My mom, all alone with five adventurous kids in the wilderness, had some rules that we were supposed to obey at all times for her peace of mind. One of them was that we were never, ever, especially when we were in our little rowing skiff, to go out of her view. This was usually fairly easy to comply with since the floathouse we lived in had a large bay window (with a puckered bullet hole in one corner) that had a panoramic view of the bay.
One day we were forced to flout this rule. Because it conflicted with another rule of hers: Never, ever, under any circumstances, pull a live halibut into the skiff with us. Drag it to shore and kill it first. (She had heard local reports of fishermen being injured by these powerful flat fish when they flopped in the bottom of a skiff.)
My brother Jamie, my sister Megan, and I had gone fishing right out in front of the house when Jamie suddenly hooked into something that bent his pole. It dragged us around a little bit until Jamie got it up to the surface. I was there with the net, but we saw that it was a halibut--Jamie's first! And around thirty-plus pounds. We immediately rowed for shore, hoping the halibut wouldn't come off the hook before we got there. Unfortunately, the nearest piece of shore put us out of my mom's sight.
She saw and ran outside, shouting that we needed to get back to where she could see us. We yelled back that we had a halibut. We were pretty full of adrenaline at that point, all yelling excitedly at the same time, so it was too garbled for her to understand. We kept rowing, Jamie worried that he'd lose his first halibut. He was already planning on how we'd cook some of it that night, and for many more nights to come. We were always keenly interested in how filled the larder was, since it was all too easy imagining running out of food and not being able to get more.
Our ignoring her angered my mom and she shouted even more for us to GET IN SIGHT RIGHT NOW!
We had two choices. Obey her or keep dinner.
We chose dinner.
When we finally rowed back home with the safely dead haibut in the bottom of the skiff, my mom met us with furious accusations, threatening to impound the skiff for life and not letting us get a word in edgewise. When she finally saw the halibut we were holding up and heard our explanations, and that we were obeying her other rule, not to mention that we'd brought home dinner, she was mollified, even remorseful.
To make it up to us she made a big deal out of Jamie's first halibut and took pictures of us with our prize. You can see by our faces that we're thinking only one thing: Dinner!
FISH FACTS: HALIBUT
The halibut starts life with an eye on either side of its head but as it matures one eye migrates to the other side of the head. With it's flat body, this allows it to lie on the bottom, sometimes buried and hidden, with just their eyes exposed. The voyeur of the dim undersea world. They regularly exceed 100 pounds and have been found to weight 500 pounds or more.
One time my dad took out my two youngest brothers, Robin and Chris, to go fishing. They took his small, handmade work skiff. It was eleven feet long and one foot deep, powered by a 4hp outboard.
My dad was not planning on the catch that he hooked into that day. His first warning was when the boat suddenly stopped and his pole bent nearly in half. He had something HUGE on the line.
He managed to wrestle it to the surface and when he did he saw a monster that was nearly the size of the skiff they were in. It was a halibut, seven feet long and 250 pounds. There was no question of even attempting to get it into the skiff. He shot it with his .22-250 and then dragged it to the nearest non-sheer bit of shoreline.
He had Robin and Chris, who were beside themselves with excitement at the size of the catch, run along the beach to look for some kind of drift rope to use to tow the giant fish with, since for once he didn't have any spare rope with him.
They boys couldn't find any rope, but they did find some netting. My dad made do, using it to secure the halibut to the skiff. They headed for home, three mighty proud fishermen.
Suddenly the skiff started jerking. My dad was sure the halibut had been killed by the bullet, but the dangerous thing about halibuts that are that big, especially, is that they have terrific muscular convulsions and spasms, flopping around enough to break a man's leg if he gets in the way. Which was why you never pulled them into a skiff with you. In this case all my dad had was the 4hp outboard to pull against the massive spasms, and hope the netting held. It was a long, jerky, tense ride home.
But they made it with the giant still in tow. We ate lots of halibut that fall.
FISH FACTS: TROUT
Between 1921 and 1940 in Alaska a bounty was put on Dolly Varden trout in the mistaken notion that they were serious predators of the commercially valuable salmon (their young and eggs). Bounties were 2 1/2 to 5 cents per Dolly Varden tail. More than 6 million Dolly Varden trout were killed.
