Leilani Luhrs lives and breathes commercial salmon gillnetting, even when she’s more than 700 miles away from her beach site out in the Native village of Togiak, Alaska. Luhrs, 27, moved to Anchorage a couple of years ago to finish out a degree in rural development.
She lives and works in town by winter, but summer finds her packing mass groceries and other supplies and heading out with her husband, Desmond, and sons, Logan and Cooper, for a season of bliss in the land she’s known from when she was a baby.
She grew up in Togiak, on its windswept beaches, harvesting wild plants, moose and caribou, but it’s always been the fishing that’s the epicenter of her life. “I love the smell of the ocean. It’s home,” she says. “I love the rush of the salmon season.”
In her younger years, Luhrs fished in the skiffs with her parents, but for the past nine years she has fished a setnet operation with her 25-year-old sister, Stevie Wilbur.
Luhrs’ life is tied inextricably to the sea and comes out in casual conversations when she muses about the various aspects of new gillnet webbing or recounts a particular day when she and Wilbur surfed their skiff down big waves for entertainment while they waited their turn to deliver their catch to the tender.
In a more serious conversation, Luhrs can go back to a fateful day at sea when she was fishing with Wilbur and her father. The prop got caught in the net, swung the stern into harsh weather and swamped the skiff. As the boat vanished, the three of them began swimming for shore. Luhrs looked back, and her father was gone.
“Ever since that day, I’ve had this apprehensiveness towards fishing,” she says. “It scares me during other parts of the year, but when we get closer to the season, the excitement takes over. Fishing with my sister has been really good,” she adds. “It’s been a healing process.”
National Fisherman’s “Who we are” briefly profiles fishermen from fisheries around the United States.