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Sighs of relief, satisfaction after strong salmon return in Kotzebue

  • Author: Seth Kantner
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published September 6, 2014

KOBUK RIVER -- Out along the rock bar, the current is deep and dark. My daughter, China, and I stand on the uneven rocks at the edge of the eddy, pulling our net ashore, unhurried, hoping for a tasty fish for dinner and no more. It's a tiny net compared to the nets I've been using on the coast lately, and the webbing is old, almost neon yellow.

Here the river runs straight for five miles; the surface reflects gray and silver and the water feels immense. Occasionally, we peer far upstream to Paungaqtaugruk, keeping an eye out for animals crossing, and downriver, too, down past the mouth of the Hunt. A cold north breeze is falling out of the mountains, carrying the faint scent of rotting salmon. Below us on the bar, bear and wolf tracks are dark pocks in soft sand, and farther west toward where the sun disappears behind approaching rain clouds, a flock of seagulls lift and settle, working together on dead fish.

The gill net is just 30 feet long, and only a yard in depth. It has a mishmash of small assorted floats, ones we cut crosswise into pieces decades ago -- to make sure the net sank easily. The webbing is holey and shallow, the size and mesh we used to set under the ice 40 years ago, for whitefish, back when I was a kid fresh from our first season commercial fishing. That was the year I got my first sled dog puppies from Herbert Foster, and we needed dog food.

The willows and shrubs visible along the shore were much smaller then, and the birches and spruce on the banks were shorter, too. The world felt newer, cleaner, and clearer -- which, for me anyway, it surely was. Now, with jet contrails in the sky, dead fish strangely littering the sandbars, and all this tall new vegetation, the world doesn't feel as simple as it once did.

As we pull in the net, a huge black back appears from the depths. A snout of wicked teeth rises above the surface, terribly snarled in yellow webbing. A second dark back follows, with beautiful wine-colored strips down the curved flank of the smaller female salmon.

"Oh, shucks," I grin at China. "Sammy and Samantha." I pull on gloves, and together we work carefully to release the toothy salmon without getting our fingers gashed as they twist and writhe. The female darts away, and we cheer her on. Meanwhile, the big male recovers slowly, swimming back and forth, its dorsal fin showing like a miniature shark.

Wild commercial season

We pull in more salmon -- rough-looking, narrow, skinny and multicolored -- and release them. Tonight we want a whitefish for dinner, or better yet a trout. These salmon look like horror-show beasts compared with those thousands of silver beauties I spent the last six weeks catching while commercial fishing in Kotzebue Sound.

The commercial salmon season was a wild one this summer; the run came early and continued in record numbers, and that aligned for a change with three buyers instead of the usual lone fish buyer we're accustomed to. Without all three, we couldn't have handled the increase in boats and so many fish. And the price rose to three times that of last season.

It was a perfect coming-together of things that haven't clicked for our fishery in a long time. Kotzebue felt again like it did back in the day, when I was a kid -- a fishing town, with skiffs racing out of the lagoon, and fishermen moving with purpose on the shore, their sleeves stinking and cash bulging in their pockets.

Dusty old work boats, unused for 20 years, were hoisted out from behind junk in peoples' yards and shoved into the water. Anchors and faded splotchy buoys were tracked down, and ratty nets pulled out of the weeds.

Pennies a pound

For quite a few years now, it's been something of an embarrassment to admit to being a commercial fisherman in Kotzebue. Of course everyone with 20 minutes in Alaska loves to sneer at chum salmon (the only salmon we catch in numbers in Kotzebue), this without knowing that ours is the farthest-north commercial salmon fishery in America, with big splendid, bright, ocean-caught, high-oil-content chums that are not your ordinary chums. Also, locally in the late 1980s and 90s our fishery started a steep decline -- right about the time big money-jobs started pouring into the region.

Ten years ago we were already a decade into being paid pennies a pound for our salmon.

In those bad seasons, even lucky fishermen were only grossing a few thousand bucks--enough to pay for gas, oil and waders, and barely a partner. Any coffee or whiskey or a new prop was out of pocket. Most of us had other jobs to help with our fishing habit. It certainly wasn't "cool" to brag about being a commercial fisherman here -- more like admitting you were broke and didn't have a driver's license. Or that you still hunted muskrat for a living.

In those years, there were only 20 or so of us who wouldn't give up. That's out of a former fleet of 200-plus permit holders. Don Koutchak, James McClellan and Bergman Nelson were out there, of course, and Andrew Greene, David Harris, Chuck Jones, and Darin Nelson. (Hmm, now that I think about it, about a third of the fishery is made up of Nelsons. They are die-hard ones. Maybe they all were born with gills.)

In 2002, Tom Monson, our longtime fish buyer, finally couldn't squeeze out a tiny profit and called it quits. That year I was the only one dogged enough to try to fish and ship out what I caught, along with my partners. State Fish and Game records show what Kotzebue Sound Fishery (me) grossed that year: $7,572. That's before the costs of leasing heavy equipment, buying ice, paying partners and all other expenses.

Regardless, some of us have never stopped believing in our fishery, and in these beautiful fish we've so long admired. The numbers had to come around in our favor; every day there are more people on earth, and less food from the sea, right? Sooner or later, we knew, our fish had to shine again. This season it happened. We're incredibly lucky to have all these salmon coming home, and it's an extra bonus they're commanding a fair price.

All local

Last year, I was angered when an Anchorage news service made disparaging mention of our fishery in a story on the potential road to Ambler. The comparison was about Pebble mine's potential to harm Bristol Bay, versus the possible effects of a big open-pit mine on the upper Kobuk. Basically, they wrote off Kotzebue Sound as not having a "viable" fishery. Not to mention the other resident fish in the river that would be endangered.

Our fishery may be small and low-tech and hometown, but that's part of what's best about it. Every time I talk to someone who fishes Bristol Bay, they are from somewhere else. Everywhere else. Fishermen come from all over.

There is nothing wrong with that -- lucky them. But it's not like that here. Our fishery couldn't be more local. Everyone on the water lives here in Kotzebue and the villages. Even being a white guy out there, I feel like the Lone Ranger at times. Everyone pitching fish at the dock is from here, everyone down at the airlines and freight terminal, everyone at the power-plant making ice.

Really, it's hard to imagine a cash industry aligning more perfectly with the Native, local and traditional mindset: Fishing is seasonal, close to home, tough and rough work, out in the weather, harvesting nature with our hands.

And now, this evening, it's over for another year. And that's always good, too -- a relief after the intensity of it all. It's the season to pick cranberries, and caribou will be here soon, too, we hope. Local fishermen will be heading out in different directions on a different quest now, hunting.

It's getting dusky along the river. My daughter and I have kept a big grayling and that is all. Overhead is a patch of deep blue evening sky and the first fall stars scratching through. Somewhere down in the water, the worn and ragged salmon still are passing, using the last strength in their bodies to protect a perfect future. And China and I leave our old net, stacked under rocks, and carry our catch home across the shallows.

Seth Kantner is the author of "Shopping for Porcupine" and the bestselling novel "Ordinary Wolves." He lives in Northwest Alaska and can be reached at sethkantner.com.

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