“Pure living. That’s what fishing all comes down to for me, and it’s what keeps me going back every year to spend eight weeks on a 32-foot aluminum drift net boat with no toilet, shower, or access to land. Something about being out on the water with one focus, one goal, and no outside news or media is so refreshing and pure, it’s almost addictive.” — Levi Thomet
The modern world often disconnects us from nature, yet Native Alaskan Levi Thomet embraces his life of outdoor adventure and has made a career from one of nature’s simplest resources: fish. Growing up in a “fishing family” in Kodiak, AK, salmon fishing has been part of nearly his entire life. Now in his mid-twenties, Thomet works as a fisherman and has already established his own commercial fishing business that promotes a “farm-to-table” eating mentality and sustainability for Alaskan salmon.
Thomet is certainly a “big deal” in Bristol Bay’s sockeye salmon fishing circles, yet the running world may know him better from his impressive and diverse running career. Thomet was a ten-time Alaska state champion in high school and swept the 800, 1,600 and 3,200 meter races at both the 2014 and 2015 Alaska State Championships. He also placed second at the US Junior Indoor Track and Field High School Championships in the two-mile, running the 7th fastest time by a high schooler in the history of this event (8:48:32).
On trails, Thomet proved to be equally as dominant, placing second at the 2015 Junior World Mountain Running World Championships. His second place finish at this race helped secure the first medal for the US Junior Men’s Mountain Running Team at the World Mountain Running Championship (I’m very grateful to say I had the opportunity to run with Thomet on this team!)
Amazingly, Thomet admitted that prior to the World Championships in Wales, “I didn’t know trail running was really a thing.” His friend and fellow Alaskan Allie Ostrander had told him she was selected for the US Junior Mountain Running Team. Thomet decided to submit a resume for the team and was also selected. Although Thomet had no experience racing on trails prior to the championship in Wales, he was a natural for the sport. “Being from Kodiak, that sort of mountain running terrain is what I grew up training on. I learned to run on rocky mountain trails and river beds. I was always better at that style of running than I was at track.”
After the race, Thomet shared his insights as a first-time trail runner: “I loved racing at the World Championships. I could have seen trail running as something I would have gotten into had I had the opportunity to do so in college. It was such a different style of running than the conventional track and field that I was used to. It was like a different sport. Trail running required a different type of fitness, more endurance and grit based than pure speed.”
Chasing Self-Betterment, Navigating Injuries
Although Thomet enjoyed his experience running trails, he was awarded a scholarship to run track and field and cross country at arguably the country’s top NCAA Division I program at the University of Oregon. This opportunity was too good to pass up. Thomet describes his transition from high school to Division I college athletics, “My team in high school, as a whole, was very dedicated. Running was fun but most of us took it very seriously. Once I got to college, I realized it’s not your choice whether you go all in or not. Running is what you’re there to do. That was a little different than high school. Everyone on my team at Oregon was 100% committed to becoming the best runner they could in their given event.”
Thomet was used to winning nearly every race he had entered in Alaska, yet at Oregon he learned quickly that all of his teammates were used to winning as much as he was, “Once I came to Oregon I started getting brutalized in track workouts by my teammates. Everyone on my team at Oregon was the best on their team in high school. All of a sudden I had stark competition. I realized that this kind of training environment is how you get good; surround yourself with people who can beat you and try your best to get as good as them.”
NCAA Division I running is certainly an intense environment, yet for Thomet he admits it was the right decision. “The level of talent in NCAA Division I running was something I enjoyed, but it’s certainly not the right training environment for everyone. It comes down to how much you like competition. If you really like winning then the NCAA might not be for you. If you like competition more than you like winning, that’s when you’re going to have a great college career. It’s about chasing self-betterment above all else.”
Self-betterment was exactly what Thomet achieved at Oregon in his freshman year. He improved his 5-kilometer time on the track from 14:08, to 14:02 to a just under the 14-minute barrier at 13:59:68 (a time Thomet still recalls off the top of his head to the hundredth of a second). “I never broke 14-minutes again because I kept getting hurt but I’m really glad I got to do it once. I saw such a big improvement in my times from high school because of the level of team dedication and professional level of training in the program I had at The University of Oregon.”
Despite such notable achievements his freshman year, injuries kept Thomet sidelined for the remainder of his running career. “My sophomore year I fractured my femoral head. That one hurt and took 13 weeks to heal. I got super good at crutch speed walking! When I started training again and felt fit for the outdoor track season in the spring, I fractured the femoral neck on my other hip. At this point, I was sick of sitting on the bike while everyone else was running around.”
With so much of his life dedicated to running, Thomet was not about to give up on his passion. “I decided I’d give it one more go because of how much I enjoy the sport. Unfortunately, I ended up fracturing my shins and messing up my knees, which needed steroid injections. It got to the point where I had to make a decision about the future of my running.”
Thomet realized that the future of his running was about more than just himself, “I was on scholarship and I told my coach, You’re basically paying me to sit on an elliptical all day and you could give my scholarship money to a kid who could come into the program and might need the extra bucks to go to college?”
