Dispatches from the North: Kotzebue Sound Salmon


By Seth Kantner

My alarm goes off at 4 a.m. I leap up, put a kettle on, and grind coffee. My hands are stiff from hauling nets yesterday, my fingers swollen. On my little bed along the wall of my shack, I kneel and take a minute to stretch my back. I don’t have a deckhand, and today will likely be another 18-hour fishing opener.

I slide into jeans, a tattered flannel shirt, and grubby sweatshirt. I ignore the damp sleeves, make coffee, and slump in my grizzly-bear chair. Everything is a focused race to get on the water, but my dad grows this coffee on a farm in Hawaii and it’s very good, and I make a point to enjoy it. For a few minutes I sip, mulling over the weather, tides, and where to fish today.

When it’s gone, I stuff my phone in a sack and hang it around my neck, followed by my fishing permit and range finder. Outside, it’s dusky. The 24-hour sun of summer has recently left and cold rain slashes the windows. I pull on two jackets, rubber wristlets, a billed hat and a wool hat, my Mustang vest, and waders. The waders are heavy and damp, stinking of fish, and I feel like a spaceman as I grab rubber gloves and shoulder into my foul-weather raincoat.


In the backyard, beyond my gardens, along the lagoon, my blue plywood skiff pitches at anchor. Wind gusts from the southeast. I clamber over the stern and release the shore line. As my outboard motor warms up, I work my way over stacked nets to the bow, to draw the boat into deeper water.

At the entrance of the lagoon, the gray ocean is choppy, and I slow for the six-mile crossing to the Noatak River. A wave hits the starboard and the first spray of the morning drenches my face. Water trickles down my neck. I remember an Inupiaq elder, a lifelong friend, asking: “Your balls get wet?” He’d spent his lifetime in every kind of weather; that was his measure of tough conditions.

The air is full of spray and rain and my glasses are fogged. I glance ahead for logs, behind for other boats, and down at my depth sounder. I try to angle into the waves. My boat is four decades old, the last homemade plywood fishing boat in a fleet that has gone to aluminum and fiberglass crafts. It’s not worth cracking a chine for 40 cents per pound.

I’m halfway when I spot white spray coming fast behind me. I nudge my throttle. Ahead, I see a boat already at anchor at the bar. There’s two. No, three!

The boat is approaching as I steer into the shallows and pitch out a pink buoy. I anchor and quickly check the depth, time, and range to the next boat up the line, my friends Aya and Radar. The water is 18 inches; it’s 4:57; the distance is three hundred yards—about right for friends. The legal minimum is a hundred. That only comes into play if there are past hard feelings, which, in commercial fishing, there often are.

This is how we hold a spot, sitting at anchor, waiting for the opener. Today, it’s 8 to 8.

I rig my gear, then lie on my nets and cover up with a piece of canvas. Floats press into my back. Rain drips through the stinky slimy tarp. Occasionally, I sit up to check who else has showed. A dozen boats are in sight now, each with two to four fishermen. I’m the only one fishing solo.

At 7:44, a white fiberglass Privateer roars up. My friends, and former fishing partners, Andrew Greene and Elmer Brown grin as I sit up and throw off the tarp to greet them.

I jump off the stern, force my bow out until the water is chest deep. I leap in and nudge the throttle. I’m nervous and excited, and Andrew loves to compound this by idling alongside, watching for fish—and tangles, and catastrophes.

Floats whip out my stern chute, 600 feet of webbing, then I toss a 40-pound anchor. The water is 22 feet. I spin in reverse, snub the buoy, and tighten my corkline.

Fish are hitting already, splashing. Seals surface nearby. Andrew whoops, “Rich!” and roars down-current to find a spot. I wring my sopping gray gloves, curl stiff cold fingers around the lines, and start pulling in salmon.


About the author:



–Seth Kantner has fished commercially in Kotzebue Sound for 49 seasons and is a wildlife photographer, wilderness guide, and the author of the best-selling novel “Ordinary Wolves” and most recently the nonfiction book “A Thousand Trails Home: Living With Caribou.” He lives in Northwest Alaska and can be reached at sethkantner.com.