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Fish traps

Hard work often resulted in hit-and-miss success

Posted: Tuesday, July 10, 2001

More than 40 years have passed since fish traps dotted Cook Inlet's shoreline, but Mike Steik's memories of that fishery are strong and his stories full of color.

"The first time I went out was in 1946 with Abe Kvasnikoff. I was on loan to him," said Steik, who was born and raised in Ninilchik. "I was 12 years old."

He was recruited to help Kvasnikoff, after Kvasnikoff's partner, who had helped build the trap, left the site. The location couldn't have been a better place for the 12-year-old to get his feet wet. The trap sat just south of Deep Creek; the Steik family's homestead was located on the bluff overlooking the mouth of Deep Creek.

His introduction to fish traps lasted one season. He took the next summer off.

"I was just a young whippersnapper," Steik said.

However, the following year Steik found himself once again involved in fishing after Cook Inlet Packing Co. asked his father, Chris Steik, to run Trap No. 9. It was located at an area known as "Porcupine," approximately 20 miles north of Ninilchik, on the north side of Clam Gulch. To reach the location, Steik and his father either traveled by a skiff and outboard motor or used a tractor to travel up the beach.

"That's when I really started fishing," he said. "We built that trap and fished it from 1948 until 1957."

The use of traps migrated to Alaska from the Pacific Northwest.

"The trap first appeared in the Pacific salmon fishery in May 1879, when O.P. Graham, out of Green Bay, Wis., built a stationary or pipe trap on the Columbia," wrote Robert J. Browning in his book Fisheries of the North Pacific.

"The trap went to Alaska in 1885 with construction of a stationary trap in Cook Inlet. It spread fast over the territory where it was to fish for almost 75 years."

In the early 1900s, floating traps that could be moved from one location to another were developed in Southeast Alaska. But in Cook Inlet, strong currents required fixed gear that took advantage of salmon migratory patterns. Of these, there were two types: traps built by hand and those constructed with the help of a pile driver.

 

Chris Steik works with one of his 10 sons on the trap he operated from 1948 until 195. Hand-building fish traps was hard work, done quickly during Cook Inlet's minus tides.

Steik and his father built theirs by hand.

"It took about 250 poles that were 30-feet long to build," Steik said. Gathering them began well before salmon started running in the inlet.

"We usually started in January, after Russian Christmas, and chopped the poles ourselves in the woods, hauled them out and peeled them."

With the help of axes and dog teams, the process lasted a couple of months. Construction of the trap began in March or April, depending on the tides.

"It usually took two sets of minus tides to get it done," Steik said. "And we hired four or five people, plus gave them room and board to help us build it."

 

This model by Mike Steik shows an overhead view of the fish trap

Almost 50 years later, Steik still remembers the list of supplies needed for construction.

"The trap we fished took 40 rolls of chicken wire, 10 rolls of No. 9 guy wire, one coil of hay rope, one case of spikes, two sledge hammers, lots of stakes and lots of muscle," he said. "Sometimes there were as many as seven or eight of us building it.

"If the tides weren't very good, we had to build fast. So much work had to be done on each minus tide or it wouldn't be finished."

The trap's lead extended from the beach out into the water, with poles spaced approximately 10 feet apart. The poles were secured in an upright position to stakes that had been driven into the ground.

The lead was covered with chicken wire and directed the fish away from the beach and through a 10-foot opening into the heart. Jiggers, extending out from the lead like arms on either side, also helped direct fish toward the heart. The heart and the jiggers also were covered with chicken wire. The heart funneled the salmon through a 1-foot opening into the net-enclosed pot. A series of walkways ran around the top of the pot.

"It was quite a design," Steik said. "I don't know who thought it up, but it was really something else."

The trap he and his father operated was 900-feet long. The one next to them was 1,400-feet long.

Pile-driven traps were a variation on that design. They included a spiller next to the heart, occasionally had two hearts, and incorporated the use of windlasses to raise and lower the net.

Fish from hand traps were picked at low tide.

"We fished one day and cleaned it out that same day," said Steik of the Mondays and Fridays traps were allowed to fish.

Traps were loved by those who fished them and hated by those who didn't because of the amount of fish they were able to catch. Steik estimated the most No. 9 ever caught at one time was 15,000. However that was only half of the story.

