After a late freeze-up, Kotzebue fishermen welcome ice season

We head out of Kotzebue by snowmachine. It's not too cold out, but cold enough that the ice is thick beneath our treads.

We're traveling out to check Darin Nelson and his father, Louis Sr.'s, nets on Kobuk Lake and he's picked a good time to go. It's a clear, calm window between two winter storm fronts that bring lots of powder and high winds.

"There's more snow on the ground out here than there was last year at this time," says Nelson as we stop by the shoreline before heading out onto the lake.

His nets, strung through the thick ice, are about 17 miles north of town. His father's camp, where the 72-year-old musher and all-around local legend overwinters, is another eight miles north of that.

Photos: Ice fishing for sheefish outside Kotzebue

We're meeting his father out on the lake today along with freelance writer Diana Saverin, who's looking after a camp cabin for a little while.

Not too long ago, father and son Nelson set their nets as soon as the lake froze this year, treading carefully on the ice when it only measured a few inches.

"That is when we get the most," says the younger. "Right when it freezes up -- up to a hundred a day."


But freeze-up happened later than usual this year. Temperatures stayed warm through late fall with open water on the Kotzebue Sound lasting past Halloween.

"Freeze-up was so long and slow," Saverin says.

Once relatively consistent, the timing of freeze-up has become sporadic over the past decade or so, which means a later start to the freshwater ice fishing that provides the much-needed sheefish Nelson and other mushers will feed their dogs in the coming months. It's a popular choice for mushers, as its high water content makes a good snack for racing teams.

Without it, they have to turn to other, often more costly options. That's why Nelson's relieved the weather took a turn for the colder rather than breaking any new heat records this winter.

"Shoot, once I was boating around one week in December hunting seals," he says. "Just never know."

Tomcod fishing outside of Kotzebue also started later this year and locals were surprised to see caribou following the shoreline in front of town a few weeks ago heading to their wintering grounds; they couldn't cross the ice, as there wasn't any.

Now that the ice has come, Nelson is taking orders from mushers around the state who want tons of the white-meat fish. He heads out every day -- every other day if it's slow -- to check his nets.

This is a slow day. He and his father and Saverin shovel the snow back from their access holes marked with willow branches. They pick through the ice and shovel off the excess, then pull their nets up with rope.

His net produces about 27 fish and his father's two nets about 38 combined.

"When the tide is wrong for us, it's slow," he says.

There is one surprising find, though.

"It's one of those hybrids!" his father says, holding up a fish that doesn't quite look like the others. "I asked a scientist about this before and that's what he called it."

After a few photos of the rare specimen, they toss it unceremoniously in the sled with the rest.

Picking the fish off the nets isn't something either Nelson seems to mind. They work steadily and efficiently, taking just as much time as they need to take to finish their task.

"I am a fisherman at heart," the younger Nelson says.

Once the nets are picked clean and re-strung beneath the ice, the three pass around cookies and capfuls of piping hot coffee from a thermos.

Then they pack up their gear, make sure the fish are steady on the sled, and each snowmachine heads off in its own direction.


Nelson Sr. heads back to his winter camp.

"Like the ancient Eskimos you move with the times," his son describes.

The younger Nelson heads back to Kotzebue, though he'll return later to meet his father at camp for the weekend.

It's a slow, yet successful net check, but more than that, it's what Nelson looks forward to with the coming of winter.

"I love the thrill of driving out to seek the fish," he says, "the feeling of being in the country and being able to spend time with my father, who taught me all I know."

This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.