced like the elongated fish) fishes with his three sons who have grown to love the Alaska boat life during their summer breaks.
After fishing in Alaska for more than four months and getting homesick, Jeff Eells recently returned to his home in Oregon City.
In an interview with this newspaper, Eells shared some of the joys and trials of being a Southeast Alaska fisherman for the past decade.
Eells (yes, pronounced like the elongated fish) fishes with his three sons who, he says, have grown to love the Alaska boat life during their summer breaks. They like it, in part, because Eells pays them their share of the fishing harvest. A magic combination of experience, luck and hard work over the course of a few months can pay off with incredible salaries.
Eells, 49, caught the bug to fish in Alaska when he was in high school. At the time, his brother had a tree service in Oregon City and heard that he could make more money by becoming a fisherman.
Living on the boat for several days at a time, sometimes you can catch 300 to 400 coho, or silver, salmon in a day, Eells said. His record for the larger chinook, or king, salmon is 189 in a day. He's made $12,000 in a day, but then the next day it's only $1,200.
The first time they tried, their fishing vessel broke down in Washington on the way to Alaska. But Eells never forgot the promise of Alaska fishing riches. He found his chance to go for fishy gold during the Great Recession.
Eells was running Wolverine Construction in Eagle Creek and saw how the housing bust of 2006-08 was going to decimate his business. Spending his nest egg on a fishing boat, he caught $68,000 worth of fish in his first year (2006), $78,000 in the second, $90,000 in the third. His fishing lines roped in $168,000 during his record year, but these numbers by no means represent profits.
"The expenses to operate a boat and hire a crew are very high," Eells said.
In addition to being OK with grueling work, successful Alaska fishermen are the ones who test their navigation and coordination skills. Eells says he has friends and relatives who also are out in the open water and they look for whales or groups of birds hunting fish to guide them on where to drop fishing lines.
"Fishing is tough," Eells said. "You find out where the fish are, and then you hunt them all summer."
Alaska's south coast is one of the last "derby-style" fisheries in the United States where fish are still so plentiful that the government has deemed it unnecessary to impose an individual quota. The only catch limit is the five-day fishing period, after which the boats have to return to land with their catch.
"If you're good, you can plug your boat with as many fish as you possibly can catch in that time," Eells said.
Then you head out for another three to five days to fill up your boat again.
Since the 2000s, Eells has captained the fishing vessel Yentna, named after one of Alaska's great rivers. Last summer he began fishing with the Hydra, a 45-foot salmon troller with shrimping capabilities. Both boats have caught many species, including rockfish, shark, ling cod and octopi that they sell.
Eells and many other Alaska fishermen have paid heavy personal losses, even if they end up making lots of money.
"It's very hard to have a relationship with someone and do what I do," he said.
However, Eells said he has no regrets because of how much he enjoys being out on the water, and because he's been able to find one of the world's few varieties of cold-water shrimp. Also called spot prawns, Alaska shrimp is available fresh at some local stores and has an unsurpassed flavor, he said.
Eells said that most of what is sold in stores that isn't from Alaska is farm-raised. Shrimp from Asia, he said, is possibly injected with a flavorless solution to make them weigh more so they can be sold as jumbo shrimp.
HOW TO ORDER
To order Alaskan shrimp or other in-season seafood, contact:
D. Jeff Eells 503-784-6273
2 pound box: $35
10 pound box: $165