Even worse, to those who initiated the program, it was discovered that almost 8 times as many rainbow trout and coho salmon tails combined were turned in for the bounty than Dolly Varden tails!
Studies have since shown that far from being dangerous to salmon, the Dolly Varden may actually benefit them. They compete for space with the more serious salmon predator, the cutthroat trout, and they eat drifting salmon eggs that would otherwise die, develop fungus and infect healthy salmon eggs. Dolly Varden also feed heavily on freshwater snails that can infect salmon young with a parasite that causes blindness.
It has been a tradition for as long as my family has lived here to go trout fishing in the summers. The memories all blend together of cousins, little ones, aunts and uncles and friends hiking up the long beach flats to get to the shadowed pools in the forest-lined creek where the trout hid.
A friend told me once that he and his dad went trout fishing up the creek we always fished. He said they were hiking up the creek when they suddenly heard an outbreak of gunfire directly ahead. This is a favorite creek of bears, so they were instantly wary, worried that a possibly injured bear would charge around the corner at them. The gunfire continued--was someone in serious trouble? They cautiously turned the corner and found my dad and brothers, all with guns in their hands.
Someone had gotten his lure stuck high up in a tree and they were attempting to shoot it loose.
My nephews Sterling and Ethan (the third gneration of trout hunters, along with my niece Aroon), were started out by my oldest brother Jamie at a very young age, approximately when they could hold both ends of a rod off the ground. I wouldn't be surprised if either of them can remember an earlier memory than trout fishing. They sometimes caught trout that weren't all that much smaller than themselves. Now adults, they, along with their cousin Aroon, continue the trout hunting tradition whenever they get the chance.
We'd many times cook and eat our catch right there on some gravel spit or on a grassy bank. Our favorite thing to do was to dig a fire pit, sprinkle the dressed trout with garlic powder and salt and pepper, wrap them in skunk cabbage leaves and let them steam. Delicious!
Oftentimes when we trudged in satisfied weariness back to the skiffs we'd find them left high and dry by the tide. Nobody minded. We chatted, laughed, watched the antics of the kids as they swam and played, guaranteeing they'd sleep like logs when they got home, as the sun faded into a glorious sunset overhead, turning the forest into a silhouette. Finally the tide would refloat the skiffs and we'd all pile in with gear and tired kids and head out onto the water to our homes tucked back in the wilderness.
FISH FACTS: Lingcod
Lingcod are voracious predators and can grow to weight over 80 pounds and over five feet long, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. They are characterized by a large mouth with 18 sharp teeth.
One evening my dad came home with a dragon in the bottom of his skiff. It had a giant, glaring head with popped eyes and a snarling, open mouth that could have easily swallowed my little brothers, with rows of sharply pointed dragon's teeth.
It's enormous head was attached to a long, snaking, greyish yellow, liver-spotted body ending in a fish tail. It was six feet long and weighed around 85 pounds.
I think we all felt as if our father had come back from an epic battle with a beast from ancient lore, and we were there to witness his survival and celebrate his victory. He had us get the ladder. We put the fallen monster on it and in a triumphal parade we all grabbed a side of the ladder and carried the slain beast up the beach to the house as my dad regaled us with the account of his battle.
Us kids were breathless in awe, not only at his prowess, but at the delightful realization that we were going to get to eat the loser of the fray.
FISH FACTS: SHARKS
Southeast Alaska isn't typically known for shark encounters, but we do have 9 shark species. The salmon shark is our fastest, most voracious shark and can grow up to 10 feet long. We occasionally see a great white, which shows up on the west coast of Prince of Wales Island. The spiny dogfish also stalks these waters and can be a danger to humans primarily through its mildly toxic fin spines--and, like all sharks, can give a nasty bite.
I learned to swim the same year the movie Jaws came out. For some reason we were allowed to see this horrific movie and it's a wonder to me we ever got into the water again. But fortunately we believed the lies our parents told us, namely that there were no species of sharks in Alaskan waters, and we splashed merrily away. Ignorance is such bliss.
My nephew Sterling, when he was about nine-years-old, had an epic encounter with a shark while fishing with his dad and his brother, Ethan.