"Look at the records and sometimes you'll see two or three fish," he said. "It could be pretty bleak."

Indeed, the records for 1948 through 1952 paint a wide range of salmon caught. In June, July and August 1948, No. 9 caught 4,821 reds, 573 kings, 2,024 cohos and 15,740 pinks for a total of 23,158 salmon. During 1951, however, it only caught 2,238 reds, 434 kings, 411 cohos, 52 pinks and four chums for a total catch of 3,184 salmon.

According to Steik, the going rate for reds was 35 cents each; kings were 72 cents; cohos were 20 cents each; and pinks were 15 cents each.

"I think the last year I fished, kings went for $1.52 each. If they were small, they were two for $1," he said.

Laughing, he compared that to today's market.

"Now you can buy a whole 30-pound king salmon in the store for $100."

The trap wasn't the family's only source of income. They also had six setnet sites, three on either side of the trap.

After the summer's hard work, there was the end of the season's activities.

"We cut all the guy wires, saved a lot of the poles so we didn't have to cut them the next year, and let the rest wash out with the tide," Steik said. "We took the trap down because it was a hazard to navigation and the ice would take it out anyway."

In 1956, Steik was drafted into the U.S. Army. He trained and served at Fort Richardson. The good thing was that he was close to home and could return to the peninsula to fish the trap with his father.

However, there also was a drawback to the time he spent serving his country.

"I lost my fishing rights to my setnets when I got drafted," he said. "I wasn't able to use my nets, so someone else picked them up and I lost them. I had about 10 buddies around Alaska that lost their fishing rights the same way."

After the traps were banned and Steik was discharged from the military, he and his father began careers in construction. His father died in 1967.

Steik keeps this unique period of Alaska' history alive through models of fish traps he's created. They can be found in Homer's Pratt Museum, the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak and the corporate offices of Cook Inlet Region Inc. in Anchorage.

"I just happened to live at a good time," he said. "I got to do a lot of fishing with my dad. My other brothers helped and participated in the building, but fishing it was 99 percent Dad and me.

"Out of my nine brothers, I'm the only one that fished with Dad all the time. I don't know why the rest didn't. I think I was a little more enthusiastic. I've always loved to fish. I don't care what kind it is. If you say 'fishing,' I'll go. It was born in me."

HEAD:Fish traps Hard work often resulted in hit-and-miss success

BYLINE1:By McKIBBEN JACKINSKY

BYLINE2:Peninsula Clarion

More than 40 years have passed since fish traps dotted Cook Inlet's shoreline, but Mike Steik's memories of that fishery are strong and his stories full of color.

"The first time I went out was in 1946 with Abe Kvasnikoff. I was on loan to him," said Steik, who was born and raised in Ninilchik. "I was 12 years old."

He was recruited to help Kvasnikoff, after Kvasnikoff's partner, who had helped build the trap, left the site. The location couldn't have been a better place for the 12-year-old to get his feet wet. The trap sat just south of Deep Creek; the Steik family's homestead was located on the bluff overlooking the mouth of Deep Creek.

His introduction to fish traps lasted one season. He took the next summer off.

"I was just a young whippersnapper," Steik said.

However, the following year Steik found himself once again involved in fishing after Cook Inlet Packing Co. asked his father, Chris Steik, to run Trap No. 9. It was located at an area known as "Porcupine," approximately 20 miles north of Ninilchik, on the north side of Clam Gulch. To reach the location, Steik and his father either traveled by a skiff and outboard motor or used a tractor to travel up the beach.

"That's when I really started fishing," he said. "We built that trap and fished it from 1948 until 1957."

The use of traps migrated to Alaska from the Pacific Northwest.

"The trap first appeared in the Pacific salmon fishery in May 1879, when O.P. Graham, out of Green Bay, Wis., built a stationary or pipe trap on the Columbia," wrote Robert J. Browning in his book Fisheries of the North Pacific.

"The trap went to Alaska in 1885 with construction of a stationary trap in Cook Inlet. It spread fast over the territory where it was to fish for almost 75 years."

In the early 1900s, floating traps that could be moved from one location to another were developed in Southeast Alaska. But in Cook Inlet, strong currents required fixed gear that took advantage of salmon migratory patterns. Of these, there were two types: traps built by hand and those constructed with the help of a pile driver.

Steik and his father built theirs by hand.

