Village Science

Cutting & Drying Fish


Traditionally, fishing has been the core of subsistence life throughout most of Alaska. Oldtimers always said, “Fish as if you wouldn’t catch any animals all winter. Then if you do catch something, you will do well. If you don’t catch any animals, you will get tired of fish, but you won’t starve.”

Until recently, there were no freezers and people had to find ways to preserve the fish they caught. Oldtimers made drying fish an art form. Some families made better fish than others, but all families recognized the life and death issues involved in putting fish away for the winter.

Many of the same principles involved in drying fish also apply to drying moose, caribou, seal, and other meat.


A 2, 14, 15
B 1, 3
C 3
D 1, 3


Surface area

The Opposition

blowflyThere is opposition to those who attempt to dry fish:

  • Bacteria that cause rotting
  • Blowflies that lay eggs that turn to maggots
  • Ravens and seagulls

One of nature’s purposes for blowflies is to consume spawned out salmon so their dead bodies won’t contaminate the river for the whole summer. Blowflies and the resulting maggots can remove a whole fish in only a few days. There are more blowflies upriver than downriver because their purpose is naturally fulfilled at or near the spawning ground. Downriver people have much less problems with blowflies than upriver people.

Many people on the coast of Alaska don’t use a smokehouse. There are fewer flies and more wind. However, fish hung in the open must be protected from seagulls and ravens. In Southeast Alaska, people use more smoke and heat as damp conditions promote rotting.


Our objective is to put food away when there is an abundance so we might eat in times of lack.

There are three ways of preserving fish:

  • Freezing solidifies the water in the fish and lowers the temperature below which bacteria are active.
  • Salting in a barrel removes much of the moisture and creates an inhospitable environment for the bacteria.
  • Drying fish in the presence of cool, dry smoke removes the moisture necessary for bacterial growth.
drying fish


There are a couple of conditions necessary for fish to rot:

  • There must be enough moisture for the bacteria to grow. Drying removes the necessary moisture.
  • The temperature must be above freezing for bacteria to flourish. As the temperature goes up, bacteria become more active. However, fish oil can chemically decompose apart from bacteria at temperatures well below freezing.


There are two conditions necessary for blowflies to reproduce on the fish.

  • There must be moist places on the fish. Once a crust is formed, the blowfly eggs cannot mature. The first few days of drying are critical to preventing maggots.
  • There must be a healthy environment for the blowflies to thrive. Smokehouses are constructed to create an environment that the flies cannot stand. They have an excellent sense of smell and easily find the fish, but cannot penetrate the smoke to lay their eggs. We often put the freshly cut fish closest to the smudge pot. Once a crust is formed, those fish can be moved to make room for fresh fish.

Some people leave their fish outside for the first day or two to get a good dry crust on them and then bring them inside the smokehouse. Other people bring their fish straight to the smokehouse. Many people soak the fish in salt and/or sprinkle them with pepper to keep the flies off the fish. Salt and pepper add to the taste after the fish is dry.


There is a delicate balance between smoke and fresh air. Many smokehouses have doors and vents that can be opened or closed to control that balance.

If there is a lot of fresh air around the fish in the smokehouse, they dry fast, but it is hard to keep smoke around the fish. If there is lots of heat or smoke, and no fresh air, the fish can sour or even cook.

Rotting is slow. Blowflies are fast. I tend to err on the side of slower drying with adequate smoke.


Smokehouse Roof

Smokehouse roofs often have a rather shallow pitch to hold smoke down around the fish. Since blowflies need wet or damp fish to lay their eggs, a good smokehouse roof is most important. A leaky roof brings them a banquet. Days later the sun might be shining, but inside the smokehouse it could be raining maggots! Even fish that were once dry can become maggot infested if rained upon. Once they have infested a fish, it is not likely to dry. Smoke repels mature blowflies but not maggots.

People have tried screening in their smokehouses to keep the flies out. This helps a little, but blowflies have an amazing ability to crawl through cracks. Few people who have screened once, try it again.

Near the ocean, a steel roof will drip rusty condensation on the fish.

Temperature and Materials

Fish need to be kept cool or they will rot. A hot smokehouse creates sour fish. Steel siding absorbs and conducts heat, making the smokehouse very hot in the sun. Much better are plywood, lumber, spruce-bark slabs, or spruce-bark sides. Spruce bark is wonderful. It is cool, and allows a gentle flow of air through the knot holes and other cracks. It is not very durable and definitely not bear proof. Skill is required to remove the bark from the tree in usable pieces. Ask the local elders how it is done.



