From Detasseling to Dipnetting

Detasseling corn is a rite of passage in Nebraska. Every July, groggy teens climb aboard dusty school buses at dawn, bouncing along gravel roads to cornfield after cornfield. Kids fan out across the field, one person per row, tasked with pulling the tassel from the tippy top of each stalk of corn in their assigned row. After row. After row.

Detasseling was my first job. The fields were always soaked with dew in the morning, so I’d wear a garbage bag in an attempt to stay dry. It was muddy, achy, slimy work. By afternoon we’d shed our jackets and garbage bags, seeking reprieve from the heat even though it meant sharp corn leaves would slice every inch of our exposed skin.

It was quite possibly the worst job I’ve ever had in my life. (It wasn’t a picnic for my mom either, who drove my angsty self five miles to the bus stop before sunrise every morning.)

Farmers say corn should be “knee-high by the Fourth of July,” but it was always towering over our heads by the time detasseling season started, thus the aching shoulders and arms.

July looks very different for my own children. Instead of traipsing through knee-high corn, they spend it submerged chest-deep in the ocean, wearing waterproof waders while dipnetting for salmon.

My 14-year-old detasseling self never would have believed that I’d someday choose to spend July with fish instead of corn. As awful as detasseling was, anything that had to do with fish was certainly worse. I’m sure many Nebraska families ate fish, but ours wasn’t one of them (unless you count the frozen fish sticks my mom microwaved on Tuesday nights while my dad played poker).

I grew up on a small acreage where we raised cows, pigs, and chickens. Beef, pork, and poultry. We raised just enough for our family’s protein needs, plus an extra animal here and there to sell at auction. Who needed fish?

It’s fair to say that I arrived in Alaska without a true appreciation for the official state fish, but after 25 years I’ve come around and now consider the last two weeks of July sacred salmon season. This year we weren’t able to fish as a family, but over the course of three July weekends we all did our part and I’m happy to report the freezer is full.

Sam, who is now 18 and proudly declares himself an adult on a regular basis, fished twice without us: once with a friend’s family in Prince William Sound, and a second excursion dipnetting with his girlfriend’s family in Kenai. Both trips resulted in more fun than fish due to crummy weather and low fish counts, although he was excited to net a king salmon (which had to be released per regulations).

In late July the skies briefly cleared and the fish counts exploded, so Clark, Sam and I spent a sunny-ish Sunday dipnetting at the mouth of the Kenai. Maggie couldn’t get the day off work, but the rest of us ventured south and netted 26 salmon while fishing five hours in a single tide… and we survived a shark attack! (Okay, it was just a 3-foot long spiny dogfish that was struggling, likely because it was netted and released by a nearby dipper. I still wasn’t a fan of it lurking behind me, and was relieved when it finally swam away.)

Maggie and I went back to the Kenai the following weekend for a mother/daughter camping trip with friends, an annual tradition we couldn’t miss. The girls made it easy on us moms: they safely secured our truckload with ratchet straps, pitched our tents in minutes, built the fire, and taught us all about .5 selfies to document our adventure. And of course they can fish! Maggie successfully netted two fish in a single net, which was a first for our family. In all, our group caught 21 sockeye in two tides on this trip. Props to our friends who donned wet waders for the early morning tide and hauled in the majority of the fish, while Maggie and I were happy to do beach and camp chores. Thank goodness we followed regulations to a tee – from clipping fish tails to marking our harvest cards – because the Fish & Game troopers paid us a visit while we packed up camp. I’m happy to report we passed inspection! Phew!

We always process our fish at home with clean, fresh water and an assembly line to filet and vacuum seal. Clark is a master with the filet knife and is patiently teaching the kids.

July days that aren’t spent fishing are often spent smoking salmon, which we love to share with family and friends. It takes three full days, but it’s mostly hands-off and stress-free. The fish spend 24 hours in a brine of brown sugar and kosher salt, another 24 hours drying to form a pellicle, and a third day in the smoker.

Another July is in the books, and many freezers are full thanks to this blessed bounty:

Despite the distance, we always find a way to share salmon with our family back home. They now consider it a rare delicacy. And they always find a way to share fresh Nebraska produce with us, from the sweetest of corn to the most flavorful tomatoes from my dad’s garden. Things come full circle every season.

My 50 years of life have been evenly split between Nebraska and Alaska, and I hope I’ve passed on lessons learned from both to our children. I’ll always have one foot firmly planted in the cornfields of my childhood, which taught me about about tradition, culture, and shaped my work ethic. My other foot cautiously steps into an unknown ocean, where I’ve learned that there is a whole lotta life worth living outside of one’s comfort zone.

It’s likely that the oceans of Alaska are teaching our kids the same lessons I learned in the cornfields of Nebraska, so maybe their childhoods aren’t so different from how I was raised after all.

The thought makes me smile… from ear to ear. 🌽

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