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Fishing town popular with Kitsap anglers struggling

Raise your hand if you were in Sekiu this past weekend.

On our annual fill-the-freezer excursion to the little fishing town two miles west of Clallam Bay (19 miles East of Neah Bay), it seemed one in every six people had a Kitsap connection.

Sekiu shrinks and swells on the tides of anglers who come and go with the fish runs. In winter it dwindles to a handful of residents who probably know each other way too well (some escape to the warmth and anonymity of Arizona). During salmon season, though, the hillsides are chock-a-block with RVs perched above the bay, barely tucked in from the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Canada within spitting distance.

The accommodations are nothing fancy, but the view is spectacular. Bottle green water, sparkling with beds of kelp that sway and twirl in the currents. Mist shrouded forests and strange rock formations, like Mussolini Rock, with the tuft of trees growing on its top looks like the Italian dictator’s military cap. There are seals, sea birds and the occasional porpoise or whale passing through. On this visit we saw a sea elephant about two miles from shore bobbing on the surface long enough to get a gulp of air then sliding down into the water.

At dawn, fishermen (and the occasional woman) lug on their muckboots, fill their thermoses and fire up their motors, lighting out on the heaving waters like a swarm of bees. If the bite is on, they’ll limit out before noon and spend the rest of the day swapping fish stories. Word of how deep to fish and where they’re biting spreads like a virus. If there is a #Sekiu on Twitter, it’s overkill.

A glamorous resort town this is not. The docks are splattered with excrement from great clouds of seagulls that flock like brazen thugs around the fish cleaning stations, mewling for a handout of guts. The smell is distinctly horrific, sometimes tinged with a pleasant waft of salt air from the open water.

The anglers don’t seem to care about the smell. For many the trip to Sekiu is an annual ritual, like summer camp for adults. When they’re not fishing, you might find them tending the smoker or vacuum-sealing their catch. The anglers drop plenty of dough on Sekiu. They eat in the handful of restaurants, buy bait, tackle and ice at the stores, and pay for moorage and RV or tent spaces.

Those who live here year ’round to operate the eateries and rustic resorts make much of their annual income during these few frenzied weeks when the fish are running. The recession hit them hard, but the town had been struggling years before the bottom dropped out of the housing market.

On the west side of town, a decaying dock is all that’s left of a once bustling fish cannery from decades past. Here and there are abandoned, boarded up buildings. The properties that remain open are sagging, a little seedy. The fishermen don’t care, but the symptoms don’t bode well for Sekiu.

Challenges facing resort owners are often invisible to visitors. For example, there was the storm of 2006 that took out the parking lot of Van Riper’s Resort. Repairing the damage took a quarter million dollars worth of fill.

There’s another problem, age, not of the properties but the owners. Barbara, who owns The Breakwater restaurant, is in her mid-60s. She has a 5-year-old granddaughter to raise and a grandson to help through college, so she’s not actively looking for a buyer. But the place has been listed since before her husband died four years ago.

In the old days, The Breakwater had no “off season.” If it wasn’t the fishermen, it was the loggers, who lined up outside the door on payday. Now, what logging goes on, the workers live out of town, she said. These days, the place stays busy enough, but nothing like it used to be.

Barbara and her cohorts are beyond ready for something new. Van Ripers is for sale. So is Olsons, the largest resort in town, as well as many smaller properties.

“We’re all tired,” said Barbara, a warm and friendly woman with a white apron around her waist, who makes homemade pies and cakes, and a mean prime rib.

Barbara would work with any prospective buyer for her place, should one step forward. There’s a lot of memories in the old place. “I just want whoever takes it over to succeed,” she said.