My forearms strained against the pole, I struggled to hold the net against the current. I wore a PFD with a rope loosely tied from my waist to a tree that didn’t appear to be moving anytime soon. A few feet away, my friend Justin had a similar setup. He moved along the rocks trying to find a spot among the swirling froth that didn’t require as much exertion. We were down at Chitina, along the Copper River, trying our hands for the first time at dip netting. It was a first time for both of us and we knew next to nothing, only having watched the few videos ADF&G (Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game) had made available to the public. The idea was to find eddies, spots where water ran against the current providing easier travel for the salmon. But on our first attempt, we had not found an eddy but a raging whirlpool.
Figuring we were wrong in some capacity, we left that spot and moved further downriver. A more gradual bank welcomed us, allowing us to stand along shore without tying off. Here the current wasn’t as strong and we were able to stand with our nets in the water. Before, we had felt as if we wouldn’t last long, battling the raging current. Now the only thing we battled was boredom and the ability to stay awake as we stood hoping for fish.
The run was slow and it hours before Justin caught the first fish between the two of us. I caught one later on and we began to catch a few here and there. But the pace remained slow. One of Justin’s coworkers had arrived in the afternoon and had a net in the water for a few hours. But even with three nets in the water, we had only amassed a total of 6 fish within 24 hours.
Early the next day saw more of the same, plenty of time with nets in the water, yet no fish. I began to worry that all that expense in travelling to the area would be for naught and I’d return empty. In the afternoon, we decided to leave our spot and try somewhere new. We heard of someone who had reached the limit within a day further downstream at the canyon. It appeared as if everyone talked about the canyon. The canyon was the spot to catch lots of salmon. The canyon had the strongest eddies. The canyon, the canyon, the canyon. We took a walk down the trail to take a look for ourselves.
The valley narrowed and the old rail bed stayed high above the river. Deep within the canyon, we descended to what we thought was an ideal spot. A large, swirling eddy that jutted out from the river seemed to be the perfect spot for travelling salmon. The spot yielded nothing but drowsiness, causing both of us to fall asleep. Without luck, we decided to move back upriver, hoping to find a better spot further on.
Descending once more, we found what we again thought was the one. Situated at the end of a long eddy, we set our gear down among the rocks and readied ourselves to give it a go once more. We took the splotches of blood on the rocks nearby as a good omen.
We began catching fish regularly. In just a few hours, we had caught ten more salmon. Justin volunteered to take our catch back to the car and refuel, while I’d remain and continue fishing. It wasn’t long after he left that the fish began to come in droves. My net became filled on a constant basis and if it wasn’t, it was because it was often caught up or tangled on a rock below.
The process became almost robotic. I’d catch another fish. Or maybe even two. A bop on the head, a slit of the gills, I’d thread the needle through, putting it on the line and in the water with the others. The net would head back into the water and it would be but minutes before I felt the tug of another fish caught within. Within 3 hours, I’d caught 17 more fish. Justin returned and we quickly hit the limit just as the run slowed down.
We struggled underneath our loads, our packs loaded to the brim with fish, straining forward up the hill. A distance of about three miles was all that lay between us and my van, where we hoped to catch a few hours of sleep before heading back to town. It was mid-summer, but in the early morning of southern Alaska, stars shone brightly overhead. We stumbled along the trail through the forest, calling out occasionally in hopes of avoiding any bears looking for a late night snack.
The car was reached, coolers loaded and chairs reclined. We dozed off with our treasure secure in the rear. We had achieved what we had set out to do. But by the end, it wasn’t necessarily about the fish, rather pursuing a tradition, a way of life that we held dear.