Alaska is famous for its rivers which fill with salmon each summer. Each species comes at an expected time, first the kings (chinoook), then the reds (sockeye), and finally the silvers (coho) and pinks. Anglers throughout the state pursue them by boat, rod-and-reel, and nets depending on the location and intent. A specific section of the Alaska fishery is deemed a “personal use fishery”. Even more so than other fishing regulations, harvest in these regions is meant to fill freezers for the upcoming winter. Alaskan residents are allowed to use a variety of nets on poles to harvest up to 25 salmon each.
Chitina River is a 112 mile tributary of the Copper River. As of July 28th, 2015, 1,341,545 sockeye salmon had made the run upriver (adfg.alaska.gov)!! The abundance of fish attracts hundreds of fishermen each day. The Chitina River is highly braided and variable in depth, and flows out of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park from the Chitina Glacier. Because of the glacier melt, the water is chocolaty brown all year. Chitina drainage is a truly rugged and beautiful area; the banks of the river are renowned by the anglers who walk down them for their steepness.
I had a lot to learn before hitting the trail to the river. I was lucky that on a Friday evening it was packed wall-to-wall with fisherman. Most were standing around recounting the action of the day, cleaning fish, or planning for the next morning. I heard a group of four guys giving out tips to a fifth guy standing with them, and inched in to listen and then ask a few questions. The first thing the leader of the group emphasized was safety. Fishing in the “canyon” can be particularly treacherous due to the steep walls. Many fisherman choose to tie themselves to the rocks when fishing the canyon. Second, be ready to stay out for awhile because the fish come in pulses based on the flow of the water among other factors. Last thing was to find an eddy behind a bolder or point where the current was headed back up stream. Placing your net in the swirling, upstream current ensured it stayed open for passing fish using the eddy as an energetic rest-stop. Visibility was 0 inches due to the turbid waters from melting glaciers, so it was necessary to wait for the “bump” which signified a fish in the net. As he described the bump I could only hope I would know what he meant the next day.
Early in the morning we skittered down the steep banks of the Chitina River. I picked an eddy that seemed fitting, and as I dipped my net in the water its pocket billowed out perfectly. I perched expectantly on the shore and leaned lightly on the net to keep it turned open in the rushing current. As it turned out the bump was pretty distinct! Although I could not see the salmon swim into the net, I could imagine its nose hitting the mesh, it becoming disorientated, and lying flat in the mesh bag as it was pushed sideways by the swift current. It was at that moment that I raised the net out of the water to catch my first sockeye from the Chitina. It only took 7 minutes from the time I started fishing, and I had visions of completing my 25 fish limit quickly! However, the second piece of advice became very evident to me as I stood on the banks of the river. The fish only trickled into my net, and then after 4 stopped completely. I did not catch another for the entire day.
After two days of fishing I ended with seven beautiful sockeye salmon, and although I did not “catch my limit”, I felt very grateful and blessed to be able to partake in this unique, Alaskan fishery! As important as it is to put what you need away for the winter, it is important to save a couple for the grill too! These fresh salmon on the grill with lemon pepper and olive oil, and grilled sweet potatoes was as good as it gets, and a gratifying way to celebrate a successful trip to the Chitina River.