A fishing family

A fishing family

When you enter the home of Violet Willson in Naknek, you feel like you are visiting your own grandmother.  At least, that is how I felt, and suspect many other visitors to her home feel; especially if you are one of her 21 grandchildren.  Even though I was a guest at her B&B, the A Little House Bed & Breakfast, I was treated more like family.  She regularly offered her freshly baked bread to me, invited me to join the family in meals, and shared freely with me stories about her life in the Bristol Bay region.  A fisherman for 51 years before she finally stopped fishing, Violet has created a legacy that has left its mark on the fishing community in Naknek.

In the winter of 1955, as delegates were gathering in Fairbanks to craft the constitution for Alaska, Violet was working as a winter watchman for Columbia Ward Fisheries at the Bumblebee Cannery in Naknek. After marrying Guy Groat, Jr., she lived near the Branch River.  The family moved later to South Naknek, and eventually over to Naknek.  She raised her family on fishing, earning a living as a commercial fisherman, ultimately working for Ocean Beauty for the last twenty years of her career, and bringing in additional fish to feed her family through a subsistence lifestyle.

I met several of her grandchildren while in Naknek, and saw how her legacy has lived on in their lives.  Her granddaughter, Carmill, and her husband, LouDell, were my first introduction.  Carmill works part-time at the small processing company Naknek Family Fisheries, which was established five years ago by yet another of Violet’s granddaughters, Izetta.  Carmill was “teethed on salmon jerky,” and started to learn about fishing as far back as she can remember, and still learns to this day from her grandmother.  LouDell works on two set net sites in Naknek, at the mouth of the river, that belong to other family members.

Rhonda, another of Violet’s granddaughters, is one of those family members.  I caught a ride with LouDell on my first evening in Naknek to go down to the beach cabin to meet Rhonda and wait for time to head out to pick the set nets.  Rhonda started fishing on the west side of the Bay, the Kvichak side, when she was seven years old, and fished there until she was fifteen.  She, along with her husband Paul and son, work two set net sites in the summer, contributing some of their catch to Ocean Beauty and some to Naknek Family Fisheries, where she, along with her brother and mother, is an investor.

Rhonda’s brother, Everett, is a drift boat captain.  The skipper of the Chulyen (Athabaskan for “raven”) for eleven years, Everett has been fishing since he was 7 years old, when he spent his first season on a drift boat.  He had a set net permit in his name by the time he was 11, was running his own set net operation as a teenager, and owned his own drift net permit by the time he was 21.  Working early in the fishing industry allowed him to pay for his own braces, four wheelers, and other needs and amenities while growing up in Naknek.

Everett’s sister Izetta is the mastermind behind the Naknek Family Fisheries.  A law school graduate and associate professor for the University of Alaska in Dillingham, Izetta founded Naknek Family Fisheries in 2006 and began processing a year later.  She and her husband Chet work side by side processing and preparing orders.  Exposure to her grandmother’s work as a fisherman and at the cannery got her interested in the work and exposed her to the idea that there could be a market for an independent processor.  Her vision for the family fishery is to provide an alternative marketing method for area fisherman, so that they are not all beholden to the large processors.  She noticed growing up that fisherman always treated the fish for their family better than what was heading to the commercial processors, and wanted to preserve that sense of quality.  Another goal is to ensure that all parts of the fish are used.  Once the filets are cut, the spine meat is trimmed out to be turned into jerky and salmon burger, and the trimmed-out bellies are kept and marketed as a separate, niche product.  Whatever waste is left over is ground up and used as fertilizer at the family farm.

The more time I spent out in Naknek, the more I came to realize that this multi-generational aspect of fishing is part of the lifestyle.  I spent time on two other boats, the N20 and Curragh, that are two of three boats owned by brothers, who came into the business because of their father’s work at a processor.  A Digital Observer (quality control specialist) I spoke to from Ocean Beauty was out there because of her sister.  Pretty much everyone I spoke to was there because of influence of a family member – they were raised in the fishing life or introduced to it by someone else in the family.

And while the Groat family (Violet raised five of her seven children with her first husband) may not be unusual in that fishing is part of the family life, it is certainly extraordinary in the breadth and depth of its involvement in fishing.  Four generations of fisherman, a drift boat captain, set nets, and a family processing facility certainly makes the Groat family stand out in the Naknek community.

One Response to “A fishing family”

  1. Carl Johnson Photography - Blog Says:

    […] out of photos I had taken of her family fishing their set net sites or out on drift boats – four generations of fishermen – and photos of […]

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