Herring Harvest in Sitka Sound, Q&A with Vernon Hill

Written for and originally published in Capital City Weekly and the Juneau Empire

Vernon Hill sits in the wooden wheelhouse of the Shirley N. He and his crew spent nine days in Sitka Sound in April collecting herring eggs on branches to bring back to the community of Hoonah. Sitka Sound is the final remaining stronghold of herring in the region.

In early April, on the day after Easter, fishermen Vernon Hill, Bernard Wolf and George Lindoff returned to Hoonah from Sitka Sound toting a shipload of “Easter eggs.” The crew of the Shirley N spent nine days dropping hemlock branches into the shoreline, waiting for herring to spawn and collecting herring eggs on branches. 

Hill, captain of the Shirley N, has been gathering herring eggs in Sitka Sound since the 1970s. Here are some excerpts from a recent conversation I had with him in the wooden wheelhouse of his ship.

Q: What does herring season look like?

A: It is just like spring coming alive. When we leave from Hoonah running south, you know, everything is cold up here. A couple years we have even had snow on deck. The closer you get to Sitka the more life you see — sea lions, whales and birds. It is like everything is just coming alive again after winter.

Q: Hoonah to Sitka is a long trip, the labor is hard and herring spawning season is sometimes unpredictable. It can require weeks of waiting. So, what is the big deal with herring eggs?

A: Culture. Herring eggs let you know that winter is over. That is the first thing you really get as far as subsistence foods. It makes you realize that the hard part of winter is gone.

Q: What is the community of Hoonah like?

A: It is between old ways and the modern days with the corporations coming in. In the last 20 years it has really been going through a lot of changes. Not to mention the tourism. But people are still hanging on to their subsistence values and needs. They just love getting out on the water and gathering.

Sitka Sound is an remarkable place to spend time on a boat during herring season. The sound is alive with life, all sharing the space to feed on the massive schools of spawning herring. Aboard a small aluminum skiff we watched a group of six humpbacks bubble net feed. 

The commercial sac-roe fishery purse-seines whole schools of herring for their eggs (roe). 

Wade Martin shows how to pop whole sacs of eggs (herring skanes) from a herring he pulled from the water.

Q: Who is waiting to greet you when you return to Hoonah with herring eggs?

A: There were probably about 100 people down there waiting when we returned. John Hillman (of the Hoonah Indian Association) organizes it and gets a tarp out on the float so everything is ready when we get back. We got to Hoonah the day after Easter in the morning about 9 a.m. First they brought the truck down and we sent two 500-pound totes down to the old timers so they don’t have to fight the float crowd down there. Then we started hauling 500-pound tubs down onto the tarp and people started grabbing them. It took about two and a half hours and the eggs were all gone.

Q: How does the community say thanks?

A: It’s a big thing, people love it... We get all sorts of loaves of Easter bread. 

The community also donates when they come down on the float… everyone throws into a hat while they are down there grabbing eggs and the Hoonah Indian Association gave us funds to help cover the fuel cost. We got $200 yesterday in the mail from SEARHC Southeast to help cover expenses.

Q: So, what is the best way to eat herring eggs?

Sitka Tribe distributes herring eggs to the community of Sitka. People from across the Southeast travel to Sitka to pick up cases of herring eggs to supply their families and communities with.

A: I just roll them in flour and salt and pepper and garlic and fry them up. I love them like that, they taste like little baby shrimp. The other way people have them is to dip the branches in the boiling water. If they turn white they are too well done. You just want to dip them in the water. Then dip them in melted butter and soy sauce. Some people also dip them in seal grease. 

Q: What drives you to make this trip each year?

A: Herring eggs are important to this community. Sometimes there will be so many people down waiting on the float that the float would be sinking downtown. Also, with the price of food you need to supplement your food supply with the subsistence. But I think it is more important, the cultural values that you promote and the feelings that it generates — it lasts the whole year. It keeps a sense of togetherness, you know, in the community and I think that is really important.

Q: So, I’ll see you and your crew on the Shirley N in Sitka Sound next year?

A: I love eating those herring eggs fresh from the water. That is my favorite reason for being down there! The thought of a plate or two of those really gets me going to prepare the ship. If we can make everything come together, I’ll certainly be back next year.

Wade Martin anchors hemlock branches into a cove, thick and foamy with herring spawn. Branches are left for days until the water clears and they are pulled to reveal a thick coating of fresh delicious herring spawn. The fish are left unharmed.

Sitka Sound is like a bubble bath during the spawn. 

A close-up of treasured herring eggs. These eggs were adhered to kelp and this shot was taken before I took a big giant bite- yum.