Dispatch: A journey from the woods of Idaho to the waters of Alaska

Illustration by Carter Mulcahy

Illustration by Carter Mulcahy

A Fisherman’s Tale

essay by Stephen Kurian

Working as a forester for the Idaho Department of Lands, I befriended a fellow hunter named—no lie—Hunt. During long hours in the wilderness, he’d entertain me with stories of fishing adventures in Bristol Bay, Alaska: the bracing water, the impetuous weather, working day and night in stormy waters to catch the returning salmon.  

I always had a vision about being in Alaska. As a boy, longbow hunting with my father, we spent hours talking about hunting there—one day. It always felt like a dream, until Hunt offered me a job on his fishing crew the next summer. I quickly cut my Idaho forestry career short.

I will never forget that first season: an adrenaline rush of water, fishing nets, unforgiving weather and the occasional brown bear.

Then there were the sockeye salmon. I became obsessed with the mysterious journey of these great fish, born in the gravel of freshwater streams a bit further inland. The following spring, once big enough, they make their way to the ocean, roaming the North Pacific for up to three years. Then, miraculously, they come back to Bristol Bay, their birthplace. 

Fourteen years later, I have my own fishing company. But I am still in awe. Floating out in Bristol with our nets, it’s this unknown, unchanged journey that keeps drawing me back to witness the great migration unfold.  

On our 32-foot gillnetter, we live by the tides, the weather and the salmon. The fish show up early in June. At first it’s occasional, but it builds to a peak around the first week of July. We head out to the fishing grounds no matter what, even if the winds howl at 60 mph. For some reason, the fish love to push hard when the wind blows, so we work around the clock. 

The first fish aboard is always filleted for the frying pan. I love this ritual—to celebrate the return of the fish that I have traveled 4,000 miles to catch. As I fillet the fish, its flesh a brilliant red, I’m reminded how special these nutrient-dense salmon are to the food chain, how important they are for both the animals that will feed on them upstream and all the people to whom I’ll provide these beauties for dinner. 

At the close of the season, my crew and I take a short floatplane trip to Brooks Falls. From this spectacular location we watch magnificent brown bears feasting on salmon as the fish attempt the near-impossible and try to jump the falls. 

Biologists closely manage the number of salmon they need to swim upriver to spawn and replenish the system. It’s a balancing act, and we fishermen are doing our part. Too many fish spawning upriver may actually weaken the next generation.

When I watch the schools spawning in the river, I am filled with trust that this epic fishery will continue. I think of my children and grandchildren, and how they will be able to experience the same natural wonder—if they choose to, of course. Or if they are lucky enough to meet someone named Hunt.

Stephen Kurian is a fisherman. He and his wife, Jenn, own Wild for Salmon and live in landlocked Bloomsburg, Pa.