Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Fishin' on the 4th of July

Henry called last night and said "Are you guys up for going fishing tomorrow?" Dutch and I haven't been out on the river since break-up, so of course the answer was a resounding "YES!" The morning low tide on the river was at 8:30, and Henry wanted to fish when we'd be likely to have the river to ourselves; most people prefer to sleep in and fish the late tide. He said to be at his house at 8, ready to go. Joan was coming too, so there would be four of us.

When we go fishing, it is not with a rod and reel. We are doing Eskimo-style subsistence fishing, with a drift net. No fishing license is required, but only Alaska residents may do it. Until you have lived here for a year, you can go along in the boat, but you can't touch the net or the fish.

The day started out in a pea-soup fog. (This photo is from a previous year's trip; it was way too foggy to get a good photo of the net this morning.) Dutch and I were up at 6:30 to get our gear packed. Helly Hansen's bibs and jacket, knee-high rubber boots, PFD (Coast Guard approved personal flotation device, aka "life jacket"), hooded sweatshirt, fleece vest, mosquito shirt, fish-picking gloves, picnic lunch, thermos of coffee, bottle of water. We loaded it in the truck, put the big dog on his outside chain, and got to Henry's right on time. The 300 foot long fish net was already in the boat, so we added our gear and four large fish totes (which hold about 75 fish each) with ice in the bottoms, and headed for the small boat harbor. It was 8 am and the town was completely quiet under the blanket of fog. Visibility was just about nil.

Out on the river it was cold and damp as we motored slowly, trying to keep our bearings. Henry was watching the depth finder, as the river can go from very deep to very shallow with no visible change on the surface. Getting stuck on a sand bar happens quite frequently, especially at low tide. Joan, Dutch and I were peering into the gloom, trying to see the shoreline and any floating logs we might run into. The job is complicated by the fact that the incoming tide overcomes the river's sea-ward current, and the water stands still for a while. It was slow going; fortunately there was no other traffic to run into on the river at all. We definitely had it all to ourselves.

Thanks to Henry's intimate knowledge of the river, we only misplaced ourselves once in the dense fog before getting to our favorite fishing spot a few miles upriver of Bethel. The depth-finder showed plenty of fish swimming under the boat, and as soon as we started feeding the net into the water, fish were hitting. The float line was jumping and bobbing like hailstones raining on pavement.

Floats are spaced about a foot apart on the top line, and the net hangs from it to a depth of 20 feet. The net is held vertical in the water by the weighted lead line at the bottom. If the depth of the river is less than 20 feet where you are fishing, then the lead line bounces along the river bottom as the net and boat drift downriver. Nets are either 300 feet long ("full shackle") or 150 feet long ("half shackle"). The size of the net's webbing will determine the size of the fish you catch. We are going after red salmon, not kings, so we are using a net with smaller (five-and-a-quarter) webbing. Three hundred feet is a lot of net; it makes a big pile in the boat.

We had only drifted for about 15 minutes when Henry said, "Let's pull it and start picking." The drift is the fun, lazy part of the trip; time to drink coffee and enjoy the peace and quiet of the river. If the fish are not hitting hard, a single drift may last an hour. The way the float line was bouncing, we knew we were catching fast, so we couldn't leave the net in for long. It is possible to sink your boat by catching too many fish. The 400 fish Henry caught last week with Joan and Michael had pushed the boat's limit. They had to "round haul" the net--just pull it in the boat as fast as possible, and pick the fish out afterward. It took the three of them two hours to pick the net after they got it in the boat. It is exhausting work to deal with that quantity of fish. We were hoping for about half that amount.

A great photo of picking the net would go right here if STUPID Blogger would let me load it; but no...

Fish swim into the net and get caught by their gills. They thrash and twist, trying to free themselves, and often make big tangles, especially if a cluster of fish hits in one spot. Every armload of net we pulled in had three or four fish in it, and a few had eight or ten. We picked the fish out as we went, tossing them into the totes; it took the four of us an hour to pick the net clean after 15 minutes of fishing. We ended up with about 200 chums (dog food) and 25 reds and kings (people food). Another nice photo here... The run is almost over for reds and kings, so we won't get too many more of them. The chum run will continue through most of July, and silvers will start running in August.

We had over a ton of fish in the boat as we headed back to Bethel, so it was a good thing that the tide had come in, giving us deeper water, and the fog had lifted, giving us better visibility. The sun still wasn't out, but at least we could see where we were going. And it was a little warmer. Thank goodness, because by then we were out of coffee.

