The history of Alaska has been shaped as much by its fish as by its settlers and its geography. For fish are an all-important resource that helped sustain the first inhabitants of the last frontier, as well as those who followed.
Subsistence fishing has long been a way of life for Native tribes in rural Alaska. As the Justice Center at the University of Alaska Anchorage puts it, Many Alaska Natives “depend heavily on subsistence for their livelihoods.” Or, to quote Elizabeth Barrett Ristroph from the Arizona Journal of Environmental Law & Policy, “Gathering of subsistence food stuffs continues to be an important economic and cultural activity for many Alaska Natives.”
To which the Alaska Department of Fish and Game adds simply, “Subsistence fishing and hunting are economically and culturally important for many Alaskans, even today.”
To get some idea of what this boils down to in sheer numbers, most recent estimates have determined that the average rural subsistence harvest across Alaska is about 354 pounds of food, per person, per year—well more than the U.S. average consumption of 255 pounds of domestic meat, fish and poultry per year. So central to Alaska is the subsistence issue that Senator Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), chair of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, continues to hold congressional hearings on the subject.
But while commercial fishing boat nets may abound in Alaskan waters, there’s plenty of room for individuals to operate. Huge runs of salmon migrating from the open ocean into more protected areas have, in fact, resulted in a growth sector for sportsmen. Generations ago, Tlingit Natives set up summer fish camps along Ketchikan Creek to partake of the bounty. Today, the abundance of fish that annually find their way to Prince of Wales Island has resulted in the Ketchikan area being known as “The Salmon Capital of the World.”
In a sportfishing calendar that runs hottest from April to October, five species of wild Pacific salmon lure anglers in for adventure. Early in the season are the kings (chinook), the largest of all Pacific salmon, known for their deep dives and challenging runs. There are also the reds (sockeye). Later in the season come the silvers (coho), pinks (humpy) and dogs (chum).
“This area is made up of hundreds of protected passages, bays and inlets, waters that teem with aquatic life,” says Brad Steuart, owner of Boardwalk Lodge (BoardwalkLodge.com). At Boardwalk, a fleet of 28-foot-long cruisers powered by twin 150-horsepower Mercury motors brings back king salmon that hit the scales at 65 pounds or more and halibut in excess of 325 pounds.
Salmon anglers generally do best when their quarry are headed inland to propagate. But there is almost always something hungry enough to nibble at a herring-baited 6/0 hook weighted down with four ounces of lead.
Still, for best results, one veteran skipper advises a short ride to one of the many nearby islands. There, he says, “everything in the world swims by because it’s close to the big water and fish follow the tide. Anything the ocean has to offer can be found right here—from salmon and halibut to a never-ending variety of rockfish as well as red snapper and ling cod.”
Charter boat captains are known for their fish tales, but this particular fellow laughingly insists that his yarns are true. “I even caught a humpback whale on a fly one day,” he says, “but I couldn’t turn him and when he blew next to the boat, that was pretty exciting.”
With so many hooks in the water, all of them seeking to snare a share, one might think there is a danger of overfishing. But by every indication, the salmon industry is well-managed for the future, providing plenty of satisfaction for a long time to come.
“The pie here is big enough to sustain sport, subsistence and commercial use,” says Scott Hed, director of the Sportsman’s Alliance for Alaska. “There’s enough here to serve all interests, and unified efforts are being made to see that things stay that way.”
•Island Heritage Tours, Ouzinkie, Alaska: Great exercise while exploring Ouzinkie village’s rich Alutiiq heritage during a community-led day tour. When not taking in the stunning vistas, you can learn much about the history and culture of the Alutiiq people (IslandHeritageTours.com).
•Hualapai River Runners, Grand Canyon West, Arizona: Adventure on the Colorado River, combined with narration from your guide on Hualapai cultural history, make this white water rafting outfit the one to choose (GrandCanyonWest.com/rafting.php).
•MHA Tribal Ranch & Lodge, Mandaree, North Dakota: The Mandan, Hidatsa & Arikara Tribal Ranch & Lodge sits on 20,000 acres of an untouched natural wildlife habitat and offers lodging, meals and all the creature comforts of home for hunters. Abundant game makes this the ultimate destination for serious hunters (701-759-3176).