He hooked into something huge. It fought like a demon, wearing him out as the sun marched across the sky. He sweat and bled, but adamantly fought on, swearing he would deck this beast or die trying.
His father and brother looked on in awe.
Finally, as exhaustion ate at him and the long day faltered into evening, Sterling triumphed. The mighty shark was slain and he was the victor in this man against predator, monumentous, battle.
P.S. I asked Sterling for his account and he texted: "Me Ethan and dad went fishing, I thought I had a huge fish, it was a surprise shark." I thought my fish story was better.
FISH FACTS: Salmon
This fish ranges widely from the balmy coast of California and across the breadth of the largest ocean on earth, the Pacific, to Kamchatka in Russia and Japan and finally back across the Pacific to the waters of southern Alaska.
It migrates from the sea into fresh waters, the very stream where it was born, in order to spawn and start a new cycle of life before dying.
I grew up next to a major salmon spawning creek. The house we built was only a few feet from the rippling, numbingly cold, broad creek that my dad built a tall bridge across. Every summer we watched the amazing, steadfast struggle of the salmon as they swam upstream, regardless of the sea gulls pecking chunks out of them, and eating their eyes, and the bears--black and brown--coming out of the forest to feed on them.
Our dogs were hysterical with excitement at all the flashing bodies and flickering fins choking the creek from one side to the other.
When there was no rain for weeks on end and the water level in the creek dropped, it was dreadful to see the salmon flop around in the shallow water, still trying to get up to the salmon spawning beds when they barely had enough water to breathe in. Sometimes they gasped in the air, but still they drove themselves relentlessly forward even though they had no protection or cover from the sun and voracious, shrieking gulls.
Out of pity, my sister and I tried to carry the fish from one pool to the next to get them closer to their destination.
But we learned a hard lesson. Our help disoriented the salmon and they lost all sense of direction, instinct and drive. They became apathetic and allowed the current to drag them back downstream where they died, fought over by the gulls, and failures in their life's purpose.
It was heartbreaking, but we learned that "hleping" is sometimes the worst thing you can do. Sometimes they, fish and non-fish alike, have to do it themselves.
With the changes in climate we've seen some strange things over the years. Like the time my brother Robin saw salmon trying to head upstream--to spawn?--in December, when the temperatures were in the 60s.
My nephews Sterling and Ethan were fishing right off the rocks here where we live when Sterling managed to hook into a twenty pounder and somehow got it ashore--salmon are fighters, as you might expect going by their singlemindedness in heading upstream--and he had a fight on his hands getting it landed.We'd never heard of anyone catching a salmon on the shore, so far from any spawning creek.
Ethan is a serious fisherman, right down to his rubber boots. Everyone else may come up empty handed but he, like the Texas Rangers of yore, always gets his fish. Going back to when he was so tiny he could hardly hold up both ends of the pole he never came home without catching something, and usually it was impressive. We have him and his father to thank for many of the salmon we'd can up in the summer, to feed us during the long winter.
In the summer the salmon make spectacular leaps out of the water all around and I've heard of more than one account of a salmon actually catching itself by leaping into a passing skiff. I've seen it nearly happen dozens of times.
My dad took a break from logging and his sawmill one summer to fish commercially from the 32 foot wooden boat he rebuilt from the keel and ribs up. I was at the dock at the nearby village the day he brought in a king salmon that looked more like a tuna, it was so huge. Even after being dressed it weighed 65 pounds and was 5 feet long--not much smaller than my grandmother!
This was one fish we weren't going to be allowed to eat. It brought in a pretty penny!
But there were many, many other salmon over the years that we ate. I developed a recipe for salmon dip that has become a family favorite, and here it is:
Salmon Jalapeno Dip
1 pint of canned salmon undrained (or two cups of left over fried, grilled, or roasted salmon*)
1 8-oz box of cream cheese
1 tablespoon of mayonnaise
1 4-oz can of diced jalapeno peppers with the juice
a dash of garlic powder and onion powder to taste
Mix all of the ingredients together and allow to set for several hours, if possible. Keep in mind that the longer it sits the spicier it becomes. Enjoy!
*If the salmon you use is dry, use more mayonnaise to moisten and soften the dip.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)