Harvesting Sockeye in Sitkoh Bay

[doptg id="22"]Salmon fishing is a pillar of life in Southeast Alaska. A few of us at the Sitka Conservation Society tried our hand at subsistence gill-netting in Sitkoh Bay, on the southern end of Chichagof Island, hoping to fill our cupboards with fresh, vibrant sockeye. Sitkoh creek has a well-known sockeye run, and draws fishermen from Sitka and Angoon when the fish start running in mid-July. Tlingit communities have been harvesting here for millennia, and today, Alaskans of all backgrounds come to fish this rich stream system. This is one story of a fishing trip in Southeast Alaska, including a few lessons learned on the water from some first-time subsistence gill-netters.


The Alaska Department of Fish & Game oversees all fisheries, and is the primary resource for fishermen curious about regulations, requirements, and guidelines of personal use fishing. We acquired our free subsistence permit in just a few minutes at the local ADF&G office, and familiarized ourselves with legalities of the fishery before we left. Subsistence and Personal Use Salmon Fishing permits are granted to Alaska residents. There is one permit allowed per household, and each management area specifies a limited amount of salmon that may be harvested. While we chose to use a gill net, other legal fishing methods include beach seining, dip netting, gaffing, and spearing.

After procuring the right tags, and letting ADF&G know when we were going to be fishing, we put together a set of equipment to prepare ourselves for fishing. We brought mending twine and a needle in case we needed to repair the net. A friend lent us a fish pick, which is a plastic-handled tool with a small metal point, and helps to smoothly remove gill net from even the most entangled fish. The most important gear item is of course the net. Sockeye eat plankton, so they can't be caught on hook and line like King or Coho salmon. These red-fleshed beauties must be netted. A gill net is typically made of a fine filament sea-green mesh, and hangs vertically in the water. The net dangles from a line of floating corks, and the bottom of the net is weighed down by a heavy rope, called the lead-line. Flotation on top and weight on the bottom create a wall of net that salmon swim into headfirst, fatally catching their gills when they try to swim away. Our net was lent to us by a local troller, the type of person who keeps a three hundred-foot gill net in his backyard, along with other marine miscellany typical of Sitkans who harvest their own food. The net on its own was heavy and large; it required at least three people to lift it and move it from yard to car, to net shed, to boat, and finally to ocean. Before taking the net out fishing, we stretched it out in the net shed adjacent to Crescent harbor. We familiarized ourselves with the net, made sure it was the legal length of 50 fathoms, and mended some salmon-sized holes before taking it fishing.

Gill-netting Lesson Number One: the net does not belong on the bottom of the ocean.

We left Sitka on an overcast Tuesday in two heavily loaded skiffs, four deckhands deep. The crew: Phyllis Hackett, a salty Sitkan who lives on a roadless island just off of town; Stacey Woolsey, accomplished hunter, backpacker, teacher, and thorough Alaskan; Matt Dolkas, photographer, former NOLS instructor, and SCS intern; and me, a former commercial fisherman and current intern for SCS.

By the afternoon, we finally set our net near the mouth of Sitkoh creek. "Should we be setting the net this shallow? I'm not sure it's supposed to be on the bottom..." Stacey wondered aloud, dubious of laying a 25-foot deep net in 9 feet of water, as the tide ebbed. Despite her wise premonitions, we continued to set in the shallows, thinking that the nearer the creek we were, the fishier our net would be. May you learn from this mistake! We hauled in the net by hand, heavy with an array of unexpected sea-floor biota. Dungeness crabs tangled their pincers in the web. Mussel-laden rocks, heavy sticks, and a vibrant display of seaweed also found their way into our net. We thankfully caught a few salmon as well, but picking out all of the non-fish was time-consuming and exhausting.

Lesson Two: A gill net has a mind of its own

Another difficulty we encountered was controlling the net's shape and location, as it tended to wrinkle and wander at the whims of the wind and tide, Ideally, the net is kept somewhat taught and in a straight line, maximizing the surface area for fish to swim into. In a set gill net fishery, one would simply anchor the ends of the net, solving this problem. It is not legal, however, to use an anchor while gill netting in Sitkoh bay. So, it seems best to leave one end of the net connected to your boat, allowing you the freedom to drift the net behind you as you like. This has its own set of difficulties: the net is quite heavy, placing strain on low horsepower outboards, and one must be vigilant about keeping the net away from the propeller. Lesson Three: Read the tide book

We set up camp on a rocky beach, our tents flattening tall stands of sedge. As I lay in the tent exhausted, Stacey and Phyllis kept watch on our anchored boats, and monitored the incoming tide as it neared our tent. I could hear the water lapping nearer and nearer as I fell asleep, and wondered in my exhaustion if I would even get up if the water started to trickle into our shelter. Smelling of fish and camping in bear country, tide inching closer to us, the reasons to sleep lightly piled up. Simple as it seems, checking the tide book would have saved us some worry.

