Summer is a time for salmon, and Alaskans are chasing them right now.
A few weeks ago we headed to the Kasilof for some fishing. The fish weren’t running strong, but the sun was shining and we decided to give it a shot. Our family’s dipnet permit allows us to catch up to 55 fish per season, and the kids are now old enough to strap on chest waders and help fill the freezer.
The surf was a bit rough, so the kids had a tough time holding the net. They hung by their dad for a few hours, but then ran off to explore the shore with our very happy dog.
We’ve never been much for camping with crowds, but I must admit we had a great time on the Kasilof beach. The scenery and sand was spectacular, and the kids proudly pitched their own tent! We fell asleep to the sound of salsa music from a party down the beach, and our neighbors from Hawaii were both hilarious and helpful.
Sadly, we only had one fish in the cooler when we headed home Sunday afternoon. Clark spent 9 hours standing in a glacial river with leaky waders for that fish, so you know it tasted extra good!
By Tuesday that lone salmon was long gone, and Clark came up with the crazy idea that I should head on a “meat run” to the Kenai River for more sockeyes. The fish count was skyrocketing, and I didn’t have to work. That’s all the logic he needed. Oh, and he promised to fillet everything I caught.
Of course he pitched this idea on the sidelines of the kids’ soccer game, within earshot of my friend Nancy.
“I’ll go!!!” she instantly exclaimed.
Nancy is one of those people who is always up for anything. She’s the Fun Bus. Me? Not so much. My brain spends a lot of time on to-do lists and this spontaneous trip wasn’t on the agenda. Clark’s birthday was two days away. And how would the kids get to their soccer games? And what about my plan to finally clean the oven? We have company coming in a week and my summer checklist isn’t nearly complete!
And then it hit me. To-do lists are never complete. And if my excuse for saying no to this adventure involved cleaning an oven, that was pretty darn lame.
Sure, I was nervous. If I actually netted a fish, what would I *do* with it? I am not one for touching the things, let alone killing them. Heck, I’ve only recently started eating them! The thought of driving a truck down the beach was intimidating too, since we saw a vehicle nearly get swallowed by the tide last weekend.
But I stuffed my fears, and by the end of the soccer game Nancy and I had a packing list and departure time. Fun follows us wherever we go, so I was looking forward to the trip. Our husbands were so giddy they started shopping for new dipets. Kenai River, here we come!
The next day we mastered the fine art of ratchet straps and secured our load: nets, coolers, waders, tents, dry bags, permits, and beer. We kissed the kids and guys goodbye and set out on an overnight fishing adventure.
The three hour drive to Kenai was uneventful, but the one mile drive on the sandy beach was terrifying. We bottomed out quite a bit, but Nancy kept up the speed and stayed out of the treacherous mudflats. I’m proud of her rock star sand driving skills! This picture was taken on the safer sand in the camping area – the stuff she plowed through was much deeper and more gravelly:
We fished until 11 PM, but sadly went to bed with an empty cooler. We both had fish in our nets, but lost them before we got to shore.
Anxious ATV riders make for mighty fine alarm clocks, and thanks to them we crawled out of the tent around 6 AM the next morning. It was low tide and the mud was treacherous, so I walked farther down the beach to sandier terrain. Nancy was a long ways away when a fish finally swam into my net. I really had no idea what I was doing, but I mimicked the actions of those around me: flip the net and run like heck back to shore. Lo and behold, it worked! We wouldn’t go home skunked! We had a fish!
I crouched on the shore, and took deep breaths as the flopping fish flicked sand into my face. It was becoming increasingly tangled in the gill net, and I knew I had to kill it quickly. Scientists say fish don’t have the capacity to feel pain, but savagely ripping its gills was not it my nature.
Suddenly a knight in wet waders strolled over from his camp chair, carrying a bright orange plastic club.
“Need a bonk?” he asked.
I graciously accepted, and he gave the fish a few quick whacks to the head.
What a relief. It took me several more minutes to untangle the fish from the net, but the deed was done. I had a fish!
As I carried it back to the cooler, I saw Nancy dragging her net to shore as well. By 9:00 we had 3 fish in the cooler and decided to take a break for breakfast. We conked out in our camp chairs, and woke ready to hit high tide and start slaying fish in earnest.
It was craaaaaaazy! We fished side by side, along with a few hundred new friends. It was combat fishing at its finest. Nets were tangled, fish were jumping, and one lady even knocked me over! But everyone was catching fish, so the mood was jovial and spirits high. The gulls squawked and the seals circled, and every few minutes someone would bolt to the shore with a fish splashing in a net. More often than not it was one of us, and before we knew it we had 14 more fish in the cooler.
Killing them never did get easy for me. The people next to us shared their bonker, and I apologized to the fish with every swing. But I did it.
We rolled back into Anchorage around 10 PM and, true to his word, Clark rolled up his sleeves and filleted all 17 of our fish.
We smoked half of them, and the rest were vacuum sealed for fresh, healthy family meals. Here’s a picture of the first batch, almost ready for the smoker:
That should be the end of this story, but the sun kept shining and the fish kept running. How could we not go back and share our amazing experience with the kids? Call us crazy, but the drive was only 3 hours each way. Sure, we’d spend more time driving than fishing, but with three nets in the water hopefully it would be worth it.
This is when I invented my signature song to the tune of Whip/Nae-Nae. I drove everyone crazy with my off pitch voice shouting, “Watch us dip! Watch us net-net!” I have never seen my children roll their eyes and storm off so many times in one day.
The kids couldn’t wait to start fishing, and they hit the water as soon as we arrived. They worried the net would be too heavy, so the three of them tried to hold it together. This resulted in one lost fish and several arguments about who would stand where, so it was a relief for all when they abandoned this strategy.
It turns out the kids could hold the nets just fine… all by themselves!
I’ll never forget standing out in the water with Sam, each of us holding a net and chatting away. Suddenly his eyes lit up and he exclaimed, “I GOT ONE!!” He flipped his net and dragged it to shore like a pro. Everyone around cheered for him – what a moment! Before the day was done all three kids had plenty of luck. It was amazing how quickly they learned how to slide the net into the water, hold it upright in the current, and haul it out with a fish.
Catching fish myself was empowering, but watching my children was infinitely better. Their faces filled with shock, then determination, and finally joy when they dragged their fish to the beach. I loved hearing them congratulate each other, and they were so proud and full of joy.
We came home with 27 fish and had a processing party the next day.
It’s time to hang up our dipnets for the season, but I have a feeling this will be an annual tradition for many years to come!