Ancinek pisurtaartukuk. - We two always fish for trout.
Kodiak streams support two races of trout (Onchorhynchus mykiss), resident rainbows and anadromous steelhead. Rainbow trout live in freshwater throughout the year. In contrast, steelhead trout spend a large portion of their lives in marine waters. They enter local rivers between August and January, with peak runs in October. Fish overwinter in deep river holes or lake waters and spawn in late April and May. Adults then return to saltwater. Both races of trout are found predominantly on Afognak Island and southwestern Kodiak Island, in lake-headed rivers that also support red salmon.
Although the trout population is quite small, steelhead can reach 20 pounds and are a tasty source of food. Historic sources indicate that Karluk residents occasionally caught and dried trout, but their contribution to the diet was minor in comparison with other fish, particularly salmon. In classical Alutiiq cuisine, trout were predominantly a winter food, as they represented a source of fresh meat at a time when bad weather often limited access to other subsistence resources. Alutiiq Elders fondly remember fishing for steelhead through the ice. Today, sport fishermen seek steelhead from the Karluk River.
Photo: Trout caught in the Karluk River. Photo by Mark Rusk, Alutiiq Museum collections.
Just as fishermen today protect themselves from large, thrashing fish with a gaff, or sometimes even a handgun, Alutiiq fishermen once used stunning clubs. With a swift blow to the head, a fisherman could still a writhing fish. This was essential to keeping the creature from escaping the hook, and to protect one’s kayak from damage. A few blows to the head and the fish could be tied to the boat and towed home.
Clubs were also used to dispatch small game caught in snares, like fox or ermine. As a part of their education as trappers, Alutiiq Elders recall learning to club animals.
About 40 cm long, the length of a forearm, Alutiiq clubs featured a thick rounded head and a narrow handle. They look like a small baseball bats. Today, the Alutiiq word for club is also used for baseball bat.
Photo: Fish stunning club, Karluk One site, courtesy Koniag, Inc.
An essential step in preserving Kodiak’s wealth of salmon for winter use is to prepare it properly. To prevent bacterial growth and rotting, salmon flesh can be frozen, salted, or desiccated. Alutiiq people use each of these techniques, although traditional methods of air drying and smoking remain very popular. First, however, families must butcher their catch to create seg’aq–fish prepared for drying.
An elder recall that splitting fresh fish is more difficult that splitting aged fish, so men filled their skiffs with salmon and let them sit overnight. Women then worked to clean the catch, splitting over two-hundred fish a day at the height of the salmon season. In the late nineteenth century, records indicate that Karluk’s 300 villagers cleaned about 100,000 fish a year!
There are many ways to butcher fish for seg’aq. The goal is to expose the meat to aid drying. Typically, people remove the head, spine, and ribs, creating two filets attached at the tail. Some people also score the flesh. Deep, angled cuts into the meat, perpendicular to the length of the fish, allow moisture to escape.
People hang their seg’at on wooden racks, suspending the filets by the tail. Experienced fish processers report that it is important to split the fish carefully, so that both filets are the same weight. If one filet is heavier than the other, the fish will slip off the drying rack. Drying takes about three weeks. On dry days, the fish flesh faces outward, but on wet days, people reverse the filets, facing the skin outwards to protect the meat.
Photo: An Old Harbor youth splits fish for drying.