Home Alaska Turning Home 3: Commercial Set Net Salmon Fishing with the Family

Turning Home 3: Commercial Set Net Salmon Fishing with the Family


Set Net Salmon Fishing in Bristol Bay (on a slow day)

Bristol Bay, on the Western Coast of Alaska where the Alaska Peninsula joins the mainland, hosts the largest salmon run in the world and includes five species–King (also known as Chinook), Red (also known as Sockeye), Silver (or Coho), Dog (also called Keta or Chum), and Pink (aka. Humpback, or Humpy).

The commercial salmon fishing industry operates through two types of gill netting–fishing from a 32-foot boat in what is called drift-netting (because the boat is always floating while the net is out; it is illegal for the boat to be on anchor while fishing), or fishing from shore, called set-netting.

Set-netting is generally done near the mouth of the river system, and occurs on pre-determined “set net site” locations along the beach that are designated through a state controlled leasing system. Original site designations were allotted in the middle of the last century through a point system in which applicants earned points from their history of participation in the fishing community operating prior to the leasing program.

For people to fish at a set-net site, or from a drift boat, they must also own a Bristol Bay area fishing permit. These were also awarded based on points during the middle of the last century. Since the point system, permits or set-net sites have changed hands via either inheritance, friendly legal transfer or sale.

Gill nets are approximately five feet wide with a rope of corks tied along the length on one side, and a rope full of 300 lbs of lead along the other length of net. In this way, the net floats like a curtain in the water. For drift netting, the curtain of gill net floats off the back of the boat; while in set netting the gill net is anchored on both ends in a line perpendicular to shore. To pick the fish from the net in drift fishing, the net is pulled back into the boat, and then after the fish are pulled from the net, it is put back out into the water again. For set netting, on the other hand, a 20 ft skiff is used to pull along the length of the net while the tide is in, or the net is picked by hand as the tide goes out with the fisherman walking in the water along the length of the net.

My father commercial fishes for salmon from a drift fishing operation, while my mother, two sisters, brother in law, and niece each fish their own set net sites with their fishing partners Nolan, and Cathy. I grew up set-netting, only getting on my dad’s boat on occasion when he needed extra help.

Following are pictures from visiting my family’s set net operation this morning. Hopefully later in the season I’ll be able to visit my dad’s boat and take pictures of drift fishing as well.

These pictures are actually from the slowest tide these sites have ever had during this time of year.

reaching over the bow of the boat to grab the set-net and pull it over the boat to pick

pulling the rope that the net is tied to over the bow of the boat

pulling along the (mostly empty) net–from left: Nolan, Mom, Melanie (taking pictures from the bow)

(taking pictures from the stern)

picking a red salmon out of the net

all three picking fish from the net

Nolan is a family friend that fishes with my mom and sister Melanie

showing off the genetic diversity of the river system–these are both red salmon but significantly different sizes from the same spawning year

fishing partners

family fisherman–Melanie, Mom, Me

When the fish have been pulled from the net they are gathered in brailer bags and then delivered to a tender with a weighing crane on deck and ice water fish hold in the hull.

the tender my family sells fish to–the tender then delivers the fish to a cannery

getting ready to lift the brailer from the back of the skiff

weighing the brailer of fish

dumping the fish into the hull

two members of the tender crew–Tony and Chris

visiting the other skiff crew briefly–my niece Melissa, and her dad Kevin

Cathy, our fishing partner, picking the net from the water as the tide goes out

she walks along the net pulling the lead line up out of the water so she can see if fish are caught, then throws any fish she picks from the net into the tote to bring back to shore

pulling the tote of fish up the mudflats (the tide had gone out) back to the beach

My summers growing up commercial fishing were so long. The work was tiring, and much of the time I was worn out and unhappy from exhaustion. Somewhere in there along the way I found that if I looked up at the sky and read the weather patterns showing in it, and how the light patterns changed over the course of the day, I somehow felt relief. Ever since, I’ve tracked the sky as I travel, and in fatigue have watched the skies to gain rejuvenation.

Here’s why:

the view of the sky from the Naknek beach


We ate fresh king salmon, caught this afternoon, for dinner tonight, alongside a Pinot Grigio Ramato from Friuli. Yesterday, we caribou soup served with Sta Rita Hills Pinot Noir. The night before we ate a roast with Domaine Tempier La Migoua Bandol Red. For life on the edge of the world, we’ve been getting spoiled. Wine comics of all coming soon. And more on Angela Osborne’s beautiful Grenache too.


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