Good protein is Alaska’s new gold rush. Safe, truly nutritious protein is an elusive component of daily life in the American economy. It has never been as obvious to Alaskans as it is now that they enjoy an unusual marketplace of pristine meats. However, this protein is not sold in stores. It requires the initiative and commitment of each individual to bring to the table.
Moose, caribou, ptarmigan, grouse, ducks, salmon–these are the entrees that Alaskans would call ‘local’. These meats are organic far beyond FDA standards and raised entirely free from pollutants that persistently contaminate farming practices, globally. And money cannot buy them.
Like any gold rush, in order to cash in on this precious resource, you have to be willing to fail, get lost, cold and hungry. But if you find what you are looking for, it is soul-food.
The Copper River Salmon Dip Net fishery is a unique example of the access Alaskans have been granted to good protein.
The Copper River Red Dip Net fishery allows Alaska residents 55 fish per household if they can catch them. If you can catch them, depending on how good you are at processing fish, you’ll end up with between 200 and 400 lbs of vacuum-packed fillets in the freezer. This is a priceless resource.
This subsistence harvest is referred to as a “dip net” fishery because the term identifies it separately from most sport and commercial fisheries where fish are caught by either hook-and-line or by large nets deployed with boat assistance.
What is a Dip Net
A dip net refers to a large circular loom with a net attached. This loom is fastened to a pole eight to twelve feet long. The loom portion of the net is about five feet in diameter. The net is shaped like a cone reaching back four to five feet—enough room to fit three or four eight pound salmon or one king salmon.
How does dip netting work
Dip Netting is a process of catching fish by sticking a net in the water and having a fish swim into it. Doesn’t sound sportsy, does it? Because the water is so murky, there is no active fish spotting and getting.
It seems like blind luck, but for the romantic hunter gatherer who wants some adventure, dip netting on the Copper does not disappoint. It is a precise science that requires risk and skill. Once you understand fish behavior, you can strategize exactly where stick your net. If you have the skill to fish that strategic spot, you’ll both stay safe and get your fish. You may not be comfortable, warm or dry, but you’ll get fish.
First, understanding the river
Salmon use rivers as super highways to migrate from oceans to spawning grounds in lakes and streams. Think of it as a long fish road trip— one in which the destination is life and death.
Upon arrival to their nesting grounds, salmon have expended virtually all of their energy in swimming upstream without stopping to eat along the way. Their bodies literally consume themselves and decay as the days go by. This would be you, using your own flesh and blood to fuel a trip cross-country (and uphill all the way) in order to conceive a child, or 3,000 in the case of a salmon.
It is a brilliant design in nature providing a predictable food source for both humans and animals every year.
Bears gorge themselves on salmon runs before winter. All birds of prey feed on spent salmon that wash up along creek banks. Once spawned out, salmon loll about listlessly and make a very easy supper for foxes, wolves, marten, mink, otters.
On average the Copper river provides 100 thousand pounds to fish fertilizer to estuaries in lakes and streams, making them rich nurseries for plants, aqua biota of all kinds, fowl and fauna.
The Copper river is a relatively short distance for fish to travel.
Yukon King salmon travel 1,900 miles before reaching their spawning grounds near Whitehorse, Canada—upstream, against a current. Copper River salmon travel between 30 and 300 miles.
River mileage matters to the quality of fish.
Because Yukon King salmon have to travel so far in order to spawn, their bodies are designed to be dripping with oils to fuel the journey. This is why farmed salmon, or salmon with short runs to their spawning grounds, have dry and soft fillets. While Copper River salmon are less oily than Yukon Kings, they are relatively creamy compared to other Pacific and Atlantic Salmon runs because their journey is so challenging.
The 10th largest river in North America by volume, its relatively short span of 290 miles makes the Copper a fire-hose equivalent of the Missouri.
The Copper is a glacial river, meaning it is fed primarily by melt from ice fields upstream. It is murky and turbulent with a gray/green, completely opaque appearance. Get close enough to dunk your hand in, and you won’t be able to see even a shadow or outline.
The Copper is responsible for draining 24,000 square miles, the equivalent of half of Iowa state. An average of twelve feet in drop for every mile of river, its current cranks at 8 knots. This is the average human running all-out in a 10K. Add to this unusually strong current a slurry of glacial silt suspended throughout the water column, and you get a serious challenge for any swimmer.
