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The Old Lady and The River-Fishing Tales in Alaska

December 28, 2012
Kenai River

Kenai River

Fishing in Alaska is boisterous and fat, just like the state. It’s full of adventure, extremes, danger, comedy, and growth. When I first moved here, I wasn’t really into fishing. My version of fishing consisted of bait, tackle, a crappy boat on a lake, usually in the deep south. I don’t recall going much, but my Uncle Leo was known for getting out there. I also don’t ever recall my dad going fishing. Ever. Not his thing. Not sure why-maybe it’s for the same reasons he isn’t a mechanic. Maybe the adventure wasn’t his style. Maybe it was about the patience required. It wasn’t my thing either as I never had any exciting experiences when it came to fishing. But, that was before I went fishing on a river.

I think this was fish #1, 2011

I think this was fish #1, 2011

Upon moving here, I met loads of people who loved to fish and I began to experiment. When it came to fly fishing, I never perfected it, but to this day, it is still the most spiritual sport that I have ever watched. Watching someone who knows how to fly fish is witnessing a spiritual connection; that person is one with the water, the fishing line, the shadows on the water, the rhythm that one must make while fly fishing, him or herself, and of course, the fish. But me, I was this sloppy and very uncoordinated fly fisher-woman and I have decided that if I’m not going to take a course in order to improve, I need to move away from that church. Watching them be with Mother Earth, I appreciate that relationship as it is a rare scene to see so many men (mostly men-although women are gaining on them) at peace, with a deep sense of gratitude for what it brought to their lives. Even though my patience couldn’t stand it at times, I always left a thankful observer, yet understanding that I didn’t reach their level. It was like I was an invited guest with viewing rights only.

Enter: My Dipnetting education. To understand what this style of fishing is like, try to picture combat fishing, loads of people around elbow to elbow, usually working together in groups, to catch as many fish as possible in as little time as possible. Combat fishing is everywhere in Alaska, when the runs are strong, but I’ve never experienced a quiet session of dipnetting and I can’t say that about reel and rod. There are two main ways to dipnet, from the shore or from a boat. Obviously, from the boat is much faster and the preferred method, but fishing from the shore brings a unique culture that you won’t find anywhere else.

View of the Kenai from Kenai Hiking Trail

View of the Kenai from Kenai Hiking Trail

In addition to the people, picture many styles of transportation around: boats, 4-wheelers, some of which are equipped with a specialty plank-board set up that can either hold more gear or people, bikes with interesting carriages, and even sleds. Whatever someone needs to make fishing easier, it’s right there on the beach. Now, add a tent city to the equation because when you go dipnetting on the shore, you must have a place to sleep; the tide schedule is insane and the hours can be rough if you aren’t hitting the high levels of fish. You should now have a decent picture in mind; but wait, add to that bonfires, grills, music, sand in all of your crevices, lots of mud, and an occasional booty-shaking party and you have arrived to a full-on dipnetting community, celebrating the freedom to fish in Alaska.

Although that is a sight to see and feel that comes with its own stories, one of the best people to know in Alaska is a river boat owner. It’s much easier, cleaner, faster, and graceful, that is if you’re good at pulling the net from the boat to keep your fish. The locals of the Kenai or Kasilof rivers are brilliant at this form of fishing because generation after generation, these families are growing up fishing from their boats. They can read the water and have impressive navigational skills, not to mention their efficiency. In addition, being with all of the families out on the water brings you into their community, and in some aspects, if you aren’t raised down there in those towns, being on the water with them is similar to traveling to a foreign country. They are a welcoming and helpful people, but you are a visitor that has been given a precious opportunity. At least that is how I feel because when they watch me fish, they can certainly tell that I wasn’t raised on the Kenai.

Gear Ready!

Gear Ready!

A couple of summers ago, I was fishing from a boat and one of the tricky steps about doing that is pulling your net out of the strong current, and then immediately getting your fish out of the net so that it doesn’t escape. I’m not exactly a weak person, but that thing is heavy. I had already been through several comical episodes of tangling my net with the fish, losing fish, hitting people on the boat with my pole-the list. goes. on. My friend even got her net caught in the motor and she will never live that down when it comes to getting back on that boat. We were the extreme version of visitors on the water, but with every fish caught, we would be screaming, celebrating and laughing. Each catch was like our virgin catch all over again. Our joy and laughter wasn’t contagious though; we seemed to be the most entertaining skeptical on the water, but that is just according to us.

Another view from the boat

Another view from the boat

The next best thing to fishing out there is watching everyone else. Most of the families are very serious and they certainly aren’t screaming with joy with each catch, but that is because they are machines at catching them. For them, it is about feeding the family and getting the job done. In particular, I fixated on this one boat that kept circulating us with an older lady fishing with her family. Her gear consisted of the bare minimum-at one point, she took off her jacket and was just wearing a T-shirt. Her arms were all muscle, and although she had what looked like a severe beer belly, you could tell that she could kick some ass. She had those deep, historical lines on her face, and even though I didn’t get close enough to her hands, I know that they were those strong, working-type hands. No manicure in her world. She was standing and maintaining her balance without leaning on the edge of the boat and had a very serious look on her face. When the fish hit her net, she yanked it out of the water like a fly fisherman would pull out his line; it weighed nothing to her. With one quick motion, her net would be out of the water, and the fish would be flipped and dumped into the boat, and then her net would be right back in the water. No words were spoken and her facial expression never changed.  All of this might have taken her 30 seconds, with each catch. For me, she was the Olympic gold-medalist on the water.

I asked my friend Keith about her and he said that she was a dime-a-dozen out here. He wanted me to watch his grandmother fish. On this day though, no one could compare. Watching her, I wondered what she was thinking. I wondered if she felt at peace being out on the water, and that beneath those hard lines and rough skin, there were those layers of novelty and excitement that came with each catch. I wondered if this was her church some days, and if on other days, it left her feeling sad. Even if she wasn’t thinking about anything-maybe it was just her duty-I felt lucky to be there, in her country, doing what she does in my own way. The level of spirituality wasn’t the same as it was with the fly fishing, but that didn’t matter because for me, the difference was that even though I didn’t have her skill level, on that day, I was able to feel what a fisherman feels. I was no longer just a spectator.

Thanks for stopping by!

From → Alaska, Fishing

    • Laura Hilger permalink

      Thanks for sharing it! I look forward to checking out your site.

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