On the Water in Alaska, Where Salmon Fishing Dreams Live On
Each summer, salmon begin their journey back to the rivers where they were spawned. Alaskan fishermen, along with whales, eagles and bears, share in the abundance.,
Joe Sebastian with a hooked salmon.Credit…
Photographs and Text by Colin Arisman
My camera lens is pressed against the window of the small floatplane as it flies below a thick ceiling of clouds. The mist clings to the hillsides of a temperate rainforest that descend steeply to the rocky coastline of southeast Alaska.
The plane banks, and a tiny village comes into view. A scattering of houses are built on stilts on the water’s edge. We circle and I see fishing boats tied up next to a large dock and a floating post office. The pilot throttles down and the pontoons skim across the glassy water inside the bay. We taxi to the public dock and I step out in front of the Point Baker general store.
Life along the Alaska coast is economically and culturally dependent on fishing. Each summer, millions of salmon — after maturing in the ocean — begin their journey back to the rivers in which they were spawned. Fishermen, along with whales, eagles and bears, share in the abundance.
For many in Alaska, salmon represent the wild, untamed landscape that makes their home so special.
Alaska has over 6,000 miles of coastline, more than four times that of any other state. There are a multitude of tiny fishing villages scattered along the edge of the Pacific Ocean, and many are only accessible by boat or plane. A number of these remote communities are Indigenous villages, where fishing has been a cornerstone of life for thousands of years.
I grew up fishing in the rivers and lakes of Vermont. My fascination with fish led me to study the history of early industrialization in New England and to gain an understanding of the toll that pollution, dams and overfishing had on East Coast waterways.
Atlantic salmon were once abundant in the Northeast, but their numbers have significantly decreased.
My hunger grew to witness a river teeming with wild salmon and a culture still interdependent with the bounty of the ocean. After college, I began traveling to Alaska annually to fly fish and pursue work as a photojournalist and documentary filmmaker.
On the dock in Point Baker, I load my bag onto the boat of my friend Joe Sebastian, a local fisherman. Joe fires up the diesel engine and we pull out of the harbor.
Joe, originally from the Midwest, moved to Point Baker in 1978 with the hopes of becoming an independent fisherman. When he arrived, he bought a commercial fishing permit for $20 and a small wooden skiff with a six-horsepower outboard motor for about $1,000.
“The world was a lot less complicated back then,” he says.
Joe began to fish, learning the ins and outs of salmon trolling from the old-timers who had called Alaska home since before it became a state. Trolling is a highly selective, low-impact method of fishing that involves dragging lines through the water and catching individual salmon that choose to bite the hooks. Not to be confused with trawling, which entails the use of giant drag nets, trolling is slower and lower volume than other methods of salmon fishing. It also maintains the highest quality of fish.
After a decade of fishing in Alaska, Joe and his wife, Joan, bought a 42-foot wooden fishing boat. They raised their children in Point Baker in the winter, and on their boat, the Alta E, in the summer.
“Honestly, it wasn’t always a great time — seasickness, cramped quarters and clothes that smelled like fish,” their daughter Elsa, now 30, says, reflecting on her childhood. Still, she became a fisherman anyway. “Spending summers on the ocean becomes who you are,” she says. “I love the way that fishing makes me fundamentally part of an ecosystem.”
Alaska is home to five species of Pacific salmon. These fish are anadromous; they begin their lives in freshwater rivers and lakes and eventually make their way down rivers and into the ocean. Depending on the species, salmon may spend between about one and seven years in the ocean before beginning their journey home to the freshwater where they were born.
The ability of salmon to find their way home is one of nature’s greatest miracles. Among other navigational aids, salmon can detect a single drop of water from its home stream mixed in 250 gallons of saltwater.
Once salmon enter their native watershed, some spawn immediately and others travel a thousand miles or more upriver. Soon after reproducing, they die and decompose.
Over the last 50 years, anadromous fish populations have declined significantly in California, Oregon and Washington. Alaska remains the United State’s last great salmon stronghold.
Salmon are extremely sensitive to water quality and depend on cold, clean, oxygenated water to survive — and Alaska is not immune to the same threats that have decimated salmon farther south. Logging and mining degrade some salmon habitat in Alaska, and climate change is compounding these impacts.
Many Alaskans are still concerned about the threat of the proposed Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay, the permit for which was denied by the Army Corps of Engineers in November. This region of southwestern Alaska supports the world’s largest sockeye salmon run. Since the 1960s, more than half of the sockeye salmon returning to Bristol Bay have been caught each year, without an effect on their overall abundance, according to Daniel Schindler, a biologist at the University of Washington, in Seattle.
Lured by this legendary fishery, a few friends fly in to Dillingham to join me on a 10-day fly-fishing excursion deep in the backcountry, on the fringes of the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge. We load a floatplane with food, an inflatable raft, fishing rods and camping gear. We fly low over the tundra, crossing river after river full of salmon. From a few hundred feet above, we can see the red sockeye in dense schools in the slow eddies of the rivers.
We land on an alpine lake at the headwaters of the Goodnews River, inflate our raft and float downstream. We begin casting, and the action is nonstop.
For three friends who grew up in New England, the trip is the manifestation of a dream we’ve held our whole lives. As children we stared into deep pools of rivers in New England, imagining them pulsing with monster fish.
Here in Alaska, that dream is still alive.