Start with a good bit of Bristol Bay mud, sand and powerful tides, toss in huge sockeye salmon runs and a fishing family that runs four generations deep, and you’ve got the recipe for what keeps Ben Ahrens returning each year.

Ahrens, 41, came from Nebraska to Alaska on a scholarship, then met his wife-to-be, Shelby, in a student teaching gig during the school year.

“It was only supposed to be for a semester,” Ahrens says.

When the season turned to summer, Ahrens got swept into an extended fishing family in a full-blown setnet operation about 5 miles outside of the small settlement of Ekuk. That meant lugging 1,800 feet of 3/4-inch line from shore to beyond the low tideline, driving stout metal stakes into the deep mud and learning to pull nets to shore with four-wheel-drive pickups.

“It was different — and interesting,” he says.

Ahrens immediately took to the fishing life and couldn’t wait to return.

Time and tides have a way of sparking romance, and it wasn’t long before Ahrens presented Shelby with an engagement ring.

“I proposed to my wife with a ring in a fish’s mouth and everything,” he says. That was in the summer of 2006, and the couple married in 2007.

Along came their three sons, Brayden, 11, Colben, 9, and 7-year-old Laeth.

These days, Ahrens works for the Alaska Railroad, but he racks up all of his vacation time for the glorious time he gets to spend out in the fish camp each summer.

“It’s like going camping for three weeks,” he says, adding that his family bunks in a 20-by-20-foot cabin on the beach. “But we leave all the phones and the electronic devices back at home (Butte, Alaska, in the off-season). It makes us grow so close together as a family.”

Charlie Ess is the North Pacific Bureau Chief for National Fisherman.

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