Fishing for a family's food

An Alaskan whose family holds a subsistence fishing permit chronicles their annual trip to the Kasilof River, where they fish for sockeye salmon using set-nets.
Crosscut archive image.

Set-netting involves the whole family. (Linda Kellen Biegel)

An Alaskan whose family holds a subsistence fishing permit chronicles their annual trip to the Kasilof River, where they fish for sockeye salmon using set-nets.

Each year, starting on June 15 and lasting for 10 days, there is a ritual unique to Alaska residents that brings out the diehard fishermen and women in many of us. It's the subsistence set-netting and dip-netting season for sockeye "red" salmon — the best way to get a whole year of salmon at one time.

Some choose dip-netting over set-netting. Dip-netting requires the fishers to repeatedly drag a long-handled net on a metal/fiberglass/resin frame through a strong current while wearing uncomfortable hip/chest waders in hypothermia-inducing water.

Others choose "set-netting," which requires a number of friends and family, as well as a four-wheeler, to drag a gill-net into the water on each tide. While set-netting, participants can watch the fish hit the net while they have coffee and sit around the fire. As you might guess, we prefer the latter method.

The fishing takes place on a beach where the mouth of the Kasilof River meets Cook Inlet. While driving out this year, we passed every type of vehicle and campsite imaginable — from state-of-the-art RVs with their shiny new ATVs and barbecue grills to beat-up pick-ups with makeshift tarp shelters and dug-out fire pits.

At the mouth of the river, the sites where folks have established their nets extend to the end of the beach in both directions. Most folks are friendly and wave to each other as they pass. Some, however, put up barriers to stop the ATVs that frequently race by with various-aged kids at the helm.

Set nets work on a pulley system. Ropes stretch out from stakes at the top of the beach into the water. Other stakes are pounded-in far out at low tide by folks in waders who slog through the mud. The ropes are then attached to the net; one person pulls it into the water, and another pulls it out.

Each net represents a family with a special subsistence "tag" allowing the "head of household" to take 25 fish and each additional family member 10 fish a piece. Also, while many folks use ATVs and small 4x4 pickups to haul equipment to their sites and to haul their net(s) in and out of the water, many others replace technology, with friends and family members hauling on the rope instead. Even the kids get to work together as a team!

This is an event where "the more the merrier" definitely applies — especially in preparing the fish after they are caught. Salmon-gutting and filleting stations are set up by the water; these often consist of nothing more than two large trash cans with a slab of wood on top. It's easy to see who is working on their fish by the swarms of gulls that follow, eager for a free meal — the same gulls who alert net-watchers to the presence of fish in the nets by pecking at them.

Between the two tides on a Saturday, a family close to us ended up with 26 salmon, and we ended up with 25 salmon and one flounder: a perfect day. While officially my family is entitled to 45 salmon, we learned that is way too many for us — even though we give away a number of them.

This year, we were very lucky with the weather. My husband and father-in-law went out to the beach (about 30 miles from the house) to be there for the high tide at 6 a.m. while I was to follow with my mother-in-law, the kids and lunch later on. When I woke at about 8 a.m., I thought the Kenai River sounded much louder than usual (my in-laws live above the river) but discovered the rushing sound was a downpour. Fortunately, by the time we left the house, the rain had stopped and did not return until we left on Sunday.

Set-netting is not only a lifestyle, it is an addiction. In 2005, just hours before my husband and I were getting married, there I was on the beach destroying my hands, nails, and hair gutting and filleting salmon. I thought the manicurist was going to have a coronary on the morning of my wedding when I explained to her why I had ugly callouses and shredded nails.

Next year, we will be playing an even more active role. We'll be taking close to a week of vacation time to help set up the campsite, much to the delight of my daughter and her cousins. All of the work is taking a toll on my husband's parents, and this is a family tradition worth supporting; it brings all of us together for a common goal and an opportunity to experience a unique aspect of Alaskan life. We are building memories that our kids will carry with them for the rest of their lives.

We're also feeding our families healthy food that we wouldn't otherwise be able to afford at $25 a fillet.


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