For one month each fall, residents of interior Alaska don chest waders and splash through the clear, frigid water of the Chatanika River. With large homemade lanterns hanging from their necks and spears in their hands, the fishermen keep their eyes peeled for whitefish.
Alaskan Cory Kuryla (right) goes spearfishing every year along the Chatanika River, north of Fairbanks, with best friend Dave Ensley.
Alaskan Cory Kuryla (right) goes spearfishing every year along the Chatanika River, north of Fairbanks, with best friend Dave Ensley. Emily Schwing/KUAC
Lifelong Alaskan Cory Kuryla leads his best friend Dave Ensley and me down a dark forest trail.
"We make rookies take a bite out of the first fish they catch!" he says.
There's a wooden contraption hanging from our necks, about the size of a mailbox. One side is open to reveal a large Coleman lantern hissing inside. It lights our way to the edge of the crystal-clear Chatanika River.
"You've got to remember: Do not get water on that glass," Kuryla says. "It can explode, OK, because it's so hot."
Ensley adds: "You get excited and you'll want to lunge full way forward, and you'll dip the lantern in the water leaning forward trying to get that fish."
"Don't do that," Kuryla says.
It's just past dusk and we're right on time — whitefish only spawn at night. We carry 8-foot-long spears with us. They look like giant forks.
Ensley is the first to go for a fish. The water refracts the lantern's yellow light, so aiming for the fish is a challenge.
"There's one right there, right in front of you," he tells me.
Whitefish only spawn at night. Locals say they're best smoked.
Whitefish only spawn at night. Locals say they're best smoked. Emily Schwing/KUAC
"I'm not going to get him," I say.
Kuryla has better luck. He spears one and it keeps flopping. "There he is," I say. "Don't let him fall off!"
Kuryla pulls the fish from his spear and drops it in a burlap bag that hangs from his shoulder. "I don't think he's going anywhere," he says.
This fishery was closed in 1992 after years of overfishing. It's since reopened, but the state only gives out 200 permits every year. We're limited to 10 fish each. Kuryla remembers when it was limitless.
"Everybody would go out and fill up a boat and get a bunch of whitefish and smoke it, and then you had whitefish for the winter," he says.
Tonight we take home 13 gleaming, silvery fish between the three of us.
"You gotta be a true Alaskan to come out here and stand here in the cold water with a spear," Kuryla says.