Sarah Palin's History: Lifelong Unlicensed Hunter and Fisher

by Abe Sauer

“We eat, therefore we hunt.” — Sarah Palin, Going Rogue

In December, after an episode of “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” The Awl, along with many in America’s hunting community, asked some questions about the former Governor’s longstanding claim of being an avid and experienced hunter.

At some point, all hunters are inexperienced, and even experienced ones are often unsafe, but being unlicensed is more than just illegal, it’s detrimental to natural resource efforts. Palin herself believes this, writing in 2010’s America by Heart that “…it’s important that we’re managing our fish and wildlife resources for abundance in the Last Frontier.”

Curious if Palin was licensed for her 2010 on-air caribou adventure, or, for that matter, any of her “lifetime of hunting” trips, we submitted an open records request to Alaska’s Dept. of Fish & Game. Our request covered the years 1980 to 2010, from Palin’s teenage years as “Sarah Heath” to today.

It turns out, Palin has pulled a number of licenses in the last 30 years. There are 12 of them, though not all of them strictly for hunting.

Our records request revealed that the former Governor has pulled one type AA-02 permit (“Resident Hunt”) and five type AA-04 permits (“Resident Sport Fish and Hunt”). Since Alaska keeps its kill reports anonymous for some reason, it is unknown what she took or if the Hunting & Fishing-type licenses, the vast majority of Palin’s permits, were used for sport fishing or for hunting.

Here is the entire report.

1994, 008469, AA-02, Resident Hunting, 03/11/1994
2004, 4338956, AA-02, Resident Hunting, 08/13/2004

1991, 153987, AA-02, Resident Sport Fish & Hunt, 03/15/1991
1992, 184424, AA-01, Resident Sport Fishing, 06/19/1992
1993, 059460, AA-04, Resident Sport Fish & Hunt, 01/05/1993
1993, 497733, AA-04, Resident Sport Fish & Hunt, 08/24/1993
2000, 0287171, AA-01, Resident Sport Fishing, 06/30/2000
2002, 2226528, AA-04, Resident Sport Fish & Hunt, 07/12/2002
2003, 3027590, AA-04, Resident Sport Fish & Hunt, 07/06/2003
2006, 6018936, AA-04, Resident Sport Fish & Hunt, 05/03/2006
2007, 7005664, AA-04, Resident Sport Fish & Hunt, 09/01/2007
2010, 0114858, AA-04, Resident Sport Fish & Hunt, 07/02/2010

That Palin had no fishing or hunting permits until she was into her late 20s, well after she was married to Todd, calls into question her claims about being a lifelong hunter, or her father’s claims about having properly taught her to hunt.

But far more interesting is the number of commercial-type BB “Resident Crewmember” licenses Palin has pulled, just 10 in her lifetime. These are the licenses required for going on board a commercial fishing boat for those who are not Alaska Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission entry permit holders. (That’s the kind of permit that Todd Palin purchased from his grandfather.)

1988, 783835, BB-30, Resident Crewmember, 06/25/1988
1989, 714790, BB-30, Resident Crewmember, 06/25/1989
1995, 36017, BB-30, Resident Crewmember, 06/27/1995
1996, 6035224, BB-30, Resident Crewmember, 07/01/1996
2003, 3031601, BB-30, Resident Crewmember, 07/07/2003
2004, 4024098, BB-30, Resident Crewmember, 06/30/2004
2006, 6018417, BB-36, Resident 7-Day Crewmember, 07/06/2006
2007, 7022744, BB-30, Resident Crewmember, 07/04/2007
2009, 9030122, BB-30, Resident Crewmember, 07/05/2009
2010, 0033118, BB-30, Resident Crewmember, 06/30/2010

Part of Palin’s image is not just that she and her husband own a commercial fishing business, but that Palin gets her hands dirty out on the boat, hauling in the catch. When her candidacy was announced in 2008, a great deal of myth-making took place, painting Palin as a rough and rouged commercial fisher, braving the high seas and earning her keep with tough physical labor.

There is good reason Palin probably wouldn’t be out on a commercial fishing vessel much after those two times in the late 1980s. In 1989 she gave birth to the couple’s first child and for the next decade had three more (1990, 1994, 2001), while at the same time running for numerous offices.

In an MSNBC documentary during the 2008 election, Palin friend Bob Lester said, “Todd is a commercial fisherman and Sarah spends hours out in his boat, helping haul in hundreds of pounds of salmon, something they still do.”

