By Clark Fair, for the Redoubt Reporter
Every intensive public fishery in Southcentral Alaska contains some elements of the circus.
There is the center attraction, usually sans ringmaster. There are also families and clowns and wild-animal acts, plus crowded parking and games, prizes and refreshments — and an unfortunate cleanup crew.
In 1980, I first experienced the elbow-to-elbow sockeye slamfest on the Russian River. I’d previously only glimpsed such action on Sterling Highway drive-bys to Cooper Landing, but that summer I rode the ferry across the Kenai River and watched up close the snaking human conga line, the glistening whiplashes of monofilament, the tangled thrashings of salmon and hip waders.
A few days later, I tried a more personal engagement — another ferry ride, followed by shoehorning myself into place between anglers and joining the meat market. One hour, a few sockeyes and multiple snarled frustrations later, I departed, swearing I would never return and that no “bountiful harvest” at the Russian River could compare to the relatively serene milieu involved in fishing along some middle stretch of the Kenai, my solitude punctuated only occasionally by the swift passage of outboard-powered river boats.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I also tried dip netting — first from a skiff just above the Kenai boat launch, then from the banks of both the Kenai and Kasilof rivers. In both cases, although the reaping was plentiful, the quality of the experience left much to be desired. Despite the thrill of involvement in such an “event,” I tired quickly of the lack of privacy and fishing Zen, of jostling for the best modicum of bank space, of the sand-encrusted coolers and tourists, and of the fish waste and the trash.
A few years ago, when my daughter’s Kenai Central High School ski team landed beach cleanup duties as a fundraiser during the annual personal-use fishery at the mouth of the Kenai, I assisted in trash collection and decided then to stop attending this carnival. I returned to my lonelier middle-river angling.
Here in Bristol Bay, there is also fishing chaos of sorts, but the tenor is decidedly different.
The fishing season in Dillingham energizes this subsistence-centered community like nothing else — more than hunting, more than the berry harvest, more than Beaver Roundup in late winter. Fishing is the topic du jour every day, in the post office, in the grocery stores, out on the streets — wherever people gather. They want to know how many and where and when. Commercial fishing family members discuss boats and cantankerous engines and fouled nets. They chat about dried fish and smoked fish, pickled fish and canned fish, frozen fish and fish eggs with seaweed.
Before the season opens, fishers spend weeks getting their boats ready, mending and hanging their nets, aggregating their crews, hauling supplies out to fish camps — all for about a month of craziness and millions upon millions of salmon. The giant Peter Pan Seafoods processing plant in town throbs with life, and hundreds of workers march like ants across its boardwalk-lined grounds and in and out of its shiny, corrugated buildings.
Hundreds of boats are hoisted out of storage in the PAF yard and hauled out to the nearby harbor for launching. After lying vacant all winter, the harbor suddenly glimmers with lines of mostly aluminum fishing vessels, all awaiting the opening bell from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Here on shore, however, the harvest begins even earlier. We have no personal-use fisher, but there is a subsistence fishery, and anyone can participate. Set nets are placed on virtually every open stretch of shoreline, and the bounty includes kings and reds and chums at first. Families barbecue down at Kanakanak Beach and wait for the tide to allow them to pick their nets. People drive along the seawall near the city dock and clamber down to the beach with coolers.
And the sense of all this activity is one of community. People want to share. There’s enough for everybody. And in Bristol Bay, where people have been relying on fishing for countless generations, salmon equals life. They’re all in this together.
One evening, Yvonne and I walked the muddy road above the seawall and watched clusters of raincoat-clad folks extracting fistfuls of salmon from nets and dumping them into coolers. We waved to one group, and a woman in yellow Helly Hansens waved back. “Hey, you guys want a king?” she hollered.
Never in my life has someone offered me a free, whole king salmon fresh from the water. I hollered back: “Are you serious?” She smiled and assured me that she was. We trundled down over the rocks and onto the gravel, where we were handed a salmon weighing at least 30 pounds. As we searched for a stick stout enough to support the fish for the walk home, we thanked the woman profusely for her generosity. She shrugged. “It’s good to share,” she said.
Twice over the next two weeks a friend of ours here took us up the Wood River in his skiff and we set out a small net to see what we could get. In two to three hours of fishing we landed a king and several dozen reds and chums.
Elsewhere, families migrate out to remote fish camps and sportfishermen head up either the Wood or Nushagak river or up the vast lake system of Wood-Tikchik State Park. The competition over the resources between sport and commercial anglers here is nowhere near as fierce or contentious as it is in Cook Inlet.
But make no mistake, despite the communal atmosphere of the subsistence fishery here, the Bristol Bay commercial fishery itself is a competition and a business as much as it is a way of life. And it is an immensely successful fishery, both economically and socially. But finances don’t alter the essential sensibility here: We need to take care of the fishery — thus the ubiquitous anti-Pebble Mine stickers and banners and flags — and it will take care of us.
Area commercial fishermen donate enough red salmon each year to the Dillingham City School District (and Peter Pan processes it for free) for the approximately 500 students in the district to have fish for lunch at least once a week all year long.
Peter Pan also decapitates the king salmon it processes and donates the heads to area residents, who eagerly haul away the booty for fishhead soup and other delicacies.
Despite the short tempers that flare when boat engine parts don’t arrive in the mail on time, the occasional complaints about the brevity or number of fishing openings, the number of boats competing for the resource or the price per pound being paid by the processors, the circuslike atmosphere of the Bristol Bay fishery pales in comparison to the bitter fights up and down Cook Inlet and the elbow-to-elbow struggle on peninsula streams.
After more than half a century of living with the latter set of circumstances, it has been refreshing to experience the former.
Clark Fair, a resident of the Kenai Peninsula for more than 50 years, is a lifetime Alaskan now living in Dillingham.