Feature Stories

The Copper River Marathon

As a kid, when your freezer gets filled with salmon every summer and you have the privilege of having fish for dinner at least once a week for the rest of the year, it’s normal to start taking it for granted. When I was old enough to become a part of preparing the fish for the freezer, my appreciation grew. When I noticed the thrill a grilled fresh fillet gave family members visiting from out of state, I really began to see how lucky I was. After last year, joining my dad and uncle on their annual trip to Chitina, dipnetting for Copper River Reds, I now know the tremendous value of each morsel.

Fishing on a stringer, keeping cool in the surf.

Reds on a stringer keeping cool in the surf.

There were four of us who headed out of my parents’ driveway around nine on a Thursday morning in late July–my dad, Ralph, my uncle, Frank, my husband, Cecil and I. Our day started much earlier when we stopped by the store to get Cecil’s dipnetting permit (only one is needed for the head of household; I just needed a fishing license), and last minute food items. We already had the rest of our gear packed and ready to load into the truck. Dad gave me a rough list of what to bring, but there were a few things that he stressed were absolute necessities: more than one fillet knife (because you didn’t want to take the time to sharpen them while filleting), rope for stringers (to tie the fish off on the banks of the river), and our fishing permits. But most important, above all else, our money for Hem (Hem and Copper River Charters, operators of the jet boats that would take us to our fishing spot on the river). After loading all the gear in the truck and one last stop at the store to fill our three large coolers with ice, we were off for the four hour drive to Chitina.

Ralph transporting a netted red to the beach.

Ralph transporting a netted red to the beach.

Once we reached Chitina, we turned off the Edgerton Highway on O’Brien Creek Road. The two mile road runs south, bordered to the east by the confluence of Chitina and Copper River. The Copper River continues south till it drains into the waters of the Gulf of Alaska. The road is rough, especially the steep descent down to the parking area at O’Brien Creek. We snagged one of the few remaining parking spots and quickly unloaded our gear at the line formed behind a red cone, marking the queue for the two charter companies that run out of O’Brien Creek. Both are owned by Mark Hem and Sam McCallister, and they work together getting dipnetters to the prime spots downriver of O’Brien Creek.

Before loading people on the boat, Hem called everyone to circle around. He laid out the ground rules, made sure everyone had their fishing permits, and clarified the extra cost if there was anyone proxy fishing. And then he got to the good part, for him anyway. He went around the circle with a ready hand and he expected everyone to be ready themselves, to hand over their cash. It was a simple exchange, no credit card machines or cashiers—exact change is appreciated. The charters run a smooth and efficient business and I was about to learn that they are worth every penny.

Most dipnetters taking charters race to get to the river as early as possible, so they can be taken out and brought back in the same day. Since we were camping, Hem dropped us off on a beach slightly down river instead of taking us further to the canyon, a narrow area of the river where salmon can be caught two or three to a net when the runs are thick. Most of the spots in the canyon are more treacherous, even requiring people to tie themselves off to the shoreline. Because of the size of our group and the fact that we were overnighting, Hem jumped us ahead in the line. We had a short ride downstream to a beach where Taral Creek drains into the Copper River. The beach was a mix of large round river rock with sandy spots composed of fine glacial silt. The race to net our limit of fish was on.

Anne dipping, Ralph putting a red on the stringer.

Anne dipping, Ralph putting a red on the stringer.

But first, we had to get our nets ready. The poles were in three pieces and needed to be bolted together. I learned that the shape and size of the net is important. Instead of large nets with a perfect circular hoop, our nets had a rounded triangular shape to allow for easier maneuverability in the swift water. Once the poles were bolted together, we donned our hip waders (another necessity on the Copper River) and got in the water.

It was probably 6 or 7 in the evening when we got started, positioned on the north bank of Taral Creek. My dad and Uncle Frank demonstrated the dip, sweep, and lift motion for Cecil and me. Simply dip the net in the water upriver till you barely touch the rocky river bottom, and then sweep downriver so the net fills out while keeping it as close to the bottom as possible. If you don’t feel a tug or jerk of the pole indicating a fish in the net, then lift and repeat. The application of these instructions was not so simple. Repeating these motions over and over again required an amount of endurance that I wasn’t expecting.

Dipping into the Copper.

Dipping into the Copper.

On the Copper River that season the subsistence limit for Alaska residents was twenty fish per head of household and ten fish per additional member. Between the four of us there were three, two-person households represented for a total limit of 90 fish.

None of us caught a fish in the first twenty minutes. I was quickly discouraged, already figuring this would be like all the other fishing expeditions I’ve been on where the experienced fishermen I’m with have unusual bad luck, and I come out empty handed. I was thankful to be proven wrong. We started catching them slowly. One every five to fifteen minutes. After an hour we maybe had five fish total, and I hadn’t caught one.

Dad moved me downstream where he had found a back eddy. It was large and formed a steady current of water just off the bank moving upstream in the opposite direction of the main current of the river. This meant there would be no sweeping required. The current of the back eddy was strong enough to keep the net open so all I had to do was keep the net upright while it rested on the bottom waiting for a fish to find its way into the net. Not having to sweep significantly reduced the amount of effort required, but it was still strenuous keeping the net upright against the current, constantly lifting the net to make sure it wasn’t tangled and maneuvering it to where the current of the eddy was the strongest. While Cecil and I fished the back eddy, my dad and Uncle Frank went to a point just upriver of us and continued their sweeping.

