Fish Wheel: Design From The Past May Be A Design For The Future

Aug 24, 2017

With gillnet fishing limited to only a few days on the Kuskokwim for most of June and July, some people on the river turned to alternative ways of filling their smokehouses. KYUK traveled to Sleetmute this summer where two women were running a fish wheel.


Carlson: We need to check it.

KYUK: A surge of red salmon is swimming up the Kuskokwim River. Barb Carlson and Maggie Bobby need to find someone to check their fish wheel this evening. 

Carlson: Yeah, cause they’ll be going back up.

KYUK: Barb and Maggie usually check the wheel themselves, but they both have enough salmon and want others to get a chance.

Carlson: I’ll bet you by the time we’re done there are 200 people who’ve eaten fish that have come out of that wheel.

KYUK: That’s Barb, the louder voice.

Bobby: All I need is, like, four days. I’ll be done. Two day smokes.

KYUK: And that’s Maggie.

Barb and Maggie have been running their wheel since May. Gray-haired with dark, expressive eyebrows, the pair, both about 60 years old, have been fishing together for nearly two decades.

KYUK: Y’all are wearing the same hat.

Bobby: It’s our fishing hat.

KYUK: We’re on the beach in front of Maggie’s cabin. It’s off the grid, only accessible by boat and a half-mile from Barb’s. Maggie picked 60 reds from the wheel this afternoon and is taking a break from cutting. The day is perfect: blue sky, warm sun, green hills, and the Kuskokwim, flowing by.

Bobby: That’s what I miss when I go other places, listening to the water, the waves, the wind. Because I don’t have electricity.

KYUK: The friends started running their wheel three years ago, as the king salmon stocks dropped and fishing restrictions grew tighter.

Bobby: And we could fish when it was closed, because we could throw back all the kings and dogs, whatever fish we didn’t want.

Carlson: And the kings are all released and they’re amazingly alive! These things are jumping and struggling.

Bobby: They’re not bruised.

KYUK: Maggie‘s daughter and grandchildren have come down to help cut. The issue of who’s picking fish from the wheel this evening isn’t resolved, but Barb and I head across the river to the wheel.

When we arrive, Barb climbs out of her boat and onto a wooden raft anchored a dozen feet from shore. Beside her, rotate the wheel’s long arms.

Bobby: It just goes round and round all by itself. Here comes one.

KYUK: A six-foot wide wire basket lifts a red salmon from the water. Rotating upwards, it slides the twisting fish into a box below. In mid-air, silver scales flash in the sun. The wheel’s wooden arms stretch 12 feet and form a cross. Each arm is a paddle that catches the water, turning the wheel. The baskets are at the end of two of the paddles. They drop the fish in a hole in the raft where a wire box sits, sunk in the water.

KYUK: So how many fish would you say are in here?

Carlson: It’s really hard to tell by looking, but I’m going to say there’re probably 20 or 30 in there right now. In fact, that looks like a king. If I can grab him, I’ll release him right now.

KYUK: Barb grabs a dipnet and shoves it in the box, reaching for the king, but it disappears. All we see is the grayish-blue of red salmon and the green of chum, sliding and vanishing.

Both Barb and Maggie say they’ll never go back to setting a net.

Carlson: I can spend hours on a day like today just listening to the wheel go around. On a whole different subject, I need go and get to my telephone and try to line somebody up for the evening pick.

KYUK: It’s a toss up on whether the fish wheel saves labor compared to gillnets. You have to check the wheel twice a day. It’s heavy, and you have to push it on shore in the fall and pull it out in the spring. You have to raise the wheel during high water and clear out brush. But the wheel saves gas, because there’s no drifting. The fish are in better condition because they’re fresher, and you only keep the fish you want and let the rest continue on, alive.

A few hours later, we’re back at the wheel. No one else could make it out for the evening, but Maggie’s daughter and her two friends are helping.

Carlson: Let the dogs go. Let the kings go.

KYUK: Using dipnets, the girls haul the thrashing fish from the box.

Carlson: There you go! Shovel them in!

KYUK: They toss the twisting fish into Barb’s boat.

Girl: There are so many more reds now!

KYUK: Dozens of fat, shiny reds fill the bow. The chums get tossed in the water along with the kings. 

Carlson: Bye-bye.

KYUK: Barb shoves a knife into the gills, bleeding the fish. Red blood and mucus smear the writhing bodies and splatter Barb.

Carlson: Last! Oh, it’s a king! You can let him go. Thanks a million girls! Now you can go swim and wash it all off. Have fun!

KYUK: Half the fish will go to one of the girl’s mothers. The other half will go to the owner of Sleetmute’s only store.

The fish wheel, a design from the past, may turn out to be a design for the future.