Story last updated at 11/14/2012 - 1:51 pm
It has been a few years since my husband Frank and I anchored on the "Twinkle" in Sarkar Cove, which indents the eastern side of El Capitan Passage, a protected waterway on the western coast of Prince of Wales Island. When we were there we saw a number of subsistence fishermen with nets fishing at the mouth of Sarkar Creek, sometimes called the Sarkar River. Knowing what has happened at sites such as this makes it more meaningful as we travel.
The name was officially recorded in 1904 by E.F. Dickins, U.S. Navy, in command of a U.S. Coast Survey ship. His crew found the names "Sarkar" and "Deweyville" printed on signboards at a saltery. Salmon return via Sarkar Creek to Sarkar Lake, sometimes called Salt Water Lagoon, since before recorded time.
According to the USFS, after interviews with local residents in Klawock, a Tlingit clan called the Kakoshittan, meaning the "Human Foot People", owned this area. They were considered wealthy because they owned the rights to all the salmon in Sarkar Creek and Lake, Another online report said the Tlingits and the Haidas had intermarried and both had ancestral rights to the fish. The USFS also reports an archeological site, dated to around 2,000 years ago, at the mouth of cove.
The water shed, with three small streams, is glacially sculpted by mountains. The small lake is about a mile long during slack water - about 2.5 hours after high tide. An early Coast Pilot suggests "a launch drawing four feet may pass through the entrance into the lagoon." At low water the entrance turns into a series of rapids.
Coho, pink, chum, and sockeye salmon return to the creek and lake and its tributaries. For 23 of the early years, with the exception of 1905, only reds and cohos were taken for canning. During that period, fishing was near the mouth of the stream or in the stream. At one time, a trap was driven across the creek and probably was maintained for several seasons, undoubtedly closing the stream to the ascent of salmon. There was no marked depletion until 1913 when the catch dropped to 110 red and 1 king salmon. In 1923, the run was a total failure.
The first major fishery regulation occurred in 1918 and prohibited fishing with nets within 200 yards of mouths of streams. In 1924, a closed season in September and October was imposed on the creek. The next year Sarkar Cove was permanently closed to commercial fishing. Before this closure, a saltery and a cannery operated in Sarkar Cove and next week these will be featured in my column.
Despite regulations, by the 1950s, the salmon runs were seriously diminished throughout Southeast Alaska. Bureau of Fisheries records for 1950 showed 4,074 sockeyes probably reached the lake. In 1953, there were 5,000. I didn't find coho returns.
Sarkar was a favorite place for creek robbing. A few commercial fishermen were caught by authorities, but many were not, especially if they fished at night. This also contributed to the run's decline. The Bureau of Fisheries began to station men at the most productive streams to prevent illegal fishing. Sarkar Cove was patrolled in the 1950s by men such as Ralph H. Bartlett (1950), Claude W. Hanson (1952), Chester F. Derck and Martin Carlson (1953). The latter also covered Calder Bay and Portage Bay after the season's Sarkar run was over. Derck and Carlson had a skiff with an outboard motor and a camp in the woods. In 1954 and 1959 Henry Church was the stream guard, but he used the comfort of his boat, the "Hank," to live on as he patrolled. In 1959 more than 17,000 salmon were estimated to have returned to spawn.
To determine the runs more accurately, Alaska Department of Fish and Game operated a fish weir on the creek in early 1980s. Personnel counted 8,151 sockeyes in 1982 and 8,000 the next year.
Today the cove remains closed to commercial fishing. However, subsistence fishing happens every year in saltwater near Sarkar Creek. Ronda Ren, at ADF&G in Craig, told me that people can get a subsistence permit at the Juneau office each year, and usually fishing begins in the first part of July.
In the USFS report, produced around 2000, interviewees said the sockeye run usually begins after July 4. Many Craig and Klawock people tend to stay at the mouth of the Klawock River instead of running so far from home. Subsistence fishermen from other places like Thorne Bay, Coffman Cove, and Naukati come to Sarkar Cove. Ren said the approved gear for subsistence fishing is beach seines - not purse seines - and dip nets.
Sports fisherman can stand in the creek using rod and reel but can not use bait, only artificial lures. Six of each salmon species and two cutthroat or rainbow trout from the lake is the limit.
There are different subsistence regulations on the Tongass forest land and waters. Jeffery Reeves at the USFS, Craig, wrote me, "The restriction bans the use of any net (gillnet, seine net, dipnet, sport landing net, etc.) by anyone above the highway bridge."
Last time the "Twinkle" was in Sarkar Cove there were a number of houses built along the south shore of Sarkar Cove - closest to the mouth of the cove is El Capitan Lodge. Personnel take fishermen most often into Sea Otter Sound to fish.
Pat Roppel is the author of numerous books about mining, fishing, and man's use of the land. She lives in Wrangell. She may be reached at email@example.com.