Even though it was full of unknowns, I wanted to catch my own salmon this June -- and I did it, patched together and by the seat of my pants, but I did it. I have gorgeous chum salmon in my freezer and hanging on a rack to dry & smoke, and with a little help from my friends, I did it.
Fishermen checking their net in Hooper Bay by boat.
I cooked it with all the vegetables inside the fish, wrapped in tin foil. on a rack over the campfire -- MMMM!
Then our camping neighbors out on Nuvok, Mary & Harvey, said I could work with them this year, learn from them about all the parts of the process, and I could just work on building my wooden drying rack for next year. They are super sweet, helpful, and concerned about us, and it seemed like a dream offer, and I was going to accept until....
So this was a Friday afternoon, and low tide, or at least, low enough to set the net out, was around 4:pm, and so Roy decided to help, too, and so we got the waders on, got the net at the campsite, spread out and inspected the net, loaded stuff up, met up with Tul'uq and drove out to the water in good time.
Roy, Esther & Odin are laying out the net to inspect it.
Setting out the net was pretty much what I envisioned it to be: We put out one anchor, pulled one end of the net out to it and tied it to it, then brought the other anchor to the other end.
Roy and Tul'uq are bringing out the net to me, and I am holding on to the anchor's rope. There are little floats on the top of the net, and Tul'uq also let us borrow his bright orange buoys for each end. On the bottom of the net is a line made of some kind of metal, very heavy, to keep it kind of steady. Here is my net, all set in Hooper Bay.
The coolest thing happened when we were setting out the net; the guys had gone in for the second anchor and I was holding on to the end of the net, stretched out, and all of a sudden I saw that I had already caught a fish! My first fish -- a chum salmon caught a few minutes after we set the net.It had just swum right into the net even while I was still holding on to it. We tied the net to the anchor and walked out to inspect it; sure enough it was a nice chum. I was kind of letting my beginner's giddiness get to me and I tried to get it out, but it was very strong and flipping around and I was all silly, so Roy helped. Here is a picture of Roy getting my first fish out:
Esther peering at it from her perch on the honda.
So then I was like, "I have to give it to someone!" because traditionally, Yup'ik people would give all of their first catch away, to an elder, and then the spirit of the animal would feel respected and want to give themselves again to that hunter. I was like, "I have to give it to an elder!" and Roy was totally laughing at me, because, as he said, "We only do that for big things, like seal or whale or something, not a little fish" but I wasn't dissuaded. I mean, maybe it was a little silly, but it just didn't feel right to keep it, especially since it had been caught so instantaneously, and besides, since I am just a marginal member of the community, you know, accepted but not expected to rigidly follow rules, people make exceptions for me alot of times if I make mistakes or whatever, because they just think I don't know any better. SO even if were about to make a big faux-pas in giving this fish away I don't think anyone would call me on it, and it just felt right to do, even if it wasn't quite a thing that people usually did. So I gave it to Esther's great-great aunt Helen, the elder I enjoy talking with so much. Her family giggled at me but I could tell they thought it was great funny, not making-fun-of-me-funny.
So then we just had to wait for the tide to come up, and then fall again low enough to check the net, all the fish being caught during the high tide hours. Lucky for me, that would be in another 12 hours or so, and the tide was even lower at 6:pm, so I figured if I got up at about 7:am I would hit it right.
My net, the first time I set it out, when I checked it at low tide, full of chum salmon (and other things).
I caught over 40 chums! It was quite a haul. Not that anyone was having a bad fishing year -- I guess this year has been really good fishing. But still, that was more than I expected. I felt really blessed by the ocean.
What's locally called a "devilfish" -- totally a creepy, spiny thing that played dead and then would focus its big yellow eyes at me when I walked by. I have heard that some people, older people, in town, eat them, and you know, maybe they're OK, but....
So I had 4 gunny sacks of fish, and I decided that I would leave the net in for now, to see how it went. I drove back to the house, put some in the freezer, gave some away, and then drove back to the camp to start cutting the rest of them to dry.
Roy working on the fish drying rack, and the completed rack, beside our camp.
One problem: I didn't know how to cut them! I was totally excited that this fishing came through, and that I caught an abundance of fish, but it all happened really fast and so I hadn't had time to learn from anyone how to do it. And by now it was raining, and I did not feel like being out there all day, but now the fish were caught and I had to deal with them before they got kind of spoiled. From what folks told me, fish spoils kind of easy.
So I watched them cut fish like they could do it in their sleep, slice through the fish meat with their kinaluqs (women's knives, like an Alaskan ulu) like it was butter. They headed and gutted the fish, then sliced the stomach up to the tail. Then made two slices down either side of the spine, and slid the meat away from the ribs on the insides. Then they would have two strips of meat, with the skin, attached by the tail. Then they would cut stripes into the strips of meat, cut around the fins, and stretch the skin.
