Copper River salmon are harvested using drift gillnets deployed from a boat. Gillnetting involves laying a vertically hanging net in the water that drifts into the path of traveling wild salmon. The salmon swim into the mesh and are prevented from swimming through the net. This is one of the most prevalent methods used to harvest salmon in Alaska and the way that all Copper River salmon, king, sockeye and coho, is harvested.
Most Copper River fishermen fish from boats called “Bowpickers” with the cabin to the stern or back of the boat and a reel and helm midship. The net is set off the bow or the front of the boat. These bow pickers are typically 30 – 34 feet long and are often run by a single fisherman or a captain and one crewman.
The nets used to harvest Copper River salmon are 900 feet long, or 150 fathoms. Mesh sizes are regulated to target particular salmon species during specific seasons to minimize bycatch. The net is suspended in the water by a line of corks along the top and weighted by heavy line at the bottom. The mesh material is available in an ombre rainbow of ocean colors.
Bowpickers are equipped to carry fish on ice, in slush ice or in refrigerated holds containing refrigerated salt water. Icing at the point of harvest is the single best way to maintain quality. Harvested salmon are delivered to tender boats every few hours. Bleeding and icing salmon, and regular deliveries ensure that the consumer receives the very best wild Alaskan salmon possible.
Most Copper River and Prince William Sound fishermen sell their catch to local buyers who rapidly process the salmon for market. As salmon are harvested from nets they are chilled and iced in brailer bags in fish holds on each boat. Every couple of hours fishermen deliver their catch to tender boats that are awaiting deliveries on the fishing grounds. These larger vessels have considerable fish holds also filled with slush ice and refrigerated salt water to continue the quality controls for a premium seafood product. The tender boats travel back to shore based processing facilities, where they offload their precious cargo and head back out to the fishing fleet on the fishing grounds. At the end of a fishing period some fishermen will deliver directly to the processors at the dock in Cordova.
Direct market fishermen also deliver directly to the processor to ensure their catch is handled and processed rapidly and to their specifications for their individual custom orders.