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A Herring Ball and a Stare Down with a Sea Lion

That’s a Herring Ball!


When I was new to Southeast Alaska, I saw a black spot on the surface of Sumner Straits, just beyond the mouth of the Stikine River.  It was like a thunder storm pelting the water’s surface with hail.  I shouted out a warning to my helicopter pilot. (I hadn’t learned there are very few thunderstorms in Southeast Alaska.) “That’s a herring ball.”,  he said casually.  I knew about pickled herring on crackers. But herring balls?  Were they something like those fishcakes served with white sauce?  Ends up herring is a small bait fish that schools up into balls for protection.

Another time over Sumner Straits, we saw the Stikine River runs muddy and high. And I spotted a pod of killer whales.  They dove.  They jumped.  They whirled and spun in the water. It was joyous to watch. You’ve never seen an Orca until you’ve seen it from the air.  My pilot explained, “They found a herring ball.”

One morning I walked to work via the harbor and the black water suddenly boiled with the flash of silver herring. On occasion the  fishermen would actually cast their nets right there in the harbor. Rowdy little boys would “jig” for the herring there too.  A herring jig is 4 feet of fishing line with shiny little hooks and specks of color.  (The rowdy little boys sold their herring to sport fisherman.)

During our local celebration of Norwegian Independence Day, one of the events is the  herring toss.  Two lines of people face one another and toss a shining little fish to their partners, then take a step back. The partners toss back the fish and take a step back .  You can imagine the eventual mess.

When my son (the future founder of the Alaskan Seafood Guys) was new to Petersburg I walked him to school via the harbor.  Suddenly the black water  boiled with silvery flashes of herring. Behind them came the wake of an unseen object.  The herring dove beneath the dock to the shallower water for protection. The pursuing sea lion was forced to the surface and landed on the dock ahead of us. My son stepped instinctively behind me.  I looked at it.  It looked at me.   Before I could tersely remind it of the spell I’d taught my rowdy little boy; “Yo, brother bear, we were here it!” The seal lion was gone.  So were the herring.