Back at the small boat harbor, it was a bit tricky to get the boat loaded on the trailer and pulled up the ramp. A ton is one heck of a lot of fish. Henry's old F-150 was pretty maxed out, but managed to do it. While he and Dutch were loading, I snapped this photo (yeah, here too) of the "Kid's Don't Float" board near the ramp. Bethel has a lender program of kid-sized PFDs that anyone can borrow any time. It is on the honor system; you take one if you need it and return it when you come back. It is really a great program. Regulations require kids under 18 to wear a PFD at all times when on a boat; adults have to each have one in the boat but don't have to actually be wearing it.

Once we got the fish back to Henry's, the next step was to hang it in the freezer. He can back the boat up right next to the 10 x 20 foot walk-in freezer and lay a 4 x 12" gangplank from the gunnel to the door. We then fill a washtub with about 25 fish, slide it down the gangplank, and form a fish-passing line from the tub to the person at the back of the freezer who is hanging one fish at a time on big nails that line the top of the walls. About 100 fish can hang at one time. It will take them two days to freeze solid, then they will be taken down and stacked like cord wood in a big bin on the floor. The second half of today's catch will wait on ice until the first half is frozen. Henry's goal for each fishing season is about 1000 fish; that will feed the dog yard for a year, when supplemented with meat and kibble.

The reds and kings from today's catch went straight to the cutting table where Henry's wife Betty and niece Andrea were waiting. They filleted the salmon and set aside a red and a king to have for dinner; the rest were cut into blankets and strips, brined and hung to dry. In two or three days they will go into the smokehouse.

Once the fish were hung, Dutch and I went home to see to our own dogs and clean up a little. Shortly after noon, the sun came out and we had our first real taste of summer--70 degrees! (Big change from the 45 degrees we started the day with.) Bethel's 4th of July festival was happening at the park just down the street from our house, so we wandered down for a bit of Bethel-flavored culture, but didn't stay long. Dutch took a nap and I did a little blogging, and then we went back to Henry and Betty's. Henry had gotten the steam bath ready, but decided at the last minute not to join us, so Dutch and I had it all to ourselves (yummy!).

After the steam, Henry cooked salmon over the fire. He distains charcoal; he builds a fire in the fire ring in front of his house, waits for it to burn down to coals, and then cooks the fish over them. And a lovely shot here with the fat running and the fire smoking... He uses mostly cottonwood, which gives it a great flavor. Andrea stayed for dinner, and her husband Trevor joined us too. It was a nice, relaxed evening after a day of hard working fun.

Happy 4th of July, everyone! I hope you enjoyed it as much as we did.



Blogger Jordan said...

Happy fourth to you....Thanks for the link!

Wednesday, July 05, 2006 5:46:00 AM  
Anonymous mchebert said...

I enjoyed this post. Before Hurricane Katrina I lived in St. Bernard Parish in Louisiana. There, fishing is a way of life. St. Bernard had one used car dealership and at least three boat dealerships and four separate marinas. There were more boat launches that I could count.

There is something special about a community of fishermen, and I miss that aspect of coastal life. The way you fish and the way we fish is a little different. But some people use a net technique a little like that to catch crawfish and crabs. Shrimp require a much larger net.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006 7:23:00 AM  
Blogger Dr. A said...

You have the best stories. It's like I'm actually there. I love salmon. I wonder what it tastes like fresh out of the water and cooked over a fire. Yum!

Wednesday, July 05, 2006 7:51:00 AM  
Anonymous wolfbaby said...

Wow I wish blogger would have let you put the pics up..

Amazing how you make hard work sound like so much fun..

But I guess it would be when your with friends who are more like family.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006 5:57:00 PM  
Blogger John said...

Hope you had a happy one! We did!

Wednesday, July 05, 2006 8:07:00 PM  
Blogger TheTundraPA said...

Jordan--you're welcome--glad to! I'm honored to have you as a reader. I admire your writing, and your sensitivity as a physician greatly.

Dr. H--I'm glad you liked the post. I grew up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and visited St. Bernard Parish once many years ago. I remember it as a very special community. This was in the late 60s; I bet it changed a lot by the late 90s. Since Katrina, is it even there at all now?

Dr. A--thanks, glad you like the stories. My goal is to let you feel like you are here; and "here" is so different from where most people are.

wolfbaby--I'll try again with the photos. They make it so much easier to "picture" what I'm describing.

John--glad your 4th was good! Did fireworks make the New Boy cry? And BTW--don't ya'll have a dog yet??? You never mention one...

Friday, July 07, 2006 10:55:00 PM  

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