Cordova Chronicles: The silvers are back

The silver salmon sport fishing season is here. It’s hard to miss all the vehicles lined up on recently expanded roadside parking at Ibeck Creek, as well as the reduced speed limits in the 7 Mile area. Who would have thought porta-potties and metal cleaning stations would adorn the banks of the once quiet river? Certainly not Joe Ibeck, a local miner who explored its upper reaches in the early 1900s.

Anglers crowd both banks of the river, using everything from flies, spinners and globs of salmon eggs to entice the feisty cohos, but it’s not yet the combat fishing of Kenai River fame, where tangled lines and casting from the second row over the heads of bank-side fishermen is common practice.

Those fortunate to have a river boat stop at the Eyak Landing and head downstream for a less crowded but sometimes equally busy fishery. Water depth and clarity are always an issue. If it has been raining hard, muddy runoff makes the river murky and difficult to fish; if there’s a sunny spell, the Eyak becomes shallow, making jet outboard units almost imperative for navigation, plus concentrating the fish is fewer areas.

Which creates it’s own spectrum of problems. The USFS, responding to numerous complaints about conflicts on the river, has posted a sign at the landing stating “PLEASE BE COURTEOUS TO OTHER ANGLERS.”

It lists these guidelines:

USFS sign at Eyak Landing posts sign encouraging fishing courtesy on Eyak River. Photo by Dick Shellhorn / For The Cordova Times
USFS sign at Eyak Landing posts sign encouraging fishing courtesy on Eyak River. Photo by Dick Shellhorn / For The Cordova Times

1. Please make room for other anglers to catch their fish.

2. Jet boats traveling the river cannot easily slow down in shallow water.  Wading anglers, please leave room for boats to pass in the deepest water.  For your safety, do not wade into the main channel.

3. If fishing from a boat, please anchor to the side of the main channel, leaving room for boats to pass.

4. If an angler has a fish on their line, please stop your boat in deep water and wait for the fish to be landed.

Ah, how I lament the Days of My Youth, when the unwritten Rules of Eyak Fishing were: a. no anchoring, and b. if you could see a boat, you waited until it drifted out of view,  or moved somewhere else. Obviously there is simply not enough room for those to work any more.

Ibeck himself could offer some advice about waterway navigation. According to a story in an early Cordova Times, he and mining partner Jack Harris were crack oarsmen.   While prospecting on Montague, they ran short of grub, and rowed to Cordova in a double-ender to resupply.  They left at 3 am and arrived at 7 pm, and planned to make the 65 mile trip back “in a day or two.

Yet however crowded the fishery may be, nary an angler has to compete with a gill net stretched across the river.  Believe it or not, at one time, such was the case. In the late 1800’s, much of the early salmon pack came from stake nets in Eyak Lake.  Gradually the fishery expanded down Eyak River and  to the edges of the Delta.  By 1900, fishing in the Eyak was so intense that boats hauling fish up the river had difficulty getting past nets strung across it and sometimes just ran right over them.

Some of the fish were processed right on the banks of the Eyak.  In 1916, Clark-Graham Co. built a cannery on the river just a few miles below the landing.  The plant was sold to the Eyak River Packing Co. in 1919 and sold again to Pioneer Sea Foods Co. in 1924.  It was destroyed by fire in November 1935.

An article in the 30  November 1935 Cordova Times described the loss.  The large facility was owned by James E. Parks of Seattle at the time.  About 100 small boats and power skiffs, many of them owned by individuals, were destroyed.  The main cannery building that went up in flames was 200 feet long and two stories high.  It was divided into boat, gear and coal storage, office, commissary, cannery, canned fish storage, general utility storage, and a can loft upstairs.  The fire started from an exhaust backfire when a watchman tried to start a gasoline engine.  A watchman at  the Crystal Falls cannery, about a mile to the west, noticed it about 3:55 in the afternoon.  Calm winds prevented the fire from spreading to several nearby buildings, as well as the oil house and bunkhouse.  The cannery was never rebuilt.

The numerous small homes and cabins along the river bank which housed cannery workers and staff were abandoned.  Some were “adopted” by fishermen and duck hunters; with time, they have all vanished.

Today, sports fishermen who travel down river may notice a row of decaying pilings on the edge of the west bank, as well as rusting metal retorts amidst the alders, reminders of the past.  Then, as now, the Eyak and its tributaries provide an important part of both our commercial and sports fisheries.

And hopefully, as the USFS put’s it, provides a chance to practice the courtesy which will enhance everyone’s fishing experience on Cordova’s river of history.

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Dick Shellhorn, author, reporter, ref and grandpa, can be reached at shorn@gci.net. Shellhorn was born and raised in Cordova, Alaska, and has lived there his entire life. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 40 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town. Alaska Press Club awarded Shellhorn first place for Best Humor column in 2016.