Lesson Four: The work doesn't stop after you've caught the fish

We brought supplies to clean and ice our fish onboard, until we could process them fully at home. Phyllis used a wedge-shaped plywood tool as a base for cleaning her fish, a useful item for holding the slippery fish in place as she made the proper incisions. We sliced the salmon's bellies from anus to gill, and scraped out the guts, careful not to bruise the bright red meat, the prized object of our labor. Then we made a shallow cut down the bloodline of the fish, scraping out blood and any remaining detritus. The end product was a clean gutted fish, whose belly would be carefully stuffed with ice. We brought ice from a local fish processor before leaving town, and brought along coolers and Rubbermaid totes to store our catch.

While cutting the dorsal fin off of a salmon, per ADF&G subsistence regulations, Stacey's hand slipped, and sliced a tendon below her knuckle. In hindsight, sheet metal scissors would be a better tool than a knife for cutting this bony fin. Though she resiliently kept quiet about her injury, Stacey's cut tendon was a serious concern. As Matt put it, "If you were one of my NOLS kids, I'd probably get you out of the field." Considering this wise counsel, and that we hadn't caught nearly enough fish to fill our quota, we decided to pack up camp and head home. We returned to town salty, sweaty, and smelling of sea. Stacey drove her skiff 60 miles back to town with a splinted finger that would later be operated on, and I blinked away the stinging jellyfish in my eye. Remnants of blood splattered the decks of our boats, a gory testament to our harvest of salmon, and to Stacey's severed tendon. Despite our bruises and cuts, and the steep learning curve inherent in fishing, subsistence gill-netting was a richly rewarding way to harvest our own food. The salmon we caught were hand picked out of our net, and we saw them through the entirety of harvest, processing, and consumption. Truly, it is hard to think of something more gratifying than eating the fish of your labor.

The final step of our subsistence journey (before eating, that is) was to process our salmon. In the cozy haven of Stacey's home kitchen in Sitka, we cut all of our fish into steaks and canned them. After spooning salt into the jars with the steaks, we put them in pressure cookers with boiling water. The steam and heat cooked and softened the salmon, leaving it tender, juicy, and preserved for winter days when salmon are harder to come by. I found canning to be simple, time consuming, and meditative. Harvesting fish is something I grew up with, yet have rarely given deep thought to. As I sliced flesh and tightened jars, I considered the meaning of harvesting such important and life-giving animals, and inwardly thanked them for their lives, and the nourishment they provide.

Restoration: Taking care of the Tongass

Gill-netting is just one way to harvest the bounty of Alaska's waters, and to enjoy the natural riches the Tongass provides. The sockeye run in Sitkoh Bay is only possible because of the temperate rainforest ecosystems of the Tongass National Forest and the protection and responsible management of its watersheds. Fish need the habitat provided by these forest streams in order to survive and continue their life cycles. We in turn need this remarkable Tongass habitat, so that we may continue to harvest salmon to feed our friends, family, and ourselves. Harvesting one's own food is a way of life in Southeast, and salmon are a mainstay of the subsistence lifestyle.

The Sitkoh River and Sitkoh lake restoration projects are important steps in the direction of repairing salmon streams that have been harmed by past logging practices. These projects are joint efforts between the Sitka Conservation Society, Trout Unlimited, and the U.S. Forest Service. Jointly, these organizations are working to restore natural conditions to damaged salmon streams. This summer, Sitkoh River has been returned to its natural path, and large wooden structures have been added to create spawning and rearing grounds for coho salmon. Restoration work such as this means better salmon habitat, and thus more production of salmon and improved future livelihoods for Southeast Alaskan fishing communities. For the sustainability of the incredible salmon runs that support this wild land and its communities, it is critical that we protect their habitat in the Tongass National Forest.

More on SCS's recent restoration projects

Restoring the Sitkoh River(Juneau Empire)


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