BY ANDREW CREMATA
“Subsistence – To have or acquire the necessities of life (as food and clothing)” – Mirriam-Webster Dictionary
It didn’t take long for the floats to start bobbing irregularly on the surface. This indicated that something was caught in our 100 foot long monofilament mesh fish trap, stretched out near the mouth of the Chilkoot River in Lutak Inlet near Haines.
My shipmates and I spent our morning forcibly untangling salmon from the gill net. It was my job to whack them in the head with a club, cut their gill to bleed them, slice open the belly and rip out the guts before scrubbing them clean and putting them on ice.
It was my first time subsistence fishing, which is a fancy way of saying you’re taking steps to put food on your table. And that is about the only thing that qualifies as fancy with subsistence fishing.
Over the years, I’ve heard a number of fly fisherman say that theirs is the only “pure” method of fishing. This seems odd coming from a person decked out in clothing and gear that costs more than an average used car, but it’s a waste of time to argue with someone that believes catch and release fishing is somehow “traditional.”
Far before the dawn of marketable sport fishing gear designed for the pursuit of everything from salmon to sailfish, hardy men and women plied the waters with hand-tied nets hoping they could avoid malnutrition and starvation. These were the heroes of antiquity – fishermen with the acquired knowledge and honed skill required to find fish and feed the people.
As civilization evolved, so did agriculture and farming, making food less scarce. Eventually the acquisition of fish became less about subsistence and more about sport.
This is the world into which I was born. I’ve never tied a net, and never been faced with starvation if I didn’t meet a seasonal fishing quota. Instead, I shop for state-of-the-art fishing reels on the World Wide Web, and use mass produced metal lures as bait.
What would a fisherman living thousands of years ago think about the modern sport of angling? I imagine they would have a difficult time reconciling why we would battle the elements risk the unknown for mere recreation. They would also likely be dumbfounded at the sight of a fish carefully unhooked and released back into the ocean.
The sport fishing industry is massive, and it exists for the simple fact that people are driven to this most ancient of endeavors because of something woven into their genetic makeup. It’s a longing to inhabit the natural world and experience a more honest way of life, something often lacking in our modern age.
When you’re working to survive, every fish that ends up on your plate brings fulfillment. When you work to collect a paycheck and then use the money to pay for gear, fuel, and a fishing license, the fish become secondary. No wonder so many anglers practice catch and release fishing. I’ve encountered a number of fisherman who say, “I don’t like fish! I just love being out there.”
I feel it to – the ghost of some primeval thing that growls from my abdomen when it hears the sirens sing.
I recently spent a day fishing and exploring just north of Skagway. My goal was to try some of my favorite fishing holes in the Yukon, but I was waylaid when I saw rising fish in Summit Lake while driving past.
I found a place to park, grabbed my gear, and started working my way in the general direction of what I hoped were grayling or trout. The morning sky was deep blue and the still air surprisingly warm. The glaze of recent rain clung to every leaf, branch, and blade of grass like a fresh coat of glossy lacquer.
The going was easy at first, but soon there was nothing but gnarly thicket and a wicked twist of undergrowth concealing large boulders and potholes, making every footfall a challenge. It was even trickier for my small dog Rufus, and there were a couple of spots where I had to hoist him up and over a particularly nasty tangle of slick roots and angry branches.
Only 50 feet from the water, my ankle got snagged in between two large rocks and I fell face-first into a patch of small bushes. I pulled myself up into a sitting position and Rufus jumped into my lap, panting heavily. Also winded, I surveyed my surroundings and noticed that the bushes were adorned with tiny blue ornaments.
I was able to pull the blueberries off in handfuls, and Rufus and I enjoyed a fresh snack before closing the gap on hungry fish. It took six casts to limit out on four grayling and release two that were too small to keep. I tried a few different things to see if any trout were around with no luck, so we worked our way back to the car and drove up to International Falls.
We hiked up the ridge to a precipice overlooking the Chilkoot Trail. Patches of bright magenta fireweed framed gurgling creeks of ice-blue water that flowed from small glaciers nestled between rocky mountain peaks. Completely alone on that windswept ridge, we sat and ate a snack next to a pile of stark-white bones presumably left behind long ago by some animal with a larger appetite than ours.
Hours into the hike, the highway was within sight. I could see tour vans navigating the turnouts, but they were still too far away for their sound to overpower the hum of the creek. Suddenly the air cracked and there was a shrieking howl that lifted my eyes toward the sky.
Two warplanes appeared through the opening in the mountain pass, flying north at high speed only a few hundred feet above the roadway. Within seconds they were out of sight, the roar of their engines faded, and all that was left was the sound of water flowing in and around rocks of all sizes.
For a brief moment, I wondered if the world had ended while I was eating blueberries and cleaning grayling. I asked Rufus, “If civilization is over, how long will we survive?”
Rufus smiled and panted. I didn’t have an answer either.
It’s a question I’m glad I don’t have to ask, because enjoying the outdoors is a lot more fun than subsisting.