When oldtimers were trying a new place to fish, they didn’t want to spend a lot of energy building a smokehouse until they found out if the location was good for fishing. For a temporary smokehouse, they put poles on the sides of the smokehouse and wove brush in and out of those poles. This is an easy and effective way to keep smoke in, but after the brush dries, it is a real fire hazard. I made a smokehouse with brush sides once and was very satisfied. However, the second year, when the brush had dried, it became a firetrap.


Fish cannot become drier than their surroundings. Damp ground makes damp fish. Most smokehouses are on top of a bank so they can catch a gentle breeze as it blows up and down the river. If the smokehouse is by a creek in a narrow valley, the fish will be damp because of the closeness to the creek. The drier the ground, the better the fish will be. Some oldtimers located their smokehouses on small hills beside the fishing site so the fish could dry well. This meant carrying each fish up the hill, but it was worth the effort.

Most people cut brush and grass surrounding their smokehouses to increase the air flow and to remove where bears might hide.


The weather has a great effect on the fishing operation. If the fish isn’t dry and put away before wet weather arrives, they are apt to mold. In our region, silver salmon are seldom dried because they arrive during the wetter part of the summer.

If the weather is damp, fish cutters make the blanket fish and strips thinner to dry faster. One time I cut eating fish too thick, not wanting to waste any. I ended up wasting a lot of fish because it became sour before it dried.

Smudge Wood and Weather

Many people like to use alder or cottonwood to smudge the fish. During cold, damp, and rainy weather they use birch because it provides a small amount of heat and helps dry the fish. Birch also adds a different flavor. Very few people use spruce.

The Secret

The secret is to keep flies out while providing as much dry, cool air as possible. Making good dry fish is the result of knowing the fish, the weather, and the environment surrounding the smokehouse. Oldtimers were, and still are, very particular and very proud of their fish.

cutting fish

Cutting Fish

There are many factors that determine how we cut and prepare dry fish.

  • Availability of materials for a good smokehouse
  • The ground and surroundings of the fish camp
  • Weather
  • How full the smokehouse is
  • Availability of wood for smoking the fish.

cutting fishThere are many techniques for cutting fish. Everyone has their own method. The main thing is to cut the fish so it can dry quickly by exposing as much surface area to the air.

Imagine two wet towels. One is rolled up and hung on the clothes line. The other one is spread wide and hung on the same line. Which one will dry faster?

The one that is spread out will dry faster because it has greater surface area exposed to the breeze. The same is true for fish. The more surface area we can expose, the faster it dries.

The traditional way is to cut the flesh away from the backbone and ribs, and score the fish many times to create folds of flesh that hang exposed to the smoke and breeze.

In Southeast Alaska, the weather is so damp, fish is cut thin and often put on wire mesh racks and smoked strongly with considerable heat. It is more of a kippering process than drying.

Dog feed vs. eating fish

A salmon has five sets of bones. The main difference between eating fish and dog fish is that eating fish (for people) don’t include the rib bones. It takes more time and care to separate the meat from the rib bones, but the time is well spent.

cutting fish


Whatever cutting style is used, care must be given to ensure that both halves weigh approximately the same. If one side is heavier than the other, the fish will constantly slip off the pole.

A Refinement

If the fish cutter scores the fish down at an angle, it allows moisture a way to run off.


Many families who fish use a fishraft that is tied to the riverbank. They are a good place to store fish and make a convenient, clean place to cut fish. Many people have a fish table on the raft. This saves the backbreaking effort of bending for hours at a time. Many people put gunny sacks, spruce bark, or plastic welcome mats on the surface of the table to increase friction with the very slippery fish while they are being prepared. They are easily cleaned by dipping and scrubbing in the river.

Most people use wire mesh between the logs to hold the fish. Moldy fish heads that have been in the fishraft for over three to four days are ready to feed to dogs. Fresh salmon are indigestible and make the dogs sick.


fishpolesSometimes the fish are too slippery to stay on the pole, particularly if the fish aren’t balanced.

I can remember nailing one fish to the pole; I was so frustrated having to hang it up again and again. Later I learned to put grass between the pole and the fish. This increased the friction between the two and actually dried the fish on the point of contact.

Spruce poles are rough enough to hold most fish from sliding.

Upriver Trick

Fish caught downriver are in good shape—fat and silvery in skin color. Fish caught upriver are very lean. They often dry out brittle and hard to eat. One trick upriver people use is to leave the fish in the fishraft overnight. They must be under water. The enzymes in the fish soften the meat and make the fish better eating when dry. However, this method makes them prone to sour and should only be done in good weather. Sometimes people leave the fish in the raft overnight because they are lazy. Special care must be given to fish or they will easily sour.

fish bundlerStoring Dry Fish

A well ventilated cache is the best place to store dry fish. They need to be off the damp ground and under a good roof. Dry fish can mold if they become the slightest bit damp. Moldy fish doesn’t taste good at all.

