Fishing as an Alaskan way of life

[story and photography by Lee Leschper]

Our drift boat floated across emerald water and through the early morning fog. It was already promising to be an Alaska day to remember, with old friends making new memories on the Upper Kenai.

Spooking a pair of eagles feeding on dead salmon, my friends and I pulled onto a broad rocky bank, knowing red salmon would be hugging it on their way upriver.

We stepped into cold, clear water and began swinging sparse flies through seams in the gravel. It took only a few casts before one of us hooked a thick and strong buck, twisting and running through the current long before it could be brought to the net. Another day in paradise.

This day we were just like hundreds of thousands of other Alaskans and visiting anglers, filling an August day with memories and a cooler with salmon fillets.

Is love the right word to describe Alaskans’ relationship with our salmon? Is it strong enough describe a thing that not only enriches your spirit and challenges your skill, but also feeds your family and nourishes your environment?

There would not be an Alaska as we know it without the five species of Pacific salmon that are spawned and die here. The rivers of great pink- and scarlet-fleshed fish flowing through our riparian veins are the living blood of the state, its wild places and its wildlife.

There might be an Alaskan who’s not passionate about salmon; I just haven’t met one yet. A hint at how much we love our fish? Try to find an Alaskan’s Facebook timeline without a salmon photo on it.

Salmon fill our dreams, our stories, our freezers, even our art—from social media posts to bumper stickers, to sculpture throughout our cities, to the Alaska Airlines jet painted in the image of a king salmon (and nicknamed the “Salmon Thirty Salmon”).

Images of salmon have been carved into the red cedar totems throughout Southeast Alaska for centuries, reflecting the Tlingit and Haida cultures so entwined with its fish.

Ultimately this bounty had to attract outsiders, who changed Alaska forever, just as sea otters had brought Russians and gold and oil had brought miners. Long before William Seward purchased Alaska from the Russians, ships of hard men from the West Coast traveled north to Alaska waters every summer to fish salmon.

Beginning in the 1870s, tall-masted sailing vessels headed to Alaska carrying everything from fishing gear and men, to sheet steel for making cans and wood to box up those cans when filled with salmon. From this humble beginning evolved the six billion dollar Alaska seafood industry.

Where once canning was the only way to get salmon to market, today fresh Wild Alaska Salmon is a premium brand commanding premium prices worldwide.

Salmon played a large part in the fight to have Alaska join the Union as the 49th State. The evolution of commercial fishing had grown to include “fish traps,” large enclosures that commercial fishermen had used effectively to catch most salmon running upstream to spawn.

A driving goal for Alaska statehood was eliminating fish traps, and charging the state to protect its natural resources for the best and widest uses of Alaska citizens.

That includes protecting and managing wildlife, including salmon as a basic food source, a tenet that doesn’t exist elsewhere in the country. The mindset here prompts the oft-quoted quip from Alaskans lecturing visiting sportsmen. They like to chide that if you practice catch-and-release, you’re just “playing with your food.”

All five species of Pacific salmon in Alaska follow the same life cycle; all will die after they spawn. So, ensuring the excess is turned into food makes perfect sense. All Alaska salmon spawn in rivers or streams far from salt water. They grow from eggs to tiny fry to finger-sized smolt that migrate downstream to the sea, where they spend from two years (for pinks), to as much as seven years for the most giant Kenai king salmon.

There is no waste in this cycle of nature—salmon that spawn and die provide the nutrients that feed everything else here from bears and eagles to the forest and trout.

And yet the magic and mystery of that cycle also carries concerns. So much of the fishes’ lives are lived at sea, at the mercy of larger fish, seals, predatory birds and fishermen’s nets—as well as changing environmental conditions, including a warming sea. And when a run declines or almost disappears, as has happened recently with Kenai and Yukon kings, it’s a high stakes guessing game for anglers, fisheries and biologists to identify, and perhaps address, the cause.

This day on the Kenai, the sky brightened and air warmed with morning sun, and my friends and I took turns hooking and netting and photographing beautiful sockeye (red) salmon. (continued on page 2)

Salmon Connection from Sitka Sound Science Center on Vimeo.

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