Longtime Cordova, Alaska, fisherman Clifford “Mick” Johns was found dead last week after going overboard while fishing in the Copper River flats.

Johns, 69, was fishing alone on Thursday, May 25, on his 29-foot gillnetter Dances with Clams when he went overboard.

The Coast Guard received a report that the boat was “driving around in circles with no one onboard” around 9 p.m. The boat was circling near Pete Dahl Slough, an area of the Copper River flats fishing grounds southeast of Cordova.

Two Alaska Wildlife Troopers went to the scene with help from a local fisherman. According to Petty Officer 1st Class Jon-Paul Rios of the Coast Guard's District 17 Public Affairs Office in Juneau, it didn’t look like anyone was manning the boat and there was no one in sight when troopers arrived.

When no one was found during a sweep of the area, a Coast Guard helicopter stationed in Cordova assisted in the search. The crew found Johns unresponsive in the water, said Rios.

Copper River fishermen faced tough conditions for their opener that day with rough seas and stormy weather. Copper River Seafoods posted a video of their operation in the sea conditions, noting that “this fishery is not for the faint of heart.”

Earlier in the day the 24-foot bowpicker Bad Boy capsized in those conditions, and another nearby boat came to the rescue.

It’s not clear what caused Johns to fall overboard. Local fishermen and friends testified to his experience on the water and preparedness while at sea. Johns has fished in Cordova since the early 1970s, often in the same area of the Copper River.

His body was sent to the State Medical Examiner’s Office in Anchorage for an autopsy. While no official report has been released, some fishermen speculated he had a heart attack or succumbed to hypothermia after falling overboard in rough seas.

Samuel Hill is the former associate editor for National Fisherman. He is a graduate of the University of Southern Maine where he got his start in journalism at the campus’ newspaper, the Free Press. He has also written for the Bangor Daily News, the Outline, Motherboard and other publications about technology and culture.

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