The challenge inherent in the Copper river mean salmon are carb-loaded for an ultra marathon.
Second, understanding fish behavior
Copper River Red (officially known as ‘Sockeye’) Salmon, swim up river to spawn. Fish take the path of least resistance when migrating. Find the easiest route, you’ll find fish. Find the short resting places, you’ll find fish.
Upstream, the Copper looks a lot like the meandering rivers of the Midwest. Wide, braided sand bars miles across provide space for tens of thousands of fish to make their way with plenty of social distancing. At one point the Copper cuts through a mountain in a worn rock slit. That wide expanse of water necks down into something a hundred feet across in places.
In the Copper River canyon, those tens of thousands of fish are forced into a school that looks a lot like a packed fish subway. Poke a net in the Metro at 6pm, you’ll catch something.
The downside of an 8 knot current that is loaded with tiny ground up rocks and barely swimmable by fish is that it’s mostly un-swimmable for humans. Silt quickly packs into clothing adding pounds like lead weights that overcome any natural buoyancy. A water temperature of 38 degrees quickly paralyzes warm-blooded anything, and there goes swimming.
The Department of Fish and Game reports that since 2005, 10 people have died fishing the Copper River Canyon. This is a per-capita number so far exceeding other sport fisheries there are no comparables.
The Canyon is what it sounds like: two cliff faces with rock outcroppings here and there, depending on water levels. On hot days, the water is high and fast. In a cool summer weather cycle, the river tends to have a more consistent water line and fewer tidal-like surges that can surprise a fisherman.
Access to the Canyon is limited because there are no roads.
A charter service can drop fishermen on rocks in the Canyon, retrieving them hours later.Another way to get to the Canyon is via an abandoned railroad bed. People bike or motorcycle five to eight miles out the railroad grade and shimmy down the Canyon wall to a rock ledge with their nets. Most people tie themselves to a tree or rock anchor as a life-saving measure because the slippery footing and unwieldy net can pull them in.
This process of catching fish in the Canyon can take hours or days depending on how full the run is. People nap wedged in rocks and behind trees on the steep hillside as they wait for a surge in fish numbers to pass by. Watching for bears is a crucial side-project on the Copper because humans are competing for resources in a bear-dominated arena.
When you’ve bagged all your fish, you put them in backpacks and crawl back up the rock wall and hillside to the bicycles or motorcycles. Fifty-five fish, unprocessed, weighs on average 500 pounds. People rush as quickly as possible back to the narrow O’Brien Creek access point in order to get their fish on ice.
Getting all that protein in the freezer
O’Brien creek is a freshwater tributary to the Copper that acts as a perfect initial cleaning station for gutting and beheading fish. Fifty five fish and ten bags of ice both weigh a lot and take up most of a pick-up bed. You also have bikes, motorcycles, and camping equipment to consider. It’s a true gypsy-looking operation.
Once the fish have been gutted and beheaded, Alaskan’s drive 7 hours home in order to fillet and process their catch before freezing.
For Alaskans, good protein is soul food.
Dip netting provides that lovely chemical serotonin which counteracts our dopamine addictions. It brings a sense of camaraderie and accomplishment. Add this to a meal and it turns out to be very good protein.
Not everything is good about this protein at first. Dip net fishing is something no one is good at it at first. No one can read the river just right or hang on to their pole. No one is proud of their first fillet because it is shredded to gruesome ribbons. Learning to fillet fish comes with mangling meat until you become an artist with something a kin to zen process.
Good protein and meals punctuated by memories.
Alaskans who take advantage of the Copper river dip net fishery have entrees seasoned by memories. Scrambling up and down rock banks. Of motorcycling with two-hundred pounds of fish. Of a twelve-foot dip net strapped their backs, hoping to avoid snagging a tree. They notice the handwriting on each packaged fish remembering who helped that day.
Salmon is good protein and it is becoming our new, extremely valuable resource. Like any gold rush, you have to be ready to leave your comfort zone to search for something precious. Ready to fail, get lost, make ugly fillets. No matter what though, Alaskans who make the effort end up with soul food.