It all started with my grandfather, Branko Jurkovich, or as our family calls him, Dida. He came to the United States alongside my grandmother, Baba. She was originally from Italy, and he grew up in Croatia. They survived the war, met in a refugee camp, eventually married, and welcomed their first daughter in Italy. Still, they were pursuing a better life with more opportunities, so they wound up calling Anacortes, WA, their new home.

Branko Jurkovich (far right) and his fellow crewmates, the photo was taken back in 1957. Photo by the Jurkovich family

Dida discovered fishing through Croatian friends who were working as commercial fishermen. At the time, he spoke very little English, so naturally, working amongst fellow family friends was the first step in his fishing journey. He started fishing in Alaska, where he began with King crab, moved on to herring, and eventually settled on salmon. 

At the beginning of his salmon career, he fished both Bristol Bay and Area M, as the fishing zones were not permitted then. Eventually, permits were required, and because he had been fishing for several years at that point, he was granted two permits, one for Area M and the other for Bristol Bay. Later on, he traded his Bay permit for another Area M. For those that don’t know; Area M refers to the Alaska Peninsula and Aleutian Islands Management Area, consisting of waters on the south side of the Alaska Peninsula west of the Chignik Management Area; the waters on the north side of the Alaska Peninsula west of Bristol Bay; and waters of the Aleutian Islands west of Unimak Island and east of the Atka-Amlia Management Area. 

Fisherman Turned Boatbuilder

In time, Dida fell into the yearly routine of flying to Port Moller, AK, where he kept his boat, and then returned to Anacortes whenever the season wrapped up. During the rest of the year, he started working with a company called Uniflite in Bellingham, WA. Here, he learned how to build fiberglass boats and admired the benefits of these hulls compared to wooden ones. This experience inspired Dida so much that he decided to build his own. Once he completed his vessel, fishermen from the area saw and adored the boat's functionality. He began receiving requests for builds, so his next journey as a boatbuilder was born. This was how Branko Boats commenced.

Branko Jurkovich working on his boat, the “Andromeda” back in 1993. Photo by the Jurkovich family

Dida's boatbuilding journey took off. The boat-building requests began one at a time until he got the hang of it. This is how the builds were requested—the buyer would come up with half the cost, and Dida would take about a year to build it. He collected the rest due once the vessel was completed. Over the course of his career as a boatbuilder, he built around 40 boats, all while being an exceptional salmon fisherman, raising a family, and unknowingly sparking generations of fishing. He had entirely created a second career, staying busy building boats during the salmon off-season. He helped pioneer Area M and invented the perfect compact fishing vessel for the area.

As a first-generation fisherman coming to the United States, knowing little English, he worked tirelessly for his family and future grandchildren. Those lessons have created a legacy beyond his immediate family and connected to the entire commercial fishing industry. To say my Dida is a hero is an understatement.

The Second Generation of Jurkovich Fishermen

Baba and Dida’s only son, Paolo (my father), started making the trek up to Alaska when he was just 10 years old. He joined his father in his yearly routine of flying up to Alaska from Seattle and fishing as part of the crew. To this day, he has not taken one summer off from fishing, making this 2024 salmon season his 42nd year in a row. Fishing is not just a career for my father; I can speak firsthand that the ocean and boats are part of his lifestyle. He used to tell our family that he went to the University of the Bering Sea and became a captain for Sockeye in Area M at the incredible age of fifteen. He truly was taught by Dida and the sea and was admirably motivated to do so out of sheer confidence and determination. 

He became a well-oiled machine, with a competitive spirit that led to his upward success over the years. As quickly as he began fishing, he followed closely in Dida’s footsteps. My father and Dida built his new vessel from scratch during his senior year of high school. He named it Branko J. after Dida and christened it with his high school sweetheart, Christie, by his side (my mom).

Watching my dad board the plane and separate from the family every year became a ritual. I always saw the pain my dad felt separating from my mom, brother, sister, and me. At the end of July, he’d fly home during salmon closures for a break and our yearly summer vacation. As an adult now, I can only imagine the heartache of leaving your children and partner to work grueling hours in fierce weather following an unpredictable paycheck. As someone who is out there fishing, witnessing my fellow peers leave their families to provide for them, I have nothing but the utmost respect and appreciation. 

