May 09, 2013
The Alaska Salmon Bind
By Peter B. Mathiesen
Three years ago, outdoor writer, photographer, and consummate sportsman Peter Mathiesen left his hometown of St. Louis to start a new life in Alaska. Here’s why he made the move, what everyday life is like, and how it feels to have Denali right outside your window.
Few experiences can equal the first time you view a river filled with giant crimson salmon. The arresting image is simply what Alaska is all about.
Salmon are an inextricable link to Alaskan culture and, even today, to the survival to its people. Alaskan residents are the only non-Native Americans allowed to subsistence-fish during a salmon run.
They practice dip netting. Last year a family of four was allowed to net 55 sockeye salmon during this limited period (there are variables built in to the equation). The season may only last a week or two, it opens and closes based on sonar counts and river escapement formulas.
Many families depend on dip net season to offset expenses and deliver a natural, high-protein food source to their diet. Beaches and river mouths swarm with groups setting up fish camp, cleaning and packing bright, red-fleshed sockeyes while small children play in the black sand or dry themselves at the campfire. There is a great sense of community here; that you’re part of wild Alaska.
Although 2012 saw some of the largest returns of sockeyes the state has ever recorded, our salmon stocks are not ideal. There are critically low returns of kings, forcing river closures and highly limited bag limits. There are even catch-and-release restrictions on streams near my home in Talkeetna, in rural Alaska.
Controversy abounds as disgruntled guides (of which am one) feel the commercial fishing industry is the problem. Although there’s no agreement among researchers, many are looking at the bycatch and pressure from large-scale international factory ships. An insatiable quest for high-seas dollars exists, and many Alaskan believe these companies will fish until the last salmon is caught.
Projects like the Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay, and the Susitna-Watana Dam, planned just 60 miles from my home, have fostered a less-than-calm relationship between the locals and federal and state officials.
Most Alaskans, Native or non-Native, agree the salmon are the lifeblood of the state and must be sustained beyond the needs of the power and mining industries.
On a trip last August, I guided a couple that caught and released 50 fish on fly tackle in an afternoon. They needed to leave to catch their train right afterward, but wanted to spend the last hour sitting on a log while chum, silver and pink salmon bumped into their legs in the water. The woman was moved by the entire experience. “I didn’t know that I could feel such a part of the cycle of life,” she said. “The smell of fish, seeing eggs in the river, and the fish bumping into me…it’s perfection.”