AK: Fishing for herring from the sky

The herring fishery is in a race against time, trying to catch the quota before the herring spawn. Last year, the spawn began before the quota was met. The Alaska Department of Fish & Game instructed the fleet to stand down. (Photo by Emily Kwong/KCAW)

The Sitka Sound sac roe herring fishery is in full swing. In less than a week, the fleet has caught over half of its quota. And while most crew members work on the water, spotter pilots fish for herring from the sky.

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I’m going to take you inside the herring fishery today. But rather than get onto a boat, we’re going to climb into the clouds.

“Sitka Radio, Piper 68270,” Frank Foode said.

Foode calmly rests his hands on the controls. Mine are wrapped white knuckle onto my seat. His plane is a 1970s-era Piper Super Cub, which he rebuilt ten years ago. He motions towards my life jacket and overhead to a waterproof case, where inside is a phone.

Turn it on up here and make a phone call in case we crash and I’m dead, or incapacitated.

Foode’s like a flight attendant, but with less flourish and blue jeans. Through his headset, he tracks a -stream of chatter – from air traffic control to herring captains to his observer. That’s me. My job is to monitor for other planes, so we don’t crash while he concentrates on catching fish. I’ve plugged my recorder into his audio outboard and totally blank on all my questions. The only thing I manage to say is, “Should I put my phone on airplane mode?”

Franke Foode has been a herring pilot since 1978. The son of a pilot, he got his start in Cordova and has worked for fisheries across the western seaboard. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

“No,” Foode laughed. “I don’t think that phone could make this thing crash.”

Then there’s silence. Like that hiss of anticipation when a roller coaster is about to take off. Foode concentrates, as the Piper collects speed down the runway.

And then, the ground falls away. We’re up and climbing towards the sun, the water glassy down below.

“And we’re out over the water,” Foode said to air traffic.

To me, it’s all varying shades of turquoise. But to Frank, it’s the makings of the fishery.

“There’s fish right there,” Foode said.

“Is that the herring?” I asked.

“Yeah, can you see the flash in the water down below? Little sparkles,” Foode remarked.

And sure enough, there are the herring – a thin ribbon of black along the beach. Schools gather by the thousands every March to spawn. Sea lions, eagles, and other predators shortly follow. Foode spots a humpback down, trailing something brown.

The Sitka Sac roe herring fishery is over halfway towards meeting its annual quota. The second opening on Wednesday brought in 5,000 tons of fish. Here’s a bird’s eye view of the action. (Heather Bauscher/KCAW photo)

“He just pooped,” Foode said. “He’s eating a lot!”

And a few minutes later, we spot four or five humpback whales bubble feeding.

“That’s awesome,” Foode exclaimed.

I should add, there’s no fishery taking place today. But if there were, it would be drama of horsepower and white water – with planes clustering overhead and seiners competing down below, everyone chasing the same mass of fish. What you’re hearing is some video footage from Wednesday’s fishery. As a spotter pilot, Foode would help his two boats set their net. He’s like a conductor – miles from the orchestra – and can easily get lost in the moment.

“We do this all day,” Foode said. “I’ve got like a million miles of this.”

Foode has spent forty years spotting, mostly for herring fisheries in Bristol Bay, Cordova, and Sitka, but he’s also chased brine shrimp in Utah and sardines in Washington. He tried California, but hates night flying. He prefers fisheries like Sitka’s that are safer, less stressful. Back on the ground, he tells me he’s flown in places where there’s 100 planes in the air at a time.

“You can hear the the other airplane over your headset,” Foode said. “It will key your mic. It’s probably 5-10 feet away and it definitely gets your heart flying.”

Foode’s plane is a Piper Super Cub from 1974. He bought it in 1986 and rebuilt it 10 years. He recently upgraded to an 180 horse power engine. “It’s a nice toy,” he chuckled. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

But Foode says that close calls are part and parcel to the job. He’ll be in the plane for 12, sometimes 18 hours, at a time. When the winds get squirrelly or his observer alerts him to a plane overhead, he must respond quickly. One time, that he almost didn’t notice his plane flipping upside down.

I was looking through the skylight trying to finish the set and had to bail out. I probably could have pulled it off, but I finally got smart and just pulled out and let them finish the set themselves.

There are moments like this, of adrenaline and adventure. But also hours of waiting in cramped quarters. After all these years, Foode feels himself wanting to wind down. The market is soft. The fish are small. The average pilot will gross $15,000 a fishery, but that’s nowhere near the payout of decades..

I’ve had enough flying around catching fish. Just don’t want to fly too much. 200 hours a year and 3-4 months of dealing with the airplane is nice.

Foode may be a pilot, but he’s a fisherman at heart. While airborne, he wanted to show me every every herring school, every spawn sight, every whale. His dad was a pilot too.

I could catch more fish than him normally because he was looking at his airplane, playing with the knobs, making sure the engine’s running right. I just looked outside to find the fish.

To me, this proves that not all fishermen wear waders. Some have wings.