Thomet made the selfless decision to retire his Oregon Ducks singlet for the sake of the team. “I decided I would retire and give my scholarship back to the team so they could recruit someone who wasn’t crippled.”
Even if his college career didn’t pan out as he had hoped, Thomet still walked away from the experience without regrets. “While I was in it, I had a great time on the team.”
After his sophomore year, Thomet was finished with his college running career and ready to take his life in a new direction. He returned home to his roots: fishing in Alaska.
Life On The Balrog of Bristol Bay
Named after the fictional fiery demon-beast from The Lord of The Rings, the “Balrog,” is Thomet’s current fishing vessel in Bristol Bay, located in Southwestern Alaska. Thomet started fishing on the Balrog four years ago and fell in love with the experience. “Four of us manage the 32-foot aluminum boat. There’s a captain, permit holder (me), and two crew. We go out every summer and fish about 20 hours per day for eight weeks and catch as many fish as we can. We like each other most of the time and hopefully we’re still friends by the end!” The largest boats in the bay hold 20,000 pounds of fish. The Balrog’s capacity is estimated closer to 12,000 pounds, but Thomet admits they’ve managed to fit 20,000 pounds on their boat.
Thomet explains why Bristol Bay is one of the most special places to be a fisherman, “Bristol Bay is the world’s largest sockeye salmon run. Last year we had over 70 million fish return to the bay. The season is so short and there is a huge influx of fish all at once. It’s a mad dash to catch as much fish as you can in about 30 to 45 days. During the “peak” when the majority of salmon are moving upstream, I’ve fished for 40 hours straight before. There are days when I only get two hours of sleep, wake up and fish all night until the sun comes up, get another hour of sleep and fish, fish, fish constantly. When it comes to being a salmon fisherman in Bristol Bay, if you’re not all in, you’re definitely going to wind up all out!”
Ship-life is certainly not for everyone and besides the heavy workload and lack of sleep, it’s essential to learn to live simply. The ship’s cabin has a small table stove with two burners and Thomet sleeps on a two-by-six foot bunk at the ship’s bow. There’s no shower and his only restroom is a bucket on deck. “We basically go full neanderthal-style for the whole time. We smell terrible, and we fish all day.”
Flowing Like The Tides
Just as ocean tides ebb and flow, so too do the days of salmon fisherman. Thomet has learned shiplife, and life itself, is very much about experiencing adventures full of both the worst and best of days. Thomet describes a tough day out on the water, “The wind is blowing 40 miles per hour. There’s huge waves and I want to throw up over the side of the boat. I’m falling down on deck and not catching much fish. We might hit a rock and shred our entire net. We fish in a pitch black night and tangle nets with another boat or crash into them. It’s a Wild West chaos show.”
Yet, Thomet will go through these bad days time and time again to experience the best of days as a salmon fisherman in the Bristol Bay, “I’m out on deck looking for fish and see a bunch of “jumpers.” We set out our 1,200-foot net and there’s so many fish splashing about it that it looks like the net is being electrocuted. We fill up so fast and have to reel it in as fast as possible (we have to reel it in fast because it’s actually possible to catch too much fish to where you can’t lift the fish over and you can even sink your boat!). We’ll fill our boat in less than three hours. The weather is nice and calm and we’re having a blast loading up the boat.”
Leaving A Legacy
Commercial fishing is an extremely demanding physical career. Thomet knows it’s not something he can do forever and that’s why he started his own direct market salmon business, Thomet and Co. Salmon two years ago, “I hope to be a commercial fisherman for as long as I’m able to healthfully go and fish. I aim to build this company into something more long term.”
Thomet explains his inspiration behind starting his own salmon business, “Salmon fishing is one of the most sustainable businesses as far as the return (how many fish return every year) and the quota (how many fish allowed to be caught). The fisheries in Alaska are well managed and from a business perspective, I like the structure of salmon fishing as a whole.”
Thomet’s business provides fresh fillets and smoked salmon to many direct consumers and restaurants across the lower-48.
“I take a portion of our catch in Bristol Bay each season and have it shipped to Seattle. From there, I pick it up and distribute it directly. It’s my idea of a direct fisherman-to-table mentality. There is supply chain transparency, you know who catches your fish, where it’s sourced from, and its level of quality.”
Thomet currently dedicates most of his life to his fishing business. He has sidelined his running for the time being, but admits he may one day return to the sport, “I don’t think I’ll run competitively again in track or cross country, but I’ve thought recently about getting back into mountain running. I would definitely love to run the historic Alaskan mountain race – Mount Marathon.”
Thomet shows us that a sense of fulfillment can come from the simple, generous idea of filling another’s plate. His life-long passion for fishing has created a business that promotes sustainability in the Alaskan fishing market and provides a unique opportunity for people across the country to have access to incredible fresh fish. Both the running and fishing communities are lucky to have Thomet as an example for how to live adventurously and follow one’s passions to their fullest.
Hungry for fresh sockeye? Order Thomet’s fish online, find recipes and read about the health benefits of Bristol Bay sockeye salmon on his website at https://tcsalmon.com
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