As time passed, my parents began growing a small fleet of boats. Slowly, they bought a combination of boats, most of which were the Branko-style boats my grandfather built. They hired familiar skippers to run them, which is how Bear River Fisheries LLC was born.

F/V Branko Boy upon completion in Anacortes, WA. Photo by Paola Jurkovich

In 2012, Branko Boy was completed. Over the course of three years, the stunning 47’ original Beck-inspired hull was built from the ground up by my father, his team, and my grandfather. He took the experience he learned from his father and developed his own flare to the boats he built; they truly became his own creations. He envisioned and brought Branko Boy to life just like he previously did with Branko J. This boat is and has been considered an animal in our fishing area. Some even call it the “yacht of Area M.” The boat has a sauna, washer-dryer, and even an ice machine on board, not to mention the spacious deck and hold capacity. It’s the perfect balance of luxury and workhorse, making this boat a true masterpiece.

Paolo Jurkovich stood before F/V Branko Boy in Sand Point, AK. Photo by the Jurkovich family


A mere four years later, my father decided to take on the coast crabbing world. Having grown up in the salmon fishery, he wanted to master another challenge: Dungeness crab and the Columbia River Bar. The bar is known as one of the most dangerous and challenging stretches of water in the world due to the force of impact from the North Pacific storms and the volume of water flowing from the Columbia River.

Paolo decided to fish out of the port of Chinook, WA for the Dungeness season. Together, he and my mom purchased 600 crab pots, two permits; one for Oregon and another for Washington and their first and only aluminum fishing vessel, an Edwin boat renaming it the Branko Storm (initially named Elaina). This rugged boat went through several changes and improvements. The points of focus were electrical, hydraulics, and bulwark, in addition to the length. The boat started at 42’ long x 18’ wide to now 48’ x 18’, allowing it to hold 225 crab pots on the deck at a time.

While the boat was a great starting platform, Paolo fitted it to his needs. Making the first couple of years a bit of trial and error. Now, Branko Storm fishes the Washington and Oregon coasts for Dungies during the winter season and then makes the yearly trek up to the Aleutian Chain to meet up with the rest of our fleet for the salmon season.

Currently, Bear River Fisheries has a fleet of 10 boats, 9 actively fishing with skippers who are considered family. This fleet is a close group that has grown up in the fishery and supports one another. If one of us has a mechanical issue, another will come to the rescue. If one of us is in a hot spot, we communicate on the radio. Not to mention, when we have a closure, we tie the boats together and create a super raft of sorts and cook, drink, and play music together. Being part of this fishing family, I’m incredibly proud of the history my parents and Dida have paved before me. I hope to continue to add to our family legacy alongside my brother.

Part of Bear River’s fleet tied together for a closure. Photo by the Jurkovich family

So, what’s in store for the future?

Well, it looks like we’ll continue to build boats as I have purchased my first vessel and plan to retrofit it exactly how I’d like to. I’ll work alongside my father and learn some of his expertise. I was groomed to be a part of this fishery at thirteen years old and took a step back when entering high school as I wanted to go to university and try other things, but life led me back here, and I couldn’t be happier.

Paola and Branko Jurkovich in False Pass, AK. Photo by the Jurkovich family

This will be my fifth salmon season. My brother, Branko, who shares the name of our grandfather, has fished since he was 9 years old, making this his 11th season following in our father’s footsteps. He is currently wrapping up his boat-building project in time for salmon season. He retrofitted the Lee Anna, a 41’ Delta, which consisted of lengthening it to 48’, as well as completely redoing the entire deck. All of which was done in Chinook, WA, at our father’s shop.

Stay tuned for more of the Jurkovich journey- there will be plenty of stories and boats to add to our heritage. Fair winds and following seas.

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Paola is a third-generation Commercial Salmon Fisherwoman in Area M along the Aleutian Peninsula. She grew up on the San Juan Islands in Anacortes, WA. Before returning to the fishery, she attended university. This opportunity later led her to Manhattan for years in addition to Italy, allowing her to build out her resume and develop a unique skill set in tandem with fishing. Paola is back on the West Coast and is currently building her first vessel alongside her family. 

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