Saturday, February 4, 2017

Adventures in Smelting

Consistently cold temperatures, sometimes down in the -20's, have been a regular part of our winter here on the Alaska Peninsula. While we do often get some reprieve, with temperatures jumping all the way up into the 30's occasionally, the cold has been regular enough to cause a deep freeze to occur on our lakes and rivers in the area. This has been VERY exciting to everyone in our village because smelting (going out and ice fishing for tiny smelt fish) is a hugely popular activity. The last few years have been poor for smelting, so the successes of this year have been much to celebrate in our tiny corner of the state. 

We have been invited out to join local families for smelting a few times, but I had been nervous about the thickness of the ice. However, last week, we were informed that the ice was 4+ feet thick on the entire road out to the smelting grounds. I figured that 4+ feet of ice was more than enough to support us out into the wilderness. 

On Friday, Melissa (the other teacher) and I decided that smelting seemed like the perfect "girls night out" activity. We dumped the husbands at home and took off on the ice road, traversing frozen lakes and tundra, to the area where other locals would be fishing. The lake where the actual smelting takes place is a little over halfway to Ugashik, which is a neighboring village that boasts only about 5 regular residents. Although you can glimpse a bit of the village from the smelting spot, it still feels very remote. 

The actual act of catching the fish was a new experience for me. Holes were put into the ice using an auger, which is typical of all ice fishing, but the poles/catching the fish seemed a bit foreign to me. For starters, you use the tine of a fork and attach it to a string. This string is then tied to a piece of wood. There is no bait involved in catching smelt, instead you just lower your fork into the water and the smelt will try to bite it. As soon as you feel a bite, you drag the line up quickly and the fish comes with it. This whole process tends to be pretty quick. Many people in our community have been catching 80-100 fish in the span of only a couple of hours. It seems that you're barely dipping your line in the water before you are having to quickly drag it back out. 

Melissa and I's success the first day led us to drag the husbands out with us the following day. The four of us drove back out and were pleasantly surprised to find no less than fifteen others from our village and Ugashik out there fishing already. Our village tends to be fairly insular, so getting the opportunity to get out and do something with such a large group was a huge deal. I was also excited to meet some of the residents of Ugashik because the tiny, nearly abandoned village is pretty fascinating to me. One of the residents even had a mammoth ivory carving that he brought out to show us. It was pretty incredible! 

We caught quite a few fish over the course of the weekend, and the four (Melissa, Ben, Cody, and I) of us had a fish fry with our daily catch on Saturday night. There is no doubt in my mind that we will go back out, if given another chance. Smelting was just another fun, new experience to add to our list of adventures out here in the bush. 

Your turn...Have you ever gone smelting or ice fishing? 
Currently listening to...Blue Ridge Mountain - Fleet Foxes


  1. I remember smelting years ago here on the coast of Maine. It seems they were quite a bit smaller than the ones in your pictures. Thanks for sharing your adventure!

    1. The smelt here are HUGE! I was very surprised by their size. I'm a bit in love with Maine, btw. I imagine myself living there someday. Do you enjoy it there?


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