The evolution of fishing in Bristol Bay

salmon stock

Fish traps have been in use ever since there has been water and mud. Original inhabitants of Alaska who lived along the river systems figured out quite quickly how to trap fish. The first traps were just basic rock and stick contraptions that guided fish into dead-end channels. Fish could then be scooped out by hand.

Traps became more sophisticated as generations progressed. Hoop traps were built from willows. These traps were tube-shaped and relatively small. The openings, on both ends, were like modified funnels.

They were set near the bank on small creeks, or completely blocking sloughs. Target fish would swim into the trap, guided by the funnel. It was then almost impossible for the fish to find the small opening to escape.

Fish traps or fyke traps are still used today at places in coastal Alaska. Blackfish, which are small fish that look similar to sculpin, are often targeted. Blackfish can live and reproduce successfully in low-oxygen environments. A properly set fish trap can be packed with these small fish if set in a narrow slough. The Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta is a favorite area for these traps. Fish traps are not as effective on larger rivers. Sticks and floating logs can take them out easily.

A second generation of fish-capture methods was born. Nets came into being. No one truly knows what the first nets were made from. Sinew is the best guess. The other possibility is spruce roots. Neither of these materials have stood the test of time. Nets were effective in locations where traps could not be used. It is likely that the first nets were scoop-like. The dipnets that are used in Chitina or at the mouth of the Kenai River are of the same basic design.

Setnets were the next innovation. Nets could be put out and left alone. The idea that net mesh could be sized to catch fish behind the gills, where they couldn’t back out, was genius. Efficient nets were not developed until cotton came along. The twine instead of roots and sinew changed the entire concept of netting. Nets became stronger and longer. They could be stored and carried easily. For the first time fishermen could catch more fish than they could use.

Fish wheels, which most think of as an Alaska Native contraption, did not come on the scene until recently. A fish wheel is essentially a device run by river current that scoops fish from the water in a basket and drops the fish into a holding bin. Fish wheels were first used on the Yukon and Copper rivers. They require deep water and significant numbers of fish. Wheels have fallen out of favor lately, mostly because of regulations. Fish wheels are most effective in muddy waters.


Bristol Bay was the site of the first large commercial fish operations in Alaska. The huge sockeye runs to Bristol Bay rivers made for a lucrative business. Salteries were the original method used to preserve fish for resale. The fish were split and packed in wooden barrels, loaded on sailing ships and sent to the markets on the East Coast and elsewhere. Great numbers of sockeye were caught in fish traps built from pilings driven into the mud and then fenced. The pilings that formed these traps are still visible today in upper portions of Bristol Bay.

Early traps were located on mud flats that flooded 8 to 10 feet deep at high tide. They were the same basic design as the very first fish traps built by Native peoples. Eventually the traps were outlawed, mostly due to the waste associated with them. Nets replaced traps and the early Bristol Bay fishing fleet came into existence.

Nets were drifted from an open boat or set on the beach at low tide. Early salteries and canneries brought their own fishermen with them from Seattle for the boat fishery. Beach nets were tended by local families; mostly women and kids.

Cannery fishermen were primarily Scandinavians. Their names can still be found on old dormitory walls in defunct canneries. Native Alaskans were slowly worked into the processors’ fleets in the mid-1900s. Those who think the Bristol Bay fishery is being taken over by Outside fishermen need to take a look at some of the old fishermen lists. One will find that the bay began commercial operations with 100% outsiders. I’m not justifying — I’m just saying.

Powered fishing vessels have only been allowed in Bristol Bay for the past 70 years. Oars and sails ruled until the early 1950s. Things have changed considerably since then. The 30-foot sailboats were repowered with small marine engines. Cabins were built and decks with fish holds came into use.

Drift vessels of today are quite different. Bristol Bay has a 32-foot limit on vessel length. Many vessels are 16 feet wide and can carry 30,000 pounds of salmon. Refrigerated sea water cools the fish to maintain quality. Some boats are powered by twin jets and can travel at 25 to 30 knots in the shallow waters of Bristol Bay. Hydraulic reels pick up the nets.

Setnets have undergone similar changes. Very few nets are set by hand from the beach these days. Families still participate in the fishery and many setnetters are local folks, but to survive in a competitive fishery, participants must evolve.

The majority of setnet skiffs are powered by big 4-cycle outboards. Three-quarters of them have power rollers to bring nets full of fish across the gunwales to be picked. Fish are no longer held through the tide. Setnets deliver primarily to floating tenders that have refrigerated tanks or to beach trucks with iced totes. Quality is the name of the game.

Consistent large numbers of the most prized salmon, sockeye, and the best fishery management in the world, has made the Bristol Bay sockeye the standard to meet in quality of product and management efficiency. The Bristol Bay fishery has evolved from its humble roots to the top of the food chain.

John Schandelmeier

Outdoor opinion columnist John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.