Editor's Note: This story has been edited to correct a spelling error.
Aaron Kaas pulled the first sockeye of the season out of a beach net on his family’s setnet sites near Clam Gulch.
It took several tries as the 11-year-old grimaced, pulled, unwrapped the net and rewrapped it in the opposite direction even dropping the flopping fish once to run from a wave that washed over his knees, threatening to pull him under; but finally it popped free and he carried it up the beach to his older cousins and a waiting fish tote.
“It’s the first fish of the season,” said Megan Smith. “Are you going to kiss it?”
Caleigh Jensen, 14, reached into the white tote pulled the fish up to her face and kissed it, much to the delight of Kaas who grinned up at her the whole time.
Her mouth contorted as she made a face and wiped away the slime.
The “first fish tradition” it turns out, is something of a joke at the Smith setnet sites, Megan said later as she laughed about the whole scenario.
“We like to mess with the kids and keep it fun,” she said. “Everybody is grumpy and everybody is tired, because usually no one sleeps well the first night.”
Thursday morning at 7 a.m. marked the opening of the first fishing period of the season for Kasilof Section setnetters on the East side of the Cook Inlet and while several people had the typical first-day problems, the mood was cheerful up and down the beach as early morning clouds gave way to a sunny afternoon and the midafternoon news that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game had announced a two-hour extension of their period.
After the beach nets were picked, Smith took the family’s first load of fish a few miles south on the Sterling Highway to Doug Blossom’s Icicle Seafood receiving station. She took in 270 sockeye salmon.
“That’s not bad for a first pick,” she said.
At the nets directly south of the Smith’s sites, Scott Ruttum’s family had a harder time getting going.
They’re in the their fourth season and managed to get eight out of their nine nets out, but it took a while.
“I got two sets, set no problem and on my third set the web snagged my gas line and ripped it right out of my boat,” he said. “So we had to pull that back into the boat, flag my son down and they had one set by then cause they — I don’t know what their problem was — so then we got seven out of eight set but we missed a lot of fish. Didn’t get my beach net set until the water was almost set.”
Still, with the two extra hours, Ruttum said he could leave his outer nets out and pick them at a slack tide instead of pulling them early to make sure he was out of the water by 7 p.m.
“It’s much safer and easier to deal with,” he said. “I was very happy to hear that because I would have been down to five nets for the flood and then we would have to start pulling early and it would be real difficult.”
Further south, Brent Johnson’s sites were bustling by midday as well.
Johnson said he was tired.
“We’re short on crew and we were up last night doing stuff, bringing down nets and stacking them on the beach,” Johnson said.
He’s had trouble replenishing crew after last year’s disastrous season but said he’ll be looking to pick a few more people up.
“It’s looking to be a very good sockeye year,” he said.
As of 11 a.m. Pat Shields said there were close to 110,000 sockeye in the Kasilof River, just shy of the lower end of the river’s minimum escapement goal.
Despite the high numbers and the encouraging start to the fishing season, Smith said she was still cautiously optimistic about the upcoming season.
“I don’t want to take anything for granted, I want to enjoy every moment with my kids and my crew and fishing because you don’t know if it’s going to be there the next tide,” she said.
Rashah McChesney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org