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ILWACO — A new owner has taken the helm at a long-standing fishing charter business in Ilwaco.Steve Sohlstrom officially became owner of Sea Breeze Charters after purchasing the business from the Schenk family in February.“For the first time in my life I get to immerse myself in the sport fishery. It’s my absolute passion. There isn’t anything I want to do more than be a part of the community and fish,” Steve said March 8 at the Sea Breeze Charter office in Ilwaco.In recent weeks, Sohlstrom, 64, has been busy preparing for the upcoming fishing season, which forecasters predict could be one of the best salmon years in decades.Charter fishing familySteve’s life has been long intertwined with Ilwaco waterfront, beginning with his father Aaron Sohlstrom, who previously operated 14 boats out of Ilwaco as part of Holiday Charters.“He had Holiday Charters which was located where Don’s (Nisbett) art gallery is today. His 56-foot Wind Song was one of the nicest boats in Ilwaco. I grew up being a deckhand on it,” Steve said.Fragments of Steve’s fishing past hang in the Sea Breeze Charter office today, including a 1982 photo next his father aboard the Wind Song with a 49.5-pound Chinook between them.Sohlstrom said he spent formative years as a youth in Ilwaco, but has only recently moved to the area full time.“Most of my adult life has been spent in Ilwaco. I have a home up on Cook Hill (in Ilwaco). I’m a second-generation charter boat owner and skipper,” he said.The call of the ocean was always on his mind, he said, and drew him back to Ilwaco each summer ahead of the returning salmon.“I’ve always had a passion for sport fishing, it’s in my blood. I’ve got some good years left so I’m going to go and hit it hard. About 20 years ago I bought the F/V Salty Dog and have always had a hired captain running it, because I had a full-time career in Seattle.”In February, Sohlstrom retired from his job in Seattle and turned his attention to the charter business full time.“Three weeks ago I retired after 41 years in sales management working for a media company. I sold my home in Seattle and relocated here full-time. I’m a full-fledged Ilwaco resident.”Passing the torchThe Schenk family, who embraced the motto “the friendliest catch,” has been synonymous with the local sport fishing industry over the past several years as one of three family-owned charter businesses on the Ilwaco waterfront.Sohlstrom said the transition is more continuation than change, and that the focus on providing a fun and relaxed experience will endure.“On the day I retired, I signed the paperwork to become the owner of Sea Breeze Charters. The former owners were getting up there in age and were ready to retire. They’ve always known that I’ve shown a tremendous amount of interest — I’ve been in this office 20 years. They presented the idea to me about taking on ownership and bringing the business up a notch. They didn’t have to tug at me too hard. I’m really excited about it. They could have sold it to other interested parties, but they extended the chance to me. They entrusted me to carry on the tradition and keep it rolling,” Sohlstrom said.Charter office remodelThe biggest change will include the Sea Breeze Charter office, constructed about 50 years ago.“It started out as Andy’s Salmon Charters, when it was built. Then it became Hobo Salmon Charters, with Jack McNeil. Then it became Sea Breeze Charters, with Bob Matthews, which it had been for at least 25 years,” Sohlstrom explained.In early March, work began on improving the building, first built in 1972.“We’re going through a major renovation. We’re doing a total remodel on the building,” Sohlstrom said. “The first thing they’re going to do is the flooring, and then the countertops. This weekend, all new LED lighting will be installed followed by a (10-foot by 12-foot) walk-in freezer.”Ford Electric is handling a majority of the electrical work, he said. “They’ve done quite a bit of re-wiring, re-fitting and installing electric heaters in the charter office lobby.”Investments in the back of the charter office will include a new a walk-in-freezer and a refurbished ice machine, each necessary to help keep catch and bait cold.