It’s an exhausting experience. Dipnetting is a 24 hour minimum time and work commitment, and it’s worth every bit of it. Even though after 2 washings my clothes still smell like salmon. Even though my half cab vans shoes were on their last leg anyway, they now reek of salmon and are headed for the trash a little sooner. My watch band is starting to smell like leather again, though just barely. The boat had a cumulative limit of 155 Red Salmon, and we met that limit easily. It was a glorious blur of slime, sunburn, clubbing, and Alaska.
My condo complex has a tight parking lot (for a truck and boat trailer), so I carried my dipnet, cooler, and backpack across the street to the huge Baptist church parking lot at 4 am. Around 4:15 R picked me up and off we went. As we headed down the Turnagain Arm the haze of the forest fires that dot the Kenai Peninsula and interior were unmistakable. You could smell a hint of those remote fires when we made a pit stop at Turnagain Pass. By 8 am we were chipping over the waves of the Kasilof River and approaching the mouth, glimpsing the wide open ocean in front of us. We would work small laps of 10 minutes each as we trolled with the current into the ocean before motoring back into the river. The plan was simple, and the limit was 155. And it needed to be met.
People littered the shoreline with their purchased, modified, or completely home fabricated dipnets outstretched into the ocean as the water lapped into their chest waders. Their vehicles and tents dotted the ridge behind them. The Kasilof had been open for dipnetting for over a week already.
“Alright guys, drop your nets in, “ R announced.
Three nets went in, and in about 2 seconds I had a nice 10lb salmon twisting and flopping in my net. After pulling him in and fidgeting with the net he twisted further and further in, I finally extracted him, cut his gill, and threw the bleeding fish into an empty cooler. I needed to get faster at the whole process, and most importantly find a way to avoid the endless tangling of the fish in the net.
After another half dozen fish I stumbled onto a few keys. I noticed that the majority of the time when you pull a netted fish in, the fish was not excessively tangled. The tangling seemed to increase exponentially as the fish flopped around in the boat. Ergo, close the window of opportunity for the fish by clubbing him as quickly and concisely as possible. A few whacks usually will do the job, but it often merely stuns. You are looking for the death rattle – the rapid lateral vibration down the fish that quickly descends into relaxation. At my top speed I had the net out of the water about 2 minutes while processing a fish. Not bad. Searching for the death rattle is the morbid key.
I never had 2 fish in my net at once, though everyone else did. At 2pm the dirty yellow notepad we had been marking our fish on tallied us up to 155, so off we sped up river looking for a smooth patch of water to anchor up in and get down to business.
As we loaded the coolers to the shore and began the task of clipping the rear fins off of each fish (so they could never be sold commercially) I realized just how filthy we had become. Scales and dried slime speckled our cheeks, blood and scales soaked our thighs, and I noticed the now permanent stain of blood on my fatigues where I had been wiping the gill cutting knife. We rinsed the coolers, gave the fish a quick swish in the river, and loaded back up, leaving a pile of fins on the bank behind us. We’re lucky we didn’t encounter a bear, particularly because nobody was packing.
Off we roared to Seward for processing tables and filleting. While this may have added 60 miles to our day, the ability to leave all of the carcasses in one place and simply drive back to Anchorage with filets is priceless. The filth and smell of our clothing and bodies only stewed further.
I walked into my place at 12:30 am, left a pile of rank clothing right inside the doorway, and jetted upstairs for the shower. At noon the next day I drove to Chugiak to finish sealing the fish in vacuum bags, ending a total of 24 hours worth of work and traveling to catch and process 155 Sockeye Salmon. My freezer has over 50 of them right now, so there will be no heart disease for me this coming year.
My clothes still have a faint whiff of salmon and I never thought I would be so eager to repeatedly witness a death rattle. Alaska is a wonderful, unique place.