[Note: This a long posting about Alaskan Fishing. It may not be your interest, but it was pretty fascinating for us.]
One thing we have learned on our trip to Alaska is that Alaskans LOVE to fish. Oh, I’m sure there are other things the locals enjoy, but when it comes to mid-July, all attention is focused on when the salmon start to run. Campground rates go up, the highways fill with trucks and RVs with AK license plates, and there is plenty of vacation time booked for this time period by the Alaskan residents.
Sport Fishing, Subsistence and Personal Fishing
When it comes to fishing, we are tourists with a camera. We have had plenty of opportunities to take charter boats out for halibut and salmon, but we don’t fish. We have admired the catches when the charters return. Some of our traveling RVing friends have caught 40-90 lb. halibut, filled their extra freezers, and even had the local fish packing businesses ship their hauls under dry ice to anywhere FedEx or UPS does business. We order our fish off the menu at local restaurants.
Sport fishing satisfies the tourist while “subsistence” fishing is big time for Alaskans. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, all Alaska residents, and ONLY Alaska residents, are eligible to participate in both Subsistence and Personal Use fisheries. To see the complexities of where and when Alaskans can fish, check out the matrix on the AFG website. Much of that fishing begins in mid-July along the Kenai River. You can probably guess where we were when the fish left their “staging” area off-shore and headed for their spawning grounds – and all the awaiting Alaskan fishermen.
Connecting with Real Alaskans
A while back I posted we had renewed contact with our former neighbors, Janet and Howard Pelton, who had moved from Cool to the Kenai/Soldotna area many years ago because they loved the fishing in the Kenai Peninsula area. (BTW, at 87, they are still doing some RVing but now have moved to the lower-48 to be near family in E. Wenatchee, Washington.) When they heard we were coming to Alaska they jumped right in and put us in contact with their close friends, David and Jayne Bredin, who live in Anchorage but have property right along the Kenai River. Every time we heard from the Peltons we were told we had to go to the Bredin’s “fish camp” starting July 15. These folks are “real” Alaskans! While we were in Anchorage the Bredlins came over to meet us and personally invited us to visit during “fish camp”.
Learning about Fish Camps
Fish camps were new to us until we came to Alaska. On multiple cultural heritage tours we learned how the Natives would relocate to valleys in the spring to hunt and then move to the river’s edge every summer to fish, filet, and dry their catch to sustain them (and their pets) through the winters. These “fish camps” would often have a “fish wheel”, cutting table, drying racks, and a smokehouse. Families worked together during the long summer days and passed along their skills and oral histories around campfires or in huts during the late evenings.
Below: This is a fish camp at the Old Chena Indian Village we saw during our Riverboat Discovery tour near Fairbanks. The Chena tour guide demonstrated how the salmon caught in the fish wheel (the contraption in the water) would be fileted, dried, and then smoked.
Luke checks out this hunting cabin from an Dena'ina Indian encampment we saw along the Susitna River during our jet boat tour from Telkeetna. The tall structure is called a “cache” where food and gear were stored (hopefully) out of reach of the wildlife. The fish camp would be closer to the river’s edge.
Modern Day Fish Camp
Today’s fish camp isn’t really much different. When we arrived at the Bredin’s “fish camp” on July 16th, the “reds” (Cohoes salmon) and the “silvers” were just starting to make their way to the spawning grounds off Cook Inlet and up the Kenai River. The fisherman were also making their way from all over the state to the Kenai Peninsula to catch their limits.
The Bredin’s place was already packed with pick-up campers, Class C motorhomes, and a number of tents. There was no room for us or the Kings so we stayed again in nearby Soldotna, three free overnight parking courtesy of the local Fred Meyer Store. BTW, commercial campgrounds raise their prices about $10/night in July and still fill up.
We were warmly greeted by David and Jayne and given a tour of the “garage” that the Peltons converted into a downstairs kitchen and eating area and the upstairs “apartment” they created with windows overlooking the Kenai. The big attraction, however, was the “bluff” where benches, picnic tables, pole racks, and a steep ladder awaited those headed for the dock below..