I was much more stilted, crooked, and pathetic, but I was making it work -- because I had to. I had so many fish to deal with and I figured even if they were crooked, they would end up being good food, and I would just get better at it as I went along by necessity. It was really nice being a part of the group there, and it was a little sad when I tramped back through the steady rain to my campsite and cutting board on the ground.
I spent I don't know how many hours cutting those fish, and I got the process down, though my technique could still use a lot of improvement. Here is the only picture I have of myself doing this whole thing, and it's blurry because it's through the campfire smoke and pouring rain: Roy was not thrilled about being out there all day in the rain, but I did convince him to finish the fish rack and put the tarp up over the top of it, to keep the rain off the drying fish.
My hanging fish... a few days later when it was nicer weather.
So I did it, got all the fish cut, and..... it was low tide again, time to check the net again! I dropped Roy and Esther at home -- he did help a lot by watching her -- and I went back out to Nuvok to the net. By the time I got out there, the tide was starting to come back in, and I was getting increasingly nervous because I had to wade back and forth to the net to get the fish out, and the water kept coming up and up, and I had to keep moving the honda back and back, and then I had to walk even further. I had caught at least as many fish as in the morning, maybe more. No pictures from this experience -- I was too stressed.
So! In a span of twenty-four hours I had all the fish I needed, and plenty to give away. I stopped a couple places to give away fish on my way home and then when I got home I just headed and gutted the fish I had left so they would keep till the next morning. I got to bed at around midnight. Phew.
More pictures of my pretty fish... at least pretty in my opinion!
I thought I would sleep well, but I think I had over-used so many muscles I had never used before that I woke up several times to numb, leaden arms and hands. I'm writing this at the beginning of July, two weeks after doing this, and the circulation in my arms still isn't back to normal. Not complaining, just kind of realizing the extent of all what I did in such a short period of time.
But after I finished cutting the fish I had left to do the next morning, and drove out to the camp (in the still-driving rain) with Emily and Rosalee and hung them, I felt really proud and that it was all worth it to have all those beautiful fish hung to dry on my rack.
From left, Rosalee, Esther, & Emily at my fish rack on a rainy day.
Emily, Rosalee and I dug a hole to bury my fish heads -- all the guts and heads I was throwing out anyway, digging holes to get rid of them, and so I decided to try out what folks have been teasing me about for years: to make uqsuq, or "stinkhead" -- which is exactly what it sounds like. Supposedly putrified fish heads are a delicacy, very stinky but taste really good. I can't really even imagine what they are like, and I highly doubt I'll be able to stomach them, but since I was just going to throw the things out, if I end up throwing them out once they're putrified, there's no loss, just a fun experiment. I know all of you out there are freaked out right now, but it's not just a native thing -- there's plenty of upstanding Scandanavians who like putrified stuff, too, I know. :)
Esther watching as Rosalee fills in the uqsuq (fish stinkhead) hole.
That day was nice, too, because we went picking greens at Old Hooper Bay on our way home. I am learning that there are just a bunch of varieties of edible greens that grow at this time of year on the tundra. I thought there was just this one kind, but it turns out there are a bunch, and I'll need to pay closer attention next year and try to document what they are, their names, and where/when/how to pick & use them. Another thing going into the file cabinet for next year. :)
I returned home to a clean house and a goose roasting in the oven -- that was very nice of Roy; though I was so exhausted that I fell asleep on the couch as Esther played in my lap, and I almost slept through a good dinner. Luckily they hollered for me to get up.So the fish were up, covered, done -- all they needed now was time and fresh air to get dry. I forgot to write that as I cut them, I had thrown them into a brine to marinate for a few minutes, so hopefully they'll be really tasty. It was really ugly rainy weather for several days after that, so I didn't even get out there to camp, but all kinds of people were going through the camp and checking my fish, which was really nice, and Roy went out and turned them over, after the skins dried, to skin-side-in.
My gorgeous fish on a gorgeous day, on my cool rack.
My fish weren't even dry by the time I left Alaska for my mom's house in Indiana, but Roy has reported that they got dry and he brought them to his grandma's house to smoke -- so that, also, will be good. It will be so exciting to return, in August, to a freezer full of dryfish, my dryfish, and it will be good food all winter.
Esther and her cousin Jasmine enjoying some baked salmon at my house.
A bowl of Salmon Roe -- you know, the stuff that makes fancy caviar. I wasn't sure how to make caviar, so I used a recipe from Cooking Alaskan, to make a Roe casserole:
First I simmered the roe in water with peppercorns, cloves, and bay leaves;
Then I layered the roe with paprika, salt, lemon juice, bread crumbs, and a white sauce;
Then I baked it at 325 for 20 minutes or so. It was good! Definitely fishy, but filling; The roe really solidified, and so it wasn't a wierd texture at all, though I almost had hoped it would still be a little jiggly. Not at all!