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Setting Nets for Salmon in Naknek, Alaska
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Wednesday, August 23, 2023
 

By KEITH WILSON

Im one of those Blaine County residents with two homes. One of them is in Hailey. The other is a beachfront property in Alaska. 

The boxy blue cabin is nestled into the tundra against the waters of Bristol Bay, just outside of Naknek, the town of my upbringing. It can be accessed by the gravel Beach Access Road and then a mile-and-a half drive along the Naknek Beach, tattered by tire tread and boulders.

This cabin is the home base for my commercial salmon-fishing operation, my fish camp. It sits on a Jenga-like structure of mismatched blocks and boards over a sunken section of tundra.

Water collects from the forever of the tundra and drains to the beach via a hand-dug trench. It has a propane fridge, a propane stove, and a propane water heater that recently blew out (the warranty expired in 1995), so now we boil water to wash dishes. I think of the place as rustic and antiquated.

Inside, the watch around my wrist vibrates at 11 p.m. A beep could wake Mandy, my wife next to me. Worse yet, it could wake Wylder, our 13-month-old son in his Packn Play at the foot of the bed.

Cottongrass outside the bedroom window sways gently as I crawl from my sleeping bag and layer my clothing. I tiptoe to the kitchen-and-living area and look out the window across the tundra to the water. Its an overcast sky but as bright as midday.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has opened the Naknek-Kvichak District to set gill net gear from midnight to 9 a.m., a nine-hour opening. The current escapement goals have been met, so we have been given this allotted time to fish. Im grateful that this fishery has been maintained. The management has kept this fishery strong and healthy since the 1950s. But it doesnt mean Im excited about the hours.

After my outhouse run and a drink of water, I grab a protein bar from the snack shelf. My crewman--my brother-in-law, Daniel--begins shuffling in his sleeping bag next to it. The two of us dont have much to say other than shared grunts and groans. We take time to drink a cup of French press coffee and brush our teeth, but time and tide stayeth for no man, as the adage goes. 

Mosquitoes devour us on the porch as we pull on chest waders, PFDs, rain jackets and rubber gloves. About a hundred-yard walk down a crooked boardwalk, I hop onto a green four-wheeler and drag one oversized plastic tote after another onto the beach. Each tote holds 25 fathoms (150 feet) of net--a cork line, a lead line, and nylon web woven between them with twine. This first set of gear is allowed with Mandys permit. 

Daniel and I pull the totes toward the water, allowing the nets to uncoil onto the mud. We zip-tie the cork line onto the running line, which is tied between an auger anchor and a buoy. The shoreline crawls toward us inch by inch, and at midnight the water will reach this net.

For now, we can set the outside net, the one farther from shore. The water has risen enough now for the skiff, a 21-foot aluminum Pacific, to float. We wade to it, and jump in. I take my place behind the steering console in the stern. Daniel takes his place in the bow. I start the outboard, and he unclips our bow line from the mooring buoy. 

I motor to the next buoy, and we set the next 50 fathoms, allowed by my own permit, directly into the water. We pull the skiff along the running line toward the outer buoy and zip-tie the cork line onto it as we go, the lead line following suit. By the time we are halfway through it, heads and tails begin splashing in the net. 

Now were fishing. Well see what the tide brings. 


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