Rain, rumors and salmon

Seth Kantner

Rain is slopping down, the wind gusting to 30. My fishing partner, Andrew Greene, and I just called it quits on the season. It's tough to do when you're thinking salmon, stinking of salmon, dreaming salmon -- very addicted to fishing the way we are. But, today is the last day of the commercial season anyway.

Fishing has been a washout for two weeks or more. After a blue spring where it seemed the sky had forgotten how to rain and the tundra was crispy and burning (the precipitation for the year was at 1.8 inches), summer came and dumped so many weeks of rain down on us that now we hardly remember the sun.

Even the berry pickers and ivory-treasure-hunters (lots of addicts there too) are getting cabin fever. We are all wondering, did we somehow move to Ketchikan without knowing it?

Somewhere in the gray I started talking to a Missouri farmer named Kevin. He makes knives in his spare time, something I occasionally do also.

"My crops are all burned up," he said. He told of being in the middle of the worst drought since the Great Depression.

"We're flooded up here," I responded. I sent him pictures of the brown ocean.

Up toward the mouth of the Noatak River, it's hard to picture those parched fields we're hearing about on the news. The muddy brown current is flooding out logs, sticks and dirt. Meanwhile, one southerly blow after another has brought storm surges in from the Bering Sea. All that current and turbulent water snuffed out our fishing season.

I guess it's time to think about caribou and berries and let salmon fishing go. Somewhere out there, though ... silvery salmon are still swimming, hidden somewhere in all that muddy water. I hope a lot of them are spawning, having the time of their lives now that they've successfully eluded us.

Seriously though, an addiction like salmon fishing doesn't cease overnight. It's no easier than putting away your snow-go in the spring. Lots of folks here have it bad. Bobby Richards. Staley Foster. A bunch of the Nelsons got it. The Joneses too. I think half of Raymond Brown's kids got it bad -- Jimmy, Elmer, Raymond Jr. -- they're all out there banging around in boats. This is the last day of the season, pouring rain and wind, dirty nets, most of the fish gone and they're probably still out there.

Andrew hasn't taken his net out of his boat yet; my stink waders are right behind the door; my thermos is even full. When I'm done writing this we'll probably slip across the sound -- saying we are trying to get fish for the freezer but mostly wanting to clamp our hands one more time before winter on a few more beautiful, shiny, powerful, totally-alive salmon.

What's amazing now is how sunny and great the season started. Well, ahem, not all was wall to wall sunshine even then. Actually, it never is with fishermen.

At the fisherman's meeting at the old NANA fish plant there were a lot of growls about the 32 cents per pound that Great Pacific Seafoods planned to pay, down from 40 cents the previous two seasons. Some people turned to me. Rumor had it -- the one I heard, anyway -- that Seth Kantner was going to buy 200,000 pounds at $1.60 per pound. You simply had to get on his list, get some quick training on how to bleed and ice fish, then just head out, I guess, and haul in boatloads of hundred-dollar bills. Something like that.

When I came downriver after breakup that was the first thing I heard, that big rumor about me and fishing. I'm used to rumors and know they're generally nonsense and also usually have a lot of extra zeros added along the way. Especially fish rumors.

I also know that I sell fish. I don't buy them. I don't recall ever buying a single fish in my life. The big problem with this rumor was I didn't know anything about it. And other fishermen were already getting irked and jealous and mad.

The rumor was rumored to have been set lose on KOTZ radio and it was moving much faster than any of the tundra fires. Andrew of course thought it was great fun. "Just get on Seth Kantner's list. He will pay you $16 a pound. Hundred and sixty dollars an ounce. Retroactive ..."

Back on the first day of the season catches were surprisingly good. All that first week I heard how great fishing was and, later, the fleet even had the record catch of the last 20 years.

I missed most of that sunny fishing, unfortunately. I was tangled up in stuff that smart fishers generally avoid.

For two seasons now I've been shipping out a very small portion of my own and Andrew's catch to Kodiak, to be processed for a local company, Maniilaq LLC, to use to try to set up a value-added market for Kotzebue salmon. Sort of a precursor to a someday outlet for high-end smoked fish and fillets. Hopefully. If we can work out all the problems and logistics involved in getting fresh salmon from the Arctic to the world market.

Unfortunately, the details of chilling fish, boxing fish, shipping fish, storing fish are endless and tiresome, not at all part of the wild, exciting side of commercial salmon fishing. Basically, a person gets into fishing to get away from all that.

I thought I was smarter, but somehow I seem to get tangled in my own nets. In this case I had to wade through air freight and ice issues, wax boxes, staples, labels, emails, phone calls, licenses -- the headaches were constant, endless, reccurring, late into the night. Every night. Shipping fish is no picnic.

Last year, with help from Andrew and my dad and family, I shipped out 1,153 salmon. Rumor of course had it that I fished illegally, fished during closures, and made millions. In actuality, Fish and Game simply set separate openers for my buyer and for the other buyer and I shipped out just under 10,000 pounds. The price for the fish: 60 cents a pound.

Is that $6 million? You do the math. Wait, no! I forgot: rumors. I'll do the math.

Ten thousand pounds at 60 cents per pound -- the correct answer is $6,000. That is before splitting the take, of course. And then paying for gas and other expenses too. When the smoke clears, it's called fishing.

The main payoff of shipping out small quantities of fish is hauling in small loads of perfect fresh salmon, treating each fish like one that my family would eat -- bleeding them, icing them, handling each with care.

In the end, it's a bunch of things that gets us out there, all of us drawn out there on the wide water. Never quite knowing what's under the surface -- green slime algae, terrible current, sunken logs, seals stealing your fish -- or sudden splashing and an amazing swarm of silver pouring into your net. It's the sky overhead, huge and ready to howl with wind, and you working as hard as you can, hauling in nets and fish and more fish, breathing in air and spray and ...

I think I need to go. I've got to go set my net!

Seth Kantner is the author of "Shopping for Porcupine" and the bestselling novel "Ordinary Wolves." He lives with his wife and daughter in Northwest Alaska and can be reached at sethkantner.com. His column runs on the second Sunday of each month in the Daily News' Arts and Life section.

Seth Kantner
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