Setting the Nets

Part 1

Setting the Nets

6:55 AM: The nets lays neatly coiled on a tarp between the spreader bars, and we wait…
6:58: We partially untie the rope holding the spreader bars together.
6:59:  Looking down the beach to Dad on the tractor, I wait for his wave.
7:00: Dad waves; the tractor moves.  Instantly, the rope jumps from our hands, and the net zips out into the water.   Our fish day has begun.

My family runs a “set-net” site just north of where the Kenai River empties into Cook Inlet.  Salmon returning to spawn after years in the open ocean swim near the shore, searching for the mouth of the river they were born in.  Our nets stretch across their path, catching tens of thousands of the glistening silver fish.

The nets are 210 feet long and made of strong line that is virtually invisible in the murky water.  A heavy rope on the top of the net (the “cork line”) is strung with plastic floats to keep that edge near the surface.  The “lead line” on the other side is weighted to keep the 20-foot net vertical against the moving tides.  The lead line and cork line are tied to heavy iron “spreader bars” at each end.  The top end of each spreader bar is marked with a large orange buoy.


The salmon prefer shallow water, so the nets need to stay close to shore. That’s not easy in Cook Inlet, where the difference between high and low tide is as much as 20 vertical feet.  Sometimes the waves crash right against the base of the bluff; 12 hours later, the water has receded nearly a quarter mile.
To solve this problem, my grandpa devised an elaborate pulley system, illustrated below.


The pulley on shore is secured to a wooden piling, tied to a large concrete block beneath the sand for reinforcement.  The underwater pulleys are secured to car-sized concrete blocks on the ocean floor weighing several thousand pounds each.  Marker buoys on short ropes show their location only at the lowest low tide. Prior to the first day of fishing, the running line is threaded through pulleys as illustrated and the marker buoys on the offshore blocks are removed for the season.

Legally the nets cannot be in the water before the fish day’s 7 AM start, so, early in the morning on the first day of fishing, the net is carefully coiled and tied onto the spreader bars.  Dad hooks the tractor onto “Anchor B”, and waits.   At exactly seven, Dad waves his arm and drives the tractor down the beach, which lifts the anchor out of the sand, and drags the net into the water.

The net needs to be moved in or out with the tide every half hour or so throughout the day. This is accomplished with the tractor at one end; a crew member at the other end easing that anchor out of the sand just enough for the tractor to drag it, and the net moves in or out depending on which end the tractor is pulling from.  When the tide is coming in, the tractor pulls on “Anchor A” to keep the net from getting too far out.  When the tide is going out, the tractor pulls on “Anchor B”, keeping the net in the water.  Fish are removed, or “picked,” from the net every time the tide changes–about every six hours.


At precisely 7 p.m. the fishing day closes and all nets must be out of the water.  The tractor drags the net onto the beach,


we tie the spreader bars together,


pick the fish, pick up the net and “flake” it onto the net rack where it sits until the next fish day when the whole process is repeated.

Next week: Picking Fish


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