Alaskans celebrate wild salmon

Aug 10, 2021

Hannah Etengoff with salmon she caught in the Kenai River.
Credit Courtesy of Hannah Etengoff

To most Alaskans, it’s food. To some, a livelihood. To others, a sport. No matter how you slice it, or filet it, salmon is deeply important to Alaskans. And salmon lovers across the state, like Steve Schoonmaker, of Kasilof, are celebrating the species today.

“First of all, I’m waking up and I’m remembering what Alaska Salmon Day means," he said. "And how lucky we are in Alaska to have wild salmon.”

August 10th is Alaska Wild Salmon Day. Gov. Bill Walker set aside the day to honor the iconic Alaska species in 2016.

“You’d be very hard pressed to throw a little river rock in this community and not hit somebody who’s deeply connected to salmon," said Branden Bornemann, executive director of the Kenai Watershed Forum.

He said it’s important to reflect on how much salmon means to the state.

“I came up from the middle of North America, grew up in North Dakota," he said. "So, as far away from every coastline as you can get. And all of a sudden, professionally, I find myself 10 years ago in a salmon culture and trying to take everything in and learn about it and learn my place within that culture. And, again, I think we owe it to ourselves to slow down and remember that first interaction.”

For some, that first interaction was too far back to remember.

Salmon has been part of Sharon Isaak’s life forever. She’s a Kenaitze elder who grew up fishing in Kenai.

“And ever since I was old enough to hold a fishing pole — and then as I grew up and had children, we fished — fishing’s in my blood," she said.

Now, Isaak and her family fish with the tribe’s educational fishery by the mouth of the river. 

She said each species of salmon has its own distinct taste. And she said she uses almost every part of the fish. Her son, Joel Isaak, takes the skin off for salmon-skin boots.

As for the meat, they smoke, can and freeze it.

“Wild salmon means culture, food, clothing, history, heritage, and on and on it goes," she said.

Hannah Etengoff, of Kenai, said processing salmon reminds her of learning to fish in Wrangell. 

Hannah Etengoff says smoking fish makes her think about the family and fishermen who taught her back in Southeast.
Credit Courtesy of Hannah Etengoff

“To me, it really does feel spiritual," she said. "Like, I’m connecting to the land and I’m connecting with the people who taught me how to fish and who taught me how to preserve fish. ‘Cause some of them have passed on now. And I feel like it’s just such an important way to keep them alive.”

She just started dip-netting and is learning how to cast for silvers. Her husband built a smokehouse and they have a filet table next to their garden.

“My husband is Tlingit, he’s from Southeast Alaska," she said. "And salmon there is just such an important part of the culture. And it’s just so important in the communities and it’s a way to spend time with your families and it’s a way to share with others. Catching salmon and smoking salmon and jarring it up. All that — it’s a labor of love.”

To those in the business of salmon, the fish is economically important. And delicious.

“Wild Alaskan salmon, to me, is the freshest, best salmon in the world," said Jason Tanner, who owns Tanner’s Alaskan Seafood, in Ninilchik. He processes sport and commercial catches.

“I mean, you can’t get anything that’s better for your body, better tasting," he said.

Tanner certainly knows about taste. His company won the Smoked Salmon Superbowl at Salmonfest last weekend for the second year in a row.

He said the key is brining the salmon for 24 hours and using all-natural wood for the smoke.

“It’s not a super long process," he said. "It doesn’t take 13, 14 days to do it. We’ve got it dialed.”

He said salmon is an important economic engine for the community of Ninilchik. That’s true for fishermen around the peninsula, as well. 

Steve Schoonmaker was one of several peninsula fisher poets to perform at Salmonfest this weekend. Salmon is a recurring theme in his poems.
Credit Sabine Poux/KDLL

Schoonmaker grew up on salmon, eating it every day for lunch. As a commercial fisherman and activist, he now fights to keep salmon runs clean and wild.

“So I become more and more aware of how extra special and vulnerable these fish are," he said. "We get one on a plate and we eat it and we enjoy it but it’s really a gift. To all of us. To this economy and this ecology. It’s an ecosystem in a single creature.”

He wrote a poem about salmon, and what he sees as a conflict between loving fish and killing fish. It’s called “The Gift.”

Editor's note: Branden Bornemann is on the KDLL Board of Directors.