I wrote this post for my father, who has been waiting a long time to hear about my experience last summer involving dip-netting on the Kenai. This post is connected to another one I wrote called “Bear at Bird Creek” and is part of that same conversation which took place in early August of last year, at Middle Way Cafe, in Anchorage. My friend John and I were seated at a table, speaking with a local named Dave, and we were discussing some strange salmon behavior in Hope, population 192, on the southern coast of Turnagain Arm and the northern shore of the Kenai Peninsula.
“So we were over at Hope,” I said. “We were watching the people at the end of Main Street, and there was this really shallow, rocky inlet, where it looked like the water was going into towards the tidal area. And the fish were going up and they were kind of getting stuck. And it was super shallow. And the people had their rods and their hooks and they were out–“
Dave interrupted me and tapped his finger on the table. “Those are pinks. Those are pink salmon.” He eyed me as if this explanation was enough. I am not a fisherman in any sense and knew nothing of salmon typology. Pink, in my mind, was just a color.
“Were they stuck?” I persisted. “Because the tide was out?” These salmon had really puzzled me at the time because the water was just a few inches deep, and many of them were just pushing their bellies along the stones rather helplessly. John and I had found it quite disheartening to watch the local fisherman go after them.
Dave replied. “No, no. They’re going up there even if the water goes dry. They’re going up there. I mean, that’s just where they gotta go. And, you think it’s shallow, but they can even swim across a sand bar to get to more water, I mean—“
“They wiggle themselves like snakes,” I cut in, remembering how many of them there had been, like in those old stories I had read about with salmon so thick in the water you could walk across them.
“Yeah.” Dave nodded. “Those are pinks, and those are the least desirable of the five different salmon types. You know, they’re okay. That’s what most canned salmon is, you know, when you buy canned salmon, it’s usually pink. Costco has sockeye, which is red.” Costco is a kind of bulk warehouse for grocery and other items in Anchorage. Dave continued. “Pinks are also called “humpies.” They’re kind of mushy. They’re not as good. It has a weird taste. You know, it’s good protein and everything, but I don’t even fish for them. There are so many of them that it’s a good place to take kids because kids can actually catch them.”
Many children had stood on the gray, muddy shores of Hope that day, casting short fishing lines, guided by adults. “Yeah, there were a lot of kids there. It was just odd, because, I don’t know, it kind of made us sad, because it didn’t seem very sporting. The fish looked like they were just kind of trapped.”
Dave nodded again. “For the most part, salmon don’t bite. They’re in there and their mouths are open and the current carries the line into their mouths. It’s illegal to snag them, to throw it out there and just rip it through. Unless you’re in salt water, and then it’s legal. But like at the Russian river, where people congregate to catch the sockeye, which is a really desirable salmon, the reds–”
I interrupted with a question: “Is that different from the Kenai reds? Or is it the same?” I had spent some time with my farm host on the beach of the mouth of the Kenai river in July and he had brought back over forty Kenai reds over the course of two days. These were big, silver salmon with bright red flesh, long as your arm and fat-bellied. The river stretches out into the ocean on the coast of the city of Kenai, and on that day, fisherman with long silver dip-nets stood elbow to elbow in cold water for hours at a time, waiting for the timing of the tides as the fish rushed in with the current. Hundreds of fishermen lined the beach, standing in waders twenty feet out, while their camp and kit waited on the shore. The Kenai dip-netting fish camp was made up of hundreds of small tents, coolers, men, women and children, dogs and seagulls, dip-nets, people speaking different languages, and everywhere all over the beach the remnants of the catch: salmon heads, strips of roe, partially filleted fish, bones, and fins, disappearing piece by piece with each dip of a seagull’s wing down to the beach and back into the sky.
He confirmed my query. “Yeah, it’s on the Kenai. The Russian runs into the Kenai. And so, the reds come up the Kenai and they go up the Russian river to spawn. ‘Cause they need a lake at the top, and the Russian river has a lake at the top. And so they spawn in the lake, so they won’t go up a river unless there’s a lake at the top of it, and for the most part, where they came from, you know? But they do make mistakes, and that’s probably one of the things that saves the species. If some catastrophe happens in some river that they’ve been going in, and they all get killed, the ones that made mistakes keep going.”
