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Dipnetting in Chitina: Part II – The Fish

After procuring the van, I was on my way to Chitina in an attempt to get fish. The mission was largely a fact finding one. I knew that fish could be had from the Copper River at a place called Chitina (pronounced CHIT-na). I was told that all you had to do was hold out a net and the end of a pole, dip the next below the surface of the foamy, churning, brown water, and a salmon would simply swim into the net, allowing you to lift it out of the water. I was told this, but I didn’t quite believe it; it was just too fantastic a story. I figured if I just found out the real skinny on the situation, I’d be set up for the following year. If I actually got fish, that would be a bonus.

My first stop was Wal Mart, where I wrestled with the price of a large Coleman cooler: one hundred dollars for a 150-quart ice chest. I also saw a large dip net, just under five feet across, on sale for $115, but I couldn’t imagine that I would need something like that, and I couldn’t bring myself to purchase such an absurdity. I finally bought the cooler and a good fillet knife, enough food for the next couple of days, and then on to Chitina.

The rain hadn’t let up all day, and I arrived in Chitina in the dark and the wet. It was after midnight, and visibility was next to zero. I had no idea where I was or where I was supposed to go, so I pulled over in the first place that looked reasonably safe and out of the way, crawled on the back bench seat of this Dodge Caravan I’d been in all day, and fell straight to sleep.

The next morning was still raining but lighter. I could see the mountainous terrain that was surrounding me, scarfed in intermittent cloud, and the rushing Copper River. I drove to a little mom and pop convenience store. It was long and narrow with a plywood-decked floor that slanted like a fun house. The wrinkled old woman sat behind the register at the near end of the store and chain-smoked while holding court with everyone who entered, local and visitor alike. She was obviously at the center of her world. I asked about dip-netting, and was directed to the end of a winding dirt road where I found a small dirt parking area humming with activity. At the edge of the parking area at the end of the road, the rushing O’Brien creek spilled in to the Copper River. And here, salmon were being filleted, carcasses were being dumped, and masses of seagulls were feasting, swooping, and screeching.

After talking to a handful of different people, I pieced together what was going on. At the bank of the river was a small boat landing, and meeting that landing was a line of people in groups of two to four. The line extended maybe a dozen groups back, and each group had a pile of gear consisting of coolers, nets, and other bags. I inserted myself at the end of the line with a net borrowed from the charter operators, and by that time it was a little after noon. After waiting for about two hours, the line moved up by only about five or six groups. Someone from the charter service eventually came out to tell everyone that it was unlikely we would make it out that day and encouraged everyone to leave their gear in line and come back first thing in the morning. With that discouragement, about five groups simply gave up, gathered their gear, and headed for the car. I moved my gear up in line and suddenly found myself third in line, and with an evening to kill.

And so I spent the second night in the back of the Caravan, mostly reading in the low, cloudy light, and sleeping. I woke at five the next morning, ready to jump in line, and a little anxious about the day. I was raining and chilly, and I wasn’t really outfitted to spend a day in the rain, on the slick rocks at the edge of rushing water.

While we all waited in line, we milled about and talked to each other, swapping stories of previous adventures. Someone built a campfire, and it drew a circle of people all around. There were two women who were traveling together, from Wiseman I think. They were very nice and grandmotherly, if in a hard, frontier kind of way. One was wearing an oilskin canvas coat with a wide brim hat. When one guy joked that he was going to cut in line in front of her, she deliberately parted her coat to reveal the large .45 semi auto strapped to her hip, smiled, and said, “no, you’re not.” It was a gesture right out of a western movie, and it was met with an uneasy chuckle all around. I happened to be carrying my .454 Casull, and it occurred to me then that probably everyone around me was also carrying. Talk about a frontier experience.

When my time came, an all welded, aluminum jet boat roared up to the bank. Since I was a single, the charter boat folks went down the line looking for another single to pair me with. I ended up with a nice but mousey little man named Bernard, also from Fairbanks. At least he had done this before, and he had some idea of what he was doing. I’m not sure what I would have done without him.

We were dropped off on a rocky shore, inaccessible except by boat. We each staked out a spot by the water, and, in an act of blind faith, I stuck my net in the water and waited. It was a long and skeptical five minutes. But then, the damnedest thing happened: I felt a tug, strained to lift the net out of the water, and discovered that a large red salmon had swam right into my net.

Over the next four hours, Bernard and I pulled out eighty salmon between the two of us. The catch limit was thirty, but the run was so strong that fish and game had authorized an additional ten fish per person, taking the limit up for forty. And that’s what I brought home.

When we were retrieved from our rocky crag and delivered back to bank, we loaded the tubs of slimy fish on to the trailer of a courtesy four-wheeler. It brought us over to a very convenient fish-cleaning station.  Of course we had to pay an additional $25 for the convenience, but at that point my resistance was down, I was soaked and cold, and just wanted to be done. I started cleaning each fish, taking care to harvest as much of the flesh as possible and make every precious fish worth the trouble. I was single minded and bent over as numb fingers separated the viscera from beautifully colored fillets.

As I stood there working, cold, sore, tired, I finally noticed that here were about a dozen or more men, all lined up shoulder to shoulder, each bent on his task, braced against the drizzle, and neither talking nor acknowledging each other. After a time, one man broke the silence by saying aloud, “We’re doing some work, now.” To which someone else slowly replied, “Yup. It’s hard bein’ a man.”

As soon as the last fish was done, I wiped down my knife, slid the cooler into the back of the truck, changed into some clean, dry clothes, and hit the road.

As I drove in one slog back to Fairbanks, I thought of Odysseus, returning home victorious in war, and taking ten long years to get there. How tired he must have been. How tired I was. Cut another notch my collection of Alaskan experiences. 

Posted on Thursday, July 31, 2008 at 12:21PM by Registered CommenterBrian Rozell | Comments3 Comments

Reader Comments (3)

its hard bein' a man. that's a quote i'll hang on to fer shure!
August 12, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterwatson
I'm so proud of you. I love you, too. Mom
August 12, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMom
As I read this I am amazed at how you recollect the details of activities. Is this something you wrote back then and just now had the time to post it? Many times Jan asked me about certain details of my past activities, and they are just mush (forgotten, and vague). I can't remember most details.
August 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDad

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