Halibut Cove is one of a kind. In all our travels we have not ever been to any place like this. Our visit was wonderful. At Halibut Cove there are no cars or roads. Halibut Cove is located 12 miles south of Homer on the south side of Kachemak Bay.
Halibut Cove is located between Ismailof Island and the mountains to the south in Kachemak State Park. To go to Halibut Cove you are going to need a plane or a boat to cross Kachemak Bay. From Homer, we took an old converted commercial fishing boat to Halibut Cove and had a wonderful time.
Halibut Cove probably should have been named Herring Cove. It is true, that halibut were found at Halibut Cove, but that is because the herring was there first. Halibut are found everywhere near Homer, in Kachemac Bay, and the Cook inlet. Halibut live frequently in very deep water and are often caught in water four hundred feet deep. The reason that people first came to Halibut Cove was to catch herring and establish herring processing plants.
Starting in about 1911, in Halibut Cove, there was a huge market for salted herring. Halibut Cove, about twelve miles southeast of Homer was the center of herring fishing and processing. Herring are a fish that schools tightly and are easy to catch. Even today they are a very profitable fish, and in Alaska, the herring fishing season each year frequently lasts only a few hours.
Halibut Cove is a beautiful natural harbor that is surrounded by mountains to the south and Ismailof Island to the north. In terms of depth, Halibut Cove is much deeper than you would expect. Herring mass in large schools and seek shallow water to spawn. Herring eggs cling to the bottom and wait to hatch. Since there are lots of shoreline in Halibut Cove, there is plenty of shallow water. In 1911-1924 herring fishing was very easy in Halibut Cove.
Fishing for Herring
Fishing for herring was easy in Halibut Cove. Fishing was easy because herring would school tightly in Halibut Cove to spawn near the surface. Ismailof Island protected the cove from the open waters and waves in Kachemak Bay, and the shoreline of Halibut Cove was lined with docks for small boats that would set the nets. Fishing for herring was done before the herring would spawn mostly because after spawning the herring would go back into open water.
Fishing for herring was so successful that during the 1920s, herring became hard to catch mostly because daddy and mommy were caught before they had a chance to spawn. Obviously, without new herring to replace the caught herring, fish stocks were depleted. The current regulations limit the catch so that hopefully they will not catch all the herring. The number of boats allowed to fish for herring is limited and the fishing season is usually limited to a few hours each year.
Current fishing for herring is performed using purse seines. Basically, the school is surrounded by a net on all sides like a curtain only leaving the bottom open. Then to close off the only escape, a rope draws the bottom of the net tight around the school.
Gradually the net is wenched to the primary boat. As the net gets smaller it closes around the fish. At this stage, the catch can’t get away. Traditionally, the net would have been pulled into the boat. Now commercial fishermen often pump fish directly out of the net and into an awaiting tender. The tender then processes the fish onboard or takes it to the plant.
For a better understanding, here is a video showing a glamorized view of the process. If for no other reason, you should click on the video so that you can hear the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra perform the Waltz Of The Flowers From The Nutcracker while you read the rest of the story.
Perhaps it has changed in the last ten years. Ten years ago, in commercial fishing, there were hundreds of boats all in a confined area where the fish have been located. Each is battling to set their nets before competitors are able to set their nets. Collisions between boats, skiffs, and other competing boats were common. At this stage, I was going to include a video showing a herring opening about ten years earlier, but was unable to find any that didn’t include profanity during the action.
During the boom years of herring fishing during the 1920’s herring was caught and placed into huge barrels along with tons of salt. Salt curing and pickling was the traditional method of preservation. Using salt to cure herring was the reason that the processing plants in Halibut Cove were called Salteries. There were multiple Salteries in Halibut Cove. Herring in the early 1900’s, was an important food source for most of Europe. Even today, herring roe is a very high-priced delicacy in Japan and a staple food fish for much of the world.
Also in Halibut Cove, other herring processing plants included cooking and then reducing herring into fish oil. A third method was to season and smoke the herring. Smoked herring is often called Kipper. Halibut Cove was a location of several herring processing operations until about 1927 when the herring stocks were depleted. By 1928 the boom town in Halibut Cove went bust and more than 1000 workers in herring production departed. Many of the buildings left standing were dismantled and carted off to Homer as building supplies.
The Danny J
The Danny J was a fishing boat and was converted to use as a ferry boat by Clem Tillion. After his service during World War II, Clem found Halibut Cove nearly abandoned after the failure of the herring processing plants. Moving building materials from Halibut Cove to Homer was in full swing. What Clem saw in Halibut Cove was an opportunity to operate and live as a commercial fisherman in an ideal setting. Using Alaska homesteading rules, Clem purchased most of Ismailof Island. Instead of turning it into a farm, Clem instead envisioned rebuilding the town.
In 1966 Clem purchased and started using the Danny J as a ferry boat from Homer to Halibut Cove. While it was a good fishing boat, it is an adequate ferryboat with very limited seating. Most customers on the ferry boat ride outside in the weather, rain (mostly) or shine. Rough seas or calm.
Now the Danny J and the Saltry Restaurant is owned by Marian Beck (daughter of Clem). It was Marian who met us at the dock and told us to make ourselves welcome. In the past, she would have been driving the boat. Marian, and her mother before her, were accomplished artists.
Today in Halibut Cove there is one restaurant (The Saltry), one coffee shop, a fine art store, and about 80 residents. Perhaps less than half spend the winter in Halibut Cove. The Saltry is a fine dining destination with great food. It is not a place to pick up some deep-fried fish and chips. Marian has lived most of her life on Halibut Cove and, along with her husband David, founded the Saltry restaurant in 1984.
The Saltry at Halibut Cove offers wonderful food in an outdoor Alaska setting. Coats are frequently required to keep warm. Misty rain is a real possibility. The food was first class.
I am sure that Clem was proud that his daughter, Marian and David, have been able to create the Saltry Restaurant at Halibut Cove. In addition to bringing customers to the island, it provides the needed money to keep things nice. The weather in Alaska is hard on the way things look. Everything here looks so pristine. I am sure that lots of labor goes into keeping things looking nice. I am thankful that Marian has invited us to share in the experience that Halibut Cove has to offer. Marian, David, and Clem are responsible for making Halibut Cove into a wonderful destination.
Further beyond Homer
As I mentioned earlier the only way to go beyond Homer was to go by boat. We did that (by boat) during our visit to Halibut Cove or you could go to Halibut Cove by float plane. We took a float plane to visit Katmai National Park and Preserve.
Please subscribe and join us on our journey
We will add you to our email list and send you updates about once a week. Here is a link. Subscribe
About our links
As you know, our blog income is zero – this allows us to be independent and just tell the truth. We do not get income or commissions. No, we don’t make paid endorsements. We don’t make recommendations but instead, we will tell you what we like (or dislike). The links are only provided as a quick reference to help our readers.