“It’s just amazing because there were so many people fishing.” I remembered that first morning in July on the beach at Kenai, when I had awoken in my tent to the sound of fishing boats chugging past, downriver and out into the open ocean. There were hundreds of them, one after another, like a vast train of boats, leaving the harbor and descending upon the salmon with their wide nets. You could almost feel the sense of disappointment among the fishermen on the beach, for these boats would plow through the in-flowing currents, far out into the waters beyond, and drop nets to catch as many salmon as permitted. Those fish which escaped the commercial fishing boats still had to make it past the dip-netters, who now prepared to enter the waters as early as six in the morning, intending to stand fast holding a 20-foot pole with a net on the end of it, and wait for salmon to swim into it.
“Oh yeah. You’ve got the commercial fishermen with their huge nets and my buddy caught 140,000 pounds of salmon last summer as a commercial fisherman. But that’s just a drop in the bucket for what there is. The kings are not doing so good. Those are the biggest. Chinook. They get about this big.” Dave held up his hands as far apart as he could reach.
“Yeah, I’ve seen the pictures.” I said.
“They’re not doing well, but it could be a cyclic thing, because now they’re doing really well down in California and Oregon, when they’ve been doing horrible for years and now they’re having the best year ever and we’ve having the worst year ever. Maybe it’s the climate change, whatever, the warm water. Wherever the food they eat hangs out, they’re going to hang out. They food moves around, they move around.”
“I heard that they’re protected.” I replied. “I accompanied a man who was dip-netting. I was working at a farm up in Talkeetna, and so when he as a resident went down to to go dip-netting, I got to go with him and I watched his kid. He had accidentally caught a fish that the fish and game people had thought was a king, so they were going to fine him for it. And then it turned out not to be.”
“What was it?”
“A silver, maybe.”
“Probably a silver or a chum.”
“But it had a black tongue and it had the speckles.”
Dave nodded. “Then it has to be a king.”
“Yeah, so maybe it was and he just let him off. I’m not really sure.”
“‘Cause he kept it?”
“Yeah, he thought it was just another salmon.” That moment when the official from fish and game had come over to check the catch had been laced with anxiety, and it was only after an hour or more of waiting that the official decided not the assign a fine. “But I’ve also heard that there are places where you can fish the kings. So are they protected or not?”
“You know, it varies. They’ll have emergency closures. They count how many fish–they need a certain number, they calculate how many they need for the ideal escapement, the ones that go to spawn, and if they’re not getting the numbers, they’ll say that from now on, for the rest of the season this river is closed, you can’t even catch and release for them, because some of them die. So we need to make sure they keep going, and we need to protect them. But then all of a sudden a bunch come in and they say, ‘Oh, never mind. Catch ’em. There’s too many. So it varies for different rivers, but whatever’s going on is almost statewide, all over the place there’s no kings for the last couple years. And it used to be that–“
I was curious about this. “These are the ones which grow to such great size?”
“Yeah. Huge. The biggest is like 98 pounds or something. Usually they’re like 20, 25 pounds. You catch ’em on a fly rod or a hand pole and it’s like you’ve got a Harley Davidson on there. Real sport. And then you’ve got the chum, that’s the next biggest. They’re also called calico, they’re also called dog salmon. And they don’t get as big, but they’re the second biggest. And they might be the least desirable. The pinks and the chums are like, eh, I don’t really want ’em, you know? “
“Don’t they taste good?” I figured all salmon were the same.
Dave made a disgusted face. “Naw, they’re weird, they’re mushy and have kind of a different taste. But if you’re hungry, it’s gonna be good. Or if you smoke it, it’s not so bad, or can it or whatever. But as far as a fresh steak or a filet, you want either sockeye or– a lot of people think sockeye, the red, is the best. And you want ’em before they turn red. You want ’em to be all silver and fresh. And those are the only ones that filter feed. They eat like plankton or something, like a whale, you know? So they’re low on the food chain, and they’re like the healthiest to eat. The sockeye. They don’t get that big. They get to be maybe eight to ten pounds at the biggest. They’re usually something like six. The pinks are smaller. They’re the smallest. Then the sockeye, then the silver, then the chum, then the kings.”
John broke in with a question, suddenly interested. “There’s a season for king salmon? Is that right?”
Dave answered him with a shrug. “It varies, you know. They close it because they’re doing poorly, population-wise, so they’ve been pretty protected the last year or two. But it varies. If suddenly a whole bunch come in, they’ll open it up, but for the most part, the numbers are so low, they’ll say, “It’s closed this year. Leave ’em alone. Let ’em spawn.” Then you have the battle between the sport fishermen, the commercial fishermen and the subsistence fishermen, and they’re supposed to make sure that there’s enough for the subsistence fishermen to catch ’em. ‘Cause that’s like, what they’re gonna eat all winter, you know?”