LAKE MINCHUMINA, Alaska — When we decided to keep four husky pups from our summer litter to see how they worked in harness, we knew that meant feeding a lot of dogs — 19 dogs counting the old ones and the house dogs. With shipping expenses added to a high-quality dog food, every 40-pound bag cost us about $75. One bag lasts at best two and a half days.
So we planned to fish hard. We don’t get a salmon run here, but the whitefish move in early winter and we’ve always tried to put up 800 to 1,000 fish to cook with rice and fat for winter dog food. With the run usually hitting after freeze-up, we can simply toss the fish into a shed to freeze for the winter.
I prefer checking each net twice per week. That means running one net per day six days per week. Counting travel time, each run takes two to four hours — a huge commitment of time for November and December. With one of us off trapping, the person at home doesn’t get much else done, but often we save more money by fishing than we can earn by trapping.
Fishing with nets under the ice takes work. If you like working hard on the exposed lake in all kinds of weather, it’s also fun, but not especially exciting.
This year, fishing was exciting, mostly because we caught so many. In the past, old-timers spoke of catching 2,000 to 3,000 whitefish in October and November, but we always felt lucky to catch 1,000. Recently we’ve had to run two or three nets through December to get the job done, perhaps because the whitefish population has been dwindling in lakes throughout the Interior.
The work starts with running a long, lightweight rope under the ice and using it to pull the 55-yard net under, securing it to vertical poles at either end. To check the net, we chop the new ice from around each pole, untie net from the far pole (leaving the long rope attached) and pull the beach pole out of the water with the net and all the fish.
As the bottom tip of the 15-foot shore pole splashes out of the water, I like to see a fish or two popping up in that first few feet of net. That’s always a good sign.
This fall, we’d been having a discouraging run when we pulled our net right before freeze-up. The lake froze five days later, on Oct. 22, and two days after that we tiptoed out to set our first net on the river delta. When we checked it the next day, it caught a disappointing 11.
The second net went in that same day, at Holek Spit. The third net, across the lake, didn’t go in until Oct. 29 when the main lake had more than 4 inches of good ice for a safe crossing. The first two nets got a slow start, but when the third net caught 97 four days after we set it, our goal of 1,200 fish seemed more attainable. That would save us an awful lot on the feed bill, despite all those bellies in the dog yard.
The “Post Office net” didn’t maintain that high rate, but the other two picked up to offset the difference. Before Miki left on the first trapline run, we’d go out together and check one or two nets a day, pulling 30 to 60 fish from each net. After she left, I kept up with the daily work until a screaming wind shut down any kind of travel on the lake for awhile. The wind scoured half the snow off the glassy black ice, pounding the rest into rock-hard drifts and leaving the delta sooty with windblown silt.
At that point, Nov. 15, we had 968 fish — a number we rarely saw before mid-December. After running nets for about 24 of the last 28 days, I happily let everything go for two days while sheets of snow flew up the river past our home. By the third day the wind had eased up just a bit. I didn’t like making the sled dogs huddle out in the wind as I checked the net, so I drove the snow machine over to the delta.
After five days underwater, the net came out heavy with fish. I only pulled out a few feet at a time, wearing insulated rubber gloves and picking fish with a bent nail projecting from a fist-sized handle. It only took a few seconds to a minute to untangle each fish, but if I hauled more than 8 or 10 at a time from the water the blistering wind would freeze them into the net.
I stopped a couple times to stretch my back and admire the spindrift that slid silkily across the hard drifts and wind-blasted ice. The hissing, whipping ground blizzard caught the sunlight as it flashed past, surrounding me with its life and making me feel like I was floating among the northern lights.
I caught 102 fish and the job took almost three hours counting travel time. With the fish shed overflowing and our goal in sight, I happily pulled that net and hauled the ice-crusted 70-pound mass home.
The next day, I put off going out until late afternoon when the wind seemed to be diminishing, only to reach the Spit net in a howling storm. The sun hovered 45 minutes above the horizon when I got the holes open. I pulled the shore pole out with a few feet of net and by the time the lower tip of the pole cleared the ice, nine fish were flapping in the spindrift. It was wonderful. It was horrible. With my fur hat, double overpants and down jacket under my parka, I didn’t get cold, but by the time I dragged 106 fish out of the net, I’d changed both my frozen gloves and my iced-up fish pick. The sun was past down, leaving me in a hazy blue twilight. I happily pulled that net, too.
The third net caught 91, putting us over our goal. Even so, with the weather settling down I couldn’t resist resetting it one last time. Fishing is that addictive ... and with 19 dogs to feed, you can’t have too many fish.
Trappers and life-long Bush residents Miki and Julie Collins have written three books, which are available at Gulliver’s Books in Fairbanks. They live in Lake Minchumina.