"It took about 250 poles that were 30-feet long to build," Steik said. Gathering them began well before salmon started running in the inlet.

"We usually started in January, after Russian Christmas, and chopped the poles ourselves in the woods, hauled them out and peeled them."

With the help of axes and dog teams, the process lasted a couple of months. Construction of the trap began in March or April, depending on the tides.

"It usually took two sets of minus tides to get it done," Steik said. "And we hired four or five people, plus gave them room and board to help us build it."

Almost 50 years later, Steik still remembers the list of supplies needed for construction.

"The trap we fished took 40 rolls of chicken wire, 10 rolls of No. 9 guy wire, one coil of hay rope, one case of spikes, two sledge hammers, lots of stakes and lots of muscle," he said. "Sometimes there were as many as seven or eight of us building it.

"If the tides weren't very good, we had to build fast. So much work had to be done on each minus tide or it wouldn't be finished."

The trap's lead extended from the beach out into the water, with poles spaced approximately 10 feet apart. The poles were secured in an upright position to stakes that had been driven into the ground.

The lead was covered with chicken wire and directed the fish away from the beach and through a 10-foot opening into the heart. Jiggers, extending out from the lead like arms on either side, also helped direct fish toward the heart. The heart and the jiggers also were covered with chicken wire. The heart funneled the salmon through a 1-foot opening into the net-enclosed pot. A series of walkways ran around the top of the pot.

"It was quite a design," Steik said. "I don't know who thought it up, but it was really something else."

The trap he and his father operated was 900-feet long. The one next to them was 1,400-feet long.

Pile-driven traps were a variation on that design. They included a spiller next to the heart, occasionally had two hearts, and incorporated the use of windlasses to raise and lower the net.

Fish from hand traps were picked at low tide.

"We fished one day and cleaned it out that same day," said Steik of the Mondays and Fridays traps were allowed to fish.

Traps were loved by those who fished them and hated by those who didn't because of the amount of fish they were able to catch. Steik estimated the most No. 9 ever caught at one time was 15,000. However that was only half of the story.

"Look at the records and sometimes you'll see two or three fish," he said. "It could be pretty bleak."

Indeed, the records for 1948 through 1952 paint a wide range of salmon caught. In June, July and August 1948, No. 9 caught 4,821 reds, 573 kings, 2,024 cohos and 15,740 pinks for a total of 23,158 salmon. During 1951, however, it only caught 2,238 reds, 434 kings, 411 cohos, 52 pinks and four chums for a total catch of 3,184 salmon.

According to Steik, the going rate for reds was 35 cents each; kings were 72 cents; cohos were 20 cents each; and pinks were 15 cents each.

"I think the last year I fished, kings went for $1.52 each. If they were small, they were two for $1," he said.

Laughing, he compared that to today's market.

"Now you can buy a whole 30-pound king salmon in the store for $100."

The trap wasn't the family's only source of income. They also had six setnet sites, three on either side of the trap.

After the summer's hard work, there was the end of the season's activities.

"We cut all the guy wires, saved a lot of the poles so we didn't have to cut them the next year, and let the rest wash out with the tide," Steik said. "We took the trap down because it was a hazard to navigation and the ice would take it out anyway."

In 1956, Steik was drafted into the U.S. Army. He trained and served at Fort Richardson. The good thing was that he was close to home and could return to the peninsula to fish the trap with his father.

However, there also was a drawback to the time he spent serving his country.

"I lost my fishing rights to my setnets when I got drafted," he said. "I wasn't able to use my nets, so someone else picked them up and I lost them. I had about 10 buddies around Alaska that lost their fishing rights the same way."

After the traps were banned and Steik was discharged from the military, he and his father began careers in construction. His father died in 1967.

Steik keeps this unique period of Alaska' history alive through models of fish traps he's created. They can be found in Homer's Pratt Museum, the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak and the corporate offices of Cook Inlet Region Inc. in Anchorage.

"I just happened to live at a good time," he said. "I got to do a lot of fishing with my dad. My other brothers helped and participated in the building, but fishing it was 99 percent Dad and me.

"Out of my nine brothers, I'm the only one that fished with Dad all the time. I don't know why the rest didn't. I think I was a little more enthusiastic. I've always loved to fish. I don't care what kind it is. If you say 'fishing,' I'll go. It was born in me."



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