“We’ll be able to store any amount of fish and bait that we need. We sell a lot of ice too, so we’ll be storing up bags that we put in coolers out front. I’m spending about $15,000 just in this space getting it all dialed in,” Sohlstrom said. “It will crank out the ice.”A designed break room, lined with several industrial coffee makers, will churn out gallons of the hot coffee, a coveted necessity on cold, early mornings.One much-anticipated change is expected to simplify the booking and payment process.“What I’m most excited about is the technology. We’ve always had a paper reservation book. We’re now going to have it online where you can reserve your favorite boat and date with a point and click. I believe up to 80% of the reservations will come online. People want the convenience of booking it online,” Sohlstrom said. “Credit card processing is another big deal we’re working on.”Fleet seeks one moreThe current Sea Breeze Charter fleet has seven vessels, including the F/V Salty Dog with Sohlstrom at the helm; F/V Sea Breeze, with skipper Perry VanOver; F/V Four Sea’sons with skipper Joshua Schenk; F/V Dolphin with skipper Tim Harrell, F/V Legacy with skipper Tyler Pearson; F/V Bluefin with skipper Brian Alexander; F/V Tackle Buster with skippers Ken Piper and Craig Brewer.The F/V Tackle Buster and F/V Salty Dog each had recent extensive off-season overhauls to improve their speed and offshore capabilities, Steve said.“The Dog is outfitted with a pair of brand-new Caterpillar 425-horsepower turbo cats delivering 25-knot speeds to get to the tuna and halibut grounds lickety-split,” Sohlstrom said, adding that he’s particularly fond of boats built by Delta Marine, a Seattle-based yacht luxury builder with roots in the commercial fishing industry. “They built several hundred. You’ll find a Delta Marine charter boat from Alaska all the way down to California and beyond. They have a lifetime expectancy of at least 150 years, just super quality. They’re considered one the finest built fiberglass charter boats in the world.”The F/V Bluefin, F/V Four Sea’sons and F/V Dolphin are designed by Rawson, an equally reputable builder, Sohlstrom said.The departure of the F/V Commanche and F/V Nautilady in the off-season left two empty slips in front of the Sea Breeze charter office, one of which was filled with the addition of the F/V Tackle Buster.“I’m actively recruiting to add to the fleet, but I have one confirmed boat coming in,” Sohlstrom said regarding the F/V Tackle Buster, a 37-foot Delta owned by Ken Piper with skipper Craig Brewer. “They just agreed to be a part of the fleet this past weekend. I’m happy to report the Sea Breeze currently has seven boats in fleet, but we need one more.”Shrinking fleet banks on banner yearSea Breeze Charters is among a trio of charter offices that operate along the Ilwaco waterfront, including Pacific Salmon Charters and Coho Charters.Sohlstrom estimated that roughly 20 charter boats operate in Ilwaco today, compared to many more during the heyday of Lower Columbia salmon fishing.“It’s a small group now, back in the ‘70s we had more than 100,” he said.Despite fewer charter fishing boats, Sohlstrom is optimistic that a banner year is awaiting the fleet this season, particularly for salmon.“They’re projecting a run of 1,732,000 returning coho to the mouth of Columbia, one of the single largest runs in more than 20 years,” he said. “We’re anticipating a banner salmon season.”The allotted catch quota is significantly higher this year based on the bigger forecast run.“They’re looking at giving us a quota of around 57,000 coho and around 18,000 Chinook for our area,” Sohlstrom said. “That will be much bugger allotment for us to fish on versus what we experienced last season. Last year was like 18,000 coho and around 7,000 Chinook, which we captured fairly quickly.”In 2020, the charter fishing season was severely limited due to covid-19 restrictions, which has compounded interest for the upcoming season, Sohlstrom said. The pent up fishing desire, combined with what’s expected to be one of best biggest salmon returns in decades, has resulted in busy phone lines with eager customers seeking to book trips.“This will be a big rebound year. With covid coming down, the phone has been ringing off the hook with people saying that they held off last year but they’re coming this year. We’re anticipating a busy season and I’m pumped about it,” Sohlstrom said.
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