Eating fish needs to be stored in a very dry place. Nowadays people vacuum seal eating fish and store it in the freezer with a little vegetable oil. This is by far the best way if you have a freezer.

We used to bind dog fish in bundles of forty. We drove four stakes in the ground, stacked fish between the stakes, alternating head and tail. We used a big lever to crush the fish together, and tied them with rawhide. Damp rawhide works best because it shrinks and tightens when it dries.



  1. Look at and discuss the smokehouse locations in and around the village. What do they have in common? In what ways are they different? Find some of the older fishcamp sites in your area. Why were they located there?
  2. What are the common materials for smokehouse roofing and siding? Are the roofs relatively flat or do they have a steep pitch?
  3. Ask what local wood is used for smudge fire. What is that fire called in your village?
  4. Ask people in your village what changes they make in their drying process when the weather turns bad.
  5. Do people in your village usually bring the fish right into the smokehouse after cutting or do they leave them on poles outside for a few days to get a dry crust?
  6. Make a trap for blowflies like a fishtrap. Use a jar with a screen for the funnel. Use a piece of sour fish for bait. Can you reduce the number of blowflies in your area?
  7. Cut a fish into three pieces. Put one in the freezer. Score the other and hang it to dry. Leave the third one, as it is, in a warm place. In a day or two, compare the three. What can you say about preserving fish?
  8. Leave a fish outside where blowflies can lay their eggs. Once the maggots start to crawl around, bring the fish into the smokehouse and put the fish directly into the smoke. Does the smoke get rid of the maggots? Does the fish ever dry properly? What can you say about prevention being better than a cure?
  9. Get samples of different people’s fish throughout the village. Being careful not to insult someone’s cutting style, compare them. Compare dog fish and eating fish.
  10. Why do people cut king salmon in strips rather than flat like red salmon or other eating fish?
  11. Try to find some dry dog fish that has the evidence of maggots. Can you see and smell the difference from that part and other unspoiled parts?
  12. Ask someone how to cut whitefish in the fall. How is this different from salmon in the summer? Why do you think there are differences? Distinguish between cutting for dogs and for people.
  13. Hang fish on a spruce, birch, or willow pole. Can you tell the difference in terms of friction between the pole and fish?
  14. How are salmon bundled and stored in your village? If this is a thing of the past, ask how it used to be done.
  15. Why do people make and use fishrafts? In your village, what do they use on top of the cutting table to keep the fish from slipping around?
  16. Find out about the fermenting methods used in your village for preparing fish heads. Have you ever tried “smelly heads?”
Student Response

Student Response

  1. What are the two oppositions of those trying to dry fish?
  2. What keeps blowflies away?
  3. What requirements are there for fish to rot? Which of these is the easiest to remove?
  4. What are the factors that determine how we cut and prepare fish?
  5. Why is a good roof so important for a smokehouse?
  6. What are some of the better materials for smokehouse sides? Why is sheet iron not the best?
  7. Describe what makes a location good for a smokehouse.
  8. What is the secret of drying fish?
  9. _________________ is increased when we cut fish. This speeds the drying process.
  10. What changes need to be made in the way fish are cut during wet weather?
  11. What changes might be made in the smudge wood during rainy weather?
  12. What type of tree makes the best fishpole? Why?
  13. Describe one way of bundling and storing fish.


  1. Nick has 7 dogs. He figures that he needs 1 fish per day for each dog from freezeup to breakup, from October 1 through May 7. How many fish does he need to dry for the winter? (He can feed them fresh fish from his net during the summer.)
  2. Nick manages to get 1,400 fish. He gives away 2 dogs on January 1. Will he have enough fish to get through breakup on May 7?
  3. Marjory has 5 dogs to feed from October 1 through May 7. She plans to cook for her dogs, supplementing with oatmeal. She will only need a half a fish per day for each dog. She has 600 fish. Will she have enough fish to make it to breakup?
  4. Nick (from problem #1) has a chance to go to work instead of fishing. He figures that he can make $1,800 (after taxes) in the time he might be fishing. It costs 50 cents per day to feed a dog. Financially, is he better off fishing or going to work?
  5. At 50 cents per day for commercial dog food, how much does it cost to feed a dog from October 1 through May 7 for the life of the dog (12 years)?
  6. Henry’s smokehouse has poles that are 6 feet long. Each pole can hold 9 fish on average. He counts the poles and finds that he has 127 poles full of fish. He needs 1400 fish to get his dogs through the winter. Can he stop fishing or should he fish more?
  7. In Ed’s village an average king salmon dries out to 5 pounds of strips. He has 90 pounds of strips, but he needs a total of 150 pounds to get through the winter if he will have enough to give away at Christmas. How many more king salmon does he need?

Questions or comments?
© Alaska Native Knowledge Network