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Everything Comes Through the River: A Conversation With Pergish Carlson

Pergish Carlson, a Yurok Tribe member, is a lifelong Klamath River fisherman and fishing guide who started the Blue Creek Guide Service in 2004. We spoke with him about salmon, tribal culture, and history at Requa, California, a small town at the mouth of the Klamath.

How long have the Yurok peoples been fishing the Klamath River?

Yurok been fishing since the beginning of time. Pue-lik-lo' is the Down River people, that’s where my people come from on the Klamath River. We've been fishing all up along down the river. On the coast, and in all the villages above and below.

How important are salmon in your culture?

They feed us, they feed me. They take care of my family. Everything we take [from the river] we're going to eat and it feeds us. Not very many people can say that they go catch their dinner and plan their dinner on what they catch. It not only saves us money to do other things, it's actually good for us. It's what we're supposed to always eat. When I get off the river from guiding I always tell my kids, "Thank the river for this because that's how we got it.” Where we're at now is because of the river. Everything I've got is because of the river. Everything I own.

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How did you become a fishing guide?

In the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, all the guiding was done at the mouth. It was ninety percent, maybe all Yurok guides. I'd talk to all these older guides, a lot of them are gone now. They would always say, "I used to guide down there when I was a kid. " They would tell me their stories of guiding. It just kind of went away. We couldn't fish [and] they were fighting; it wasn't passed down and taught. I just got into it; that's what I wanted to do.

I had help along the way from other guides who went out of their way to show me things. And now, I'm the only Yurok travel guide on the entire river. Hopefully I can open up doors for other younger kids that want to [fish and guide].

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Pergish holding a drift net | Photo: KCET

What were some traditional methods of fishing?

The Yurok and the other tribes used a lot of dip nets, trigger nets, gaffs, and some gill nets. [With trigger nets,] the fish would come along and swim and they'd have it set up on a platform. The fish would swim into it and it would set off a little trigger, like a trap almost. It would break and close the door. That's how it was in the old days. There were platforms everywhere along rock ledges that stuck out.

It wasn't easier, but they had it down. They had to catch to eat, so they got really good at it. It would be cool to try and do it, but I was never really taught. It kind of just got lost. Everyone today uses nets, pretty much just gill nets.

Do you think that the way you fish now is the way your people are going to fish a hundred years from now?

Some things will change. But there are some [methods] that will always catch. There are techniques that I use, that guys figured out fifty, sixty years ago: rod and reel fishing. The number one way of catching is with spinners and anchoring. Being at the mouth and trolling a spinner. They did that in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. It still is one of the best ways to catch. People try new stuff, but they always go back to that because it's the most effective.

What kind of fish come up the Klamath River?

Right now, we've got a mixture of steelhead and salmon. Steelhead is a trout, sea-run trout, that will spawn multiple times and keep coming back and forth. They'll have their babies and go back out to the ocean. Salmon will be in the ocean for three to four years depending on what cycle it is. They'll come up and spawn and die right there. There are also eels and sturgeon going up too, but we're not harvesting them right now.

How do the Yurok people deal with overharvesting?

The Tribal Member Advisory Board votes [on fishing limits] and then it goes into effect through our fishery regulations. The rules will change based on the [river’s] conditions, like if it's a really low year and we don't have that much fish, we're going to try to conserve. If there's a lot of fish, then we're going to harvest.

This year, we have a self-implemented closure to let the river have a break because we're supposed to have a low salmon year. There's only a certain number of hours that you can [fish]. We've had [closures] these last five or six years, but this is the first time it's been four days in about five years and usually it's only a one day closure a week.

Tell us about Requa.

Requa is at the south side of the Klamath River and it is where the river meets the ocean. That's what Requa means: "the mouth." This is where it all starts, where everything comes in, where everything goes out. It's a circle of life down here.

The river's very vital. This is a vital spot because it not only cools down the river, it helps the fish that stop here and rest because the river's so hot. They come from the ocean and it's cold. They get up in the river, and the river's kind of sick from being so hot, from people taking water out of the river, the drought, and everything just accumulating. This spot kind of helps them out a little bit. It's like a pit stop for them. They get recharged.

But the river does so much for us. If we don't got water, we don't got salmon. If we don't got salmon, we got nothing. It not only brings us our food, it brings us everything we need. Everything comes through the river to us.

How does it feel when you fish on the river?

I feel privileged to be out on the water. On a typical guide trip, it's still dark and I'm driving up the river and that's my alone time. I just think I'm pretty lucky to get to do this. I'm lucky there's people helping the river to make what I do possible. There's biologists, watershed guys, scientists, guys lobbying for and fighting for water. All those things go into effect and it helps me. If there was no fish, no nothing, I wouldn't be able to do what I'm doing.

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Co-produced by KCETLink and the Autry Museum of the American West, the Tending the Wild series is presented in association with the Autry's groundbreaking California Continued exhibition.

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