Dave shows Luke the view from the bluff directly above the horseshoe bend of the Kenai River. Frank and Gloria King also enjoyed the view.
A boat dock awaits at the bottom of this very steep staircase.
Across the river from the Bredins’ fish camp is the popular commercial fishing outfitter, RW, who has a condo-based fish camp that runs about $800 per night! The fish being caught on the shore and from the drift boats were non-stop. The “run” had started!
Dave explained his fish camp has been attracting regulars for the past 20 years. (Jayne admitted that sometimes she doesn’t know all their guests, but if they are friends of a friend (of a friend), it doesn’t really matter.) Alaskans are welcoming people as we discovered.
The first batch of “reds” arrived by ice chest on Saturday afternoon. Approximately 45 fish were deposited in front of the fish cleaning station and the camp went into the packaging business.
After a quick rinse, Dave puts on his rubber apron and the cleaning begins.
The fish are sorted by gender so the roe can be harvested for bait.
The filets are then re-washed and moved to a large tent where they are sized, packaged with a date label, and then put into a commercial vacuum sealer before being frozen. (We were not there when other fish was smoked.)
On Saturday we were told we had missed seeing the 54 lb. King Salmon a young lady had caught. On Sunday, when we returned for a second visit to the camp, another load of fish was delivered and this lady asked for a weigh-in. The salmon weighed about 26 lbs. but I think she was pulling on the line when the photo was snapped.
Counting the Fish?
At the rate we saw salmon being caught, we wondered how many fish are caught on their way to the spawning grounds. We were told not to worry; there were millions of fish and this year’s run is setting records. And, how do they know? They use sonar to count the fish at various locations along the spawning routes. The Alaska Outdoor Journal publishes the sonar counts collected by the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game.
This chart shows that the average run during the past 21 years of counting has equaled about 1.27 million Sockeye caught on the Kenai River. Check out those “spikes” vs. the average represented by the dotted lines. In the past week, approximately 829,000+ salmon had made it past all the commercial, subsistence, and sport fishermen. There are so many fish that the ADFG has increase the limits and extended “dipnet” fishing to 24 hours a day through this weekend.
“Dipnetting” was another new term for us non-fishermen. As mentioned earlier, Alaskan residents are allowed “subsistence” fishing and can literally stand at the mouth of the Kenai River or along designated rivers and use large nets attached to very long poles to catch their fish. Last Sunday we took a drive to the municipal park in Kenai where Cook Inlet feeds into the mouth of the Kenai River to see what dipnetting was all about. Some call it “combat fishing”.
View from the bluff above the mouth of the river where dipnetters lined both banks – in the rain.
We then moved down to the beach to take in all the action. The Alaskan residents have all different style nets, beach wagons, and cleaning stations. It sounds gross, but after cleaning, the fish carcasses are left on the beaches to go out with the next high tides.
After being caught, the fish were removed from the nets on the beach, rinsed in the river, and packed or fileted on-site.
We also checked out the shore fishing action in downtown Soldotna. Luke and Frank (the twins) stood at the top of the fishwalk to check things out before heading down to the river.
Gloria and I were impressed families are included in the fishing – if you consider sitting in the rain waiting patiently as participating. This area was also handicap accessible. We worried if the guy at the end of the dock in the wheelchair might get pulled in if he caught a really big salmon.
It has been a week since our visit to the Kenai Peninsula fishing grounds. As we have moved about, we have noticed that the fish run is just getting going in other areas. On our way to Valdez, we stopped at the confluence of the Chitina and Copper River on the Edgerton Highway to look at the line of “fish wheels” buoyed near the shore. They were working but we didn’t see any fish.
We’ve also been visiting the fishing areas along the Port of Valdez and the only ones catching fish have been the Stellar sea lions and the grizzly bear we watched grabbing their dinners at the mouth of the local fish hatchery. But that’s a different blog…….