Helmericks in Arctic Alaska,Jim & Teena Helmericks Family,Northern Alaska coast,North Slope,Colville Village,Colville River Delta Fishing  (Commercially)

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Our commercial fishing operation is very different than what most people think of when the topic of a fishing business comes up.  Although we do catch fish in the summer with gill nets set in the river and use a boat to work the nets, our main fishing operation takes place in the winter with gill nets set under the ice on the frozen river.  How is this possible, you ask?

 Fishing under ice

Let me explain.

We fish during early winter months by stringing gill nets below the surface ice and thus catching fish swimming in the water below the ice. We catch mainly Arctic Cisco, Least Cisco, and Humpback Whitefish as they feed and move about in the delta face for several months each fall.

We start by knowing ahead of time where the right depth of water is located in order to set the nets in the best location for the fish runs. The ice needs to be frozen several inches deep in order to support our weight while walking around on the ice. Nets and equipment are hauled out to the setting site on a small hand sled to begin with, later a snowmachine and sled is used.        

                   Heading out to set nets        boys chop net-setting holes

Holes about 1 ½ foot diameter are cut in the ice with a hand held ice chopper (duke) in a straight line about 15 feet apart. Enough holes must be opened to cover the length of the net to be set. Next we drop a weighted line that is connected to a long rope down the first hole. Using a long pole with a hooked end, we reach in under the ice from the second hole to catch the line hanging down from the first hole and pull it in under the ice back to the second hole. We continue doing this from hole to hole until we have the long rope strung under the ice for 150 feet to match the length of the net we intend to set. Once the rope extends under the ice for the entire length necessary, it is attached to the net at the first hole and the net is pulled under the ice, the rope thus coming up on top again from the last hole. Often several nets are set in a line to make use of the previous net's last hole.

                               Jim checking water



Jim at net hole checking water depth and salinity.

Short ropes attached to the ends of the net are tied to strong sticks we freeze into the ice on the edges of the first and last hole. These sticks lean out at an angle over the holes to hold the ropes in the center of the hole. After a net is set, the holes between the first and last hole are allowed to freeze over and are no longer needed. The net is now stretched out in the water under the ice and small cork floats along the top of the net keep it floating upright. A weighted leadline keeps the lower end of the net stretched down near the bottom of the river so the net doesn't freeze into the underside of the surface ice. Having at least two people to handle the nets and the pull rope is best, as one person can guide the net in or out of the hole as the second person pulls on the net or rope.

                                    boys pulling net-sunset                            fish coming out of hole        

The several different species of whitefish that we catch are sorted as we pull them out of the net (by tossing them to opposite sides of the net) and then they get counted and left to freeze on the ice as further nets are picked.       

                    picking fish from net                   counting fish

pick fish                               count fish

Nets are pulled up and picked of fish only one at a time, and only enough net is pulled above water that can be cleaned of fish before the fish begin to stiffen with the cold. Each net is pulled back under the ice after fish have been removed.


                                   Jim brings nets and equipment home .

                       Jim brings nets and equipment home      

After all the nets (some years only a few, some years dozens) are cleaned of fish, the frozen fish are put in a large box on a snowmachine sled and hauled up to the storage building for later sacking and marketing in 100# bags. They are sacked as whole fresh-frozen fish, and are sold throughout Alaska.

                                 sacking and weighing fish       
sacking and weighing fish                        


What a BIG job!


Fishing season sometimes means special visitors:

 Derek fishing with polar bear near-by   Polar bear sniffing fish sacks near Colville Lodge
Derek at fishing hole with polar bear  eating fish from near-by fish pile.   A visiting polar bear sniffs sacks of frozen fish near Colville Lodge.



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