And then we caught some fish.

I remember the feeling of the first one that landed in my net. It was unmistakable. I knew I had one and quickly pulled my net in and lifted it onto the bank. But that wasn’t the end of the job. The fish needed to be stunned by hitting it on the head with a small club and then bled out by cutting its gills. Then it had to be strung on the stringer attached to large rocks and pieces of driftwood where the fish could bleed into the water.

They’d come in waves. Sometimes it’d be a five to twenty minute window when no one caught a fish, and then we’d all have a fish in our nets over the span of a minute. A few times I was catching them so fast that by the time Cecil had my fish stunned and bled out, I’d be pulling in another one for him to take care of.

We fished like this for hours. There was never a point when none of us was in the water. Our breaks consisted of walking up to where our gear was, rummaging for a granola bar, taking a bite, and then heading back to our net—finishing the bar along the way. For dinner I took the time to make sandwiches. I passed them down the bank to everyone, and they’d take a bite in between maneuvering a few more dips, sweeps, and lifts.

Anne dipping for reds on the Copper River.

Anne dipping for reds on the Copper River.

The weather stayed clear and warm the entire evening. The wind can be fierce on the Copper River, but this time there was a steady breeze with occasional strong gusts that kept the bugs away and the temperatures mild. Though the wind wasn’t as bad as it often is, it still managed to give us and all of our gear a nice coat of glacial silt.

We started setting up our tents around 1:30 a.m. It was getting hard to see and we were all ready for some rest. We had about 70 fish on our stringers so we figured the remaining 20 wouldn’t be too hard to catch in the “morning.” The wind picked up, or at least it sounded like it did, with the frequent gusts and spray of silt constantly hitting our tent. It was nice being able to lie down, but that was all I really did. The noise from the wind, and my worry about bears snacking on our fish, kept me from getting any real sleep. About three or four hours later we were up, tearing down our tents and getting our hip waders on. The sooner we caught our limit of fish, the sooner we could move on to the next step in the process.

Around 7:00 a.m. another group was dropped off at the beach, along with bins from Hem to put our stringers of fish in once we had caught our limit. We worked hard to get our last few stringers full and be out of the way for the next group of dipnetters. The rule Hem told us about the stringers was to limit five fish per stringer and then put only three stringers in each bin.

Finally, around 9:00 a.m., we had our limit. Or so we thought. As we were getting the stringers in the bins I noticed that one of them only had four fish. We already had the nets broken down, so we decided to go home one short even though we probably would have had the 90th fish in a matter of minutes with a net in the water.

One of Hem’s boat captains picked us up and it was back to O’Brien Creek to fillet and bag our salmon. This was the part of the trip that I was most curious about. For years I’ve been hearing about “the cleaning station.” And hearing statements like, “Paying for the charter is worth it just for the cleaning station alone” … “It’s first class. I can’t imagine doing it any other way again.”

Twilight on the Copper River.

Twilight on the Copper River.

The cleaning station turned out to be a large, approximately 20 to 30 foot, box truck with waist-high filleting platforms running the length of each side. Each side also had about four hoses with fresh pressurized water from O’Brien Creek running through them so each person could keep their station clean and easily wash down the fish. Underneath the platforms was a steel chute that all of the fish heads, backbones and guts could be pushed into. The chute was sloped so everything washed into the creek.

While the guys filleted the salmon, I kept busy having zip lock bags open and ready whenever a fillet was done, arranging the fish and ice in the cooler, and extracting the fish out of the tangle of stringers and placing them in the hands of whoever was ready for another one. I had some moments of downtime, but they were few. It was during these moments, when I looked down at the banks of the creek, that I really saw the benefit of the cleaning station. I watched some fishermen and the backbreaking work of cleaning and filleting while squatted at the edge of the creek. The job can certainly be done that way, but not at the speed and efficiency the cleaning station allowed. I’ve found myself giving it glowing reviews multiple times, and when we go back to the Copper, I can’t imagine filleting 89 salmon any other way. It wasn’t hard to understand why the multiple fillet knives were needed. Just like when a wave of fish came through, once you start filleting them, you don’t stop until the job is done.

Click here to subscribe to Last Frontier Magazine!Finally, 178 fillets were bagged and packed in the coolers. We loaded them with our dull knives in the truck and headed back to Wasilla. We made it in time for dinner, and then went to bed so we could start the last stage of our journey early.

We spent the following day processing and vacuum sealing our massive haul of salmon. Throughout the years, it seemed that I was usually the one available to lend a hand at this stage. The job I was always given was scraping the slime off the skin of the fish and patting them dry. I participated in this job for so many years that I recall being called “slime girl” several times. Though not a very glamorous title, desliming the fish is an important task because it helps keep the meat from developing a “fishy” taste, and the slime from interfering with the vacuum seal. With two slimers and two vacuum sealers, we made it through all the fillets by dinner time Saturday night. A couple of the fillets were left out and put on the grill. It was the best salmon I’d ever had, because I finally realized what it took to get it.

For years I’ve heard my dad and his brothers refer to the Copper River marathon, and now I know what it’s all about.

By Anne Sanders

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