Friday, June 29, 2007

Almost Summer Fishing

Heavy cloud cover with rainy, windy weather and the thermometer stuck at 50 degrees makes for a damp and chilly late spring. It is hard to believe that the summer solstice has passed, and we are already in the waning daylight half of the year. Everywhere else in the northern hemisphere it is summer, but in southwest Alaska it doesn’t feel like summer has even come close yet. June is often like that.

The salmon are running strong in the river, and people are catching lots, which makes everyone happy. Many people have moved their families to fish camp, where they spend several weeks cutting, drying, and smoking the salmon they will eat all year long.

On Wednesday Henry decided it was time to go fishing, and I was happy to go along. Joan’s boys, Michael and Luke, came with us. It was a damp and blustery day, but rainy conditions often make for better fishing. Something about the net being more invisible in the water when it is raining.

The water level in the Kuskokwim River is quite low this summer—the lowest I’ve seen in the ten summers I’ve been here. Many fishermen are complaining about snagging their nets on river bottom debris. Snags can be anything from a minor nuisance to a life-threatening emergency, depending on the conditions. A snagged net is capable of sinking a boat if the operator is not both knowledgeable and skillful in handling the situation. Even when not serious, a snag can rip big holes in the net, which must be repaired. All in all, avoiding them is by far the best strategy.

Henry’s favorite fishing spot is generally free of snags, even at low water, so that is where we headed. We went out on a strong incoming tide, with a south storm blowing in, so the water was really being pushed upriver. The migrating salmon love those conditions, as swimming upstream requires much less effort for them.

When we reached our spot, Michael and I fed the net (300 feet long, 20 feet deep) out into the river while Henry kept the boat positioned. With a good breeze blowing, that requires some skill. Once the net is in the water, it is time to drink coffee, eat sandwiches, and watch the fish hit. The net begins bobbing as the fish get caught in it; depending on how much they fight, there can be quite a bit of thrashing about. Whole sections of floats are pulled under when the big ones hit.

The boat and the net drift downriver as a unit, catching fish as they go. When the tide is ebbing, they drift pretty quickly; but when the tide is coming in, and the wind is blowing from the south, the two forces together are often enough to overcome the river’s flow. On our first drift, we were barely moving downriver. When we came to the “sweet spot”, a place where the fish like to congregate, we simply stopped drifting altogether; the river’s flow and the incoming tide reached a stalemate. And the net was jumping. Floats were bobbing like crazed piano keys. The skipper is able to tell how full the net is getting by the feel of the boat and how much effort it takes for the boat to move the net. Henry grinned at me and said “I’ll bet you’re as glad as I am that we have these boys here to pull the net in for us!” We both remember last summer when the two of us pulled in a net very full of fish—nearly four hundred—with no help. My arms were sore for days.

After about thirty minutes (a short drift) we decided we’d better start pulling. Too many fish in the net is all work and no fun. We all four pulled and picked the fish out as we went. There were some impressive net tangles where the more vigorous fish thrashed and spun in their efforts to get free.

Over 90% of the catch was chum, or dog salmon. We were hoping for more reds and kings (sockeye and Chinook) for the table. The chum will be frozen whole in Henry’s big walk-in freezer and boiled up for sled dog food over the next year. There were a dozen or so nice reds, and two good-sized small kings, about thirty pounds each. A few of the reds will be eaten fresh, and the rest will be cut into strips, dried and smoked. Truly yummy, high-protein power food.

The second drift was about the same. By the time we finished picking the net all three large totes were full of fish, and all four of us were ready to call it quits. It was a good thing we were coming back in at high tide, or we might never have gotten the boat back on the trailer.

The last phase of any fishing trip is hanging fish. Henry backs the boat up next to the walk-in freezer and places a 4x12 plank from the boat gunnel to the freezer door. We load about 25 fish at a time into a big galvanized tub and slide it down the plank to the freezer. Three people form a “fish brigade” and hand the fish one by one to the person at the back of the freezer who slams each one on to a big nail. About a hundred fish can hang at a time; they freeze in 48 hours, then are taken down and stacked like cord wood in a bin on the floor. The next hundred, which have been waiting on ice, are hung in their place.

Over the course of the summer, Henry hopes to catch and freeze about a thousand fish. The sled dogs’ diet consists of roughly a third fish, a third meat, and a third kibble. The ability to fish for them plays an important role in maintaining a dog yard. Putting fresh salmon on our dinner table every few days is one of the joys of living here.

To my great dismay, I left my camera home on this trip. I'd love to show you one of those beautiful big kings.



Blogger Rose said...

A very interesting post--I wish you had had your camera too!

Sunday, July 01, 2007 8:18:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting!! Just wondering...are there 4th of July fireworks?? Seems like the many hours of light would be prohibitive...

Wednesday, July 04, 2007 9:29:00 PM  
Blogger The Tundra PA said...

Anon 10:29--As you've guessed, it is far too light for fireworks in July. We have a twilight level of darkness from 2 am to 4 am, and daylight for the other 22 hours of the day. So no, Bethel does not do fireworks for the 4th of July. Instead, we have a big fireworks display at our annual sled dog races in January, when it is plenty dark by 7 pm. Thanks for reading, and for commenting.

Monday, July 09, 2007 5:01:00 AM  

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