In that same documentary, Palin biograher Kaylene Johnson said, “Todd and Sarah both share a love for the outdoors. And they share a love for the Alaskan way of life. And they commercial fish together, every summer.”

In a 2008 People interview, Todd said, “When she’s working for me out there in my fishing boat, she’s pretty vulnerable. It’s my element.” To which Palin responded: “He’s the boss out there on the boat while we commercial fish. Yeah. That’s a different story then.”

Also in 2008, a Ledger profile of the “rugged” Palins noted that Todd was often accompanied by Sarah, “along to help with the rugged work aboard a 32-foot fishing boat.”

Palin has played the part, giving numerous press conferences from the deck of a boat.

ABC’s “why she resigned” interview was done from the deck of a commercial fishing boat “dressed in a white T-shirt and overall waders… all the while plucking salmon from the family fishing nets aboard a boat…”

In July 2009, Palin told reporters gathered for a press event that she has been helping her husband Todd, a licensed commercial fisherman, “for decades.” That press op was on July 7, 2009. Palin’s crewmember permit was from two days previous.

Last year, Politics Daily reinforced the image, writing, “Palin said she wrote the post on a commercial fishing boat in Alaska where she’s ‘working my butt off for my own business, merely asking the Democrat politicos and their liberal friends in the media: ‘What’s the plan, man?’”

There is even stock footage of Sarah Palin commercial fishing for sale. (“Approx: 30 min. DV-CAM Tape (B Roll) Cost: $2000.00; We can also provide shorter clips. Cost: $40.00 per second”).

In the book Sarah: How a Hockey Mom Turned Alaska’s Political Establishment Upside Down, Kaylene Johnson writes, “During the summers after graduation and throughout college, Sarah helped Todd fish commercially in Bristol Bay. They fished from a twenty-six-foot skiff with no cabin… it was the most physical and dangerous work Sarah had ever undertaken.”

Johnson goes on to tell of Palin breaking her hand and immediately returning to work, toughing out 100-mile-per-hour winds, and even how Palin would take the boat out herself to fish while Todd was working his oilfield job.

Palin graduated from the University of Idaho in 1987, and did pull commercial fishing permits in 1988 and 1989. She did not, however, have any permits for any period “throughout college.”

Todd himself has lent credence to the “every year” myth, telling Fox News’ Greta Von Susteren in September, 2008, “We’ve commercial fished all the years that Sarah and I were married and then for many years before our marriage. And that’s about a four-week season, and so we adjust our schedules to do commercial fishing.”

In that same interview, Todd tells Van Susteren that, yes, that year, 2008, “we” had again commercially fished their spot, the one that Todd’s family had long fished. Palin had no license in 2008.

The genealogy of the Palin family’s fishing tradition is on display thanks to a 1999 appeal filed by Todd’s mother, Blanche Kallstrom, claiming sufficient “points” for a 1977 Bristol Bay Drift Gill Net Entry Permit. The state denied Kallstrom her permit (two decades later) in part because “prior to 1973” she “had no documented participation in the Bristol Bay drift gill net fishery.”

In the denial letter, the state of Alaska repeatedly points out that Sarah’s in-laws had little respect for licensing, noting, “Except for [Todd’s maternal grandfather], none of the applicant’s family held a gear license in the drift net fishery for 1967” and that “Participation in a fishery without a required license is unlawful and generally not entitled to credit toward an entry permit.” Kallstrom’s defense: “I didn’t know I needed one.” (This final appeal denial came three years before the Alaska Supreme Court ruled, on an appeal, that Kallstrom had no claim against the government for emotional distress she had suffered after she accidentally poisoned a child with lye at an alcohol abuse transitional care facility dance in 1993.)

Probably the most interesting detail of the 20-years-in-the-making report: “Blanche Kallstrom has renewed her interim-use permit and fished each year through 1995. Beginning in 1996 the applicant has emergency transferred her permit each year due to a chronic medical condition.”

The report is a lot of legal mumbo jumbo and Alaskan fishing licensing minutia, but for those interested in the “decades-long” Palin family’s fishing history that the former Governor brags about all the time, including (and especially) transcribed testimony from Todd’s grandfather Al, it’s a page turner. PDF here.

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Palin’s office did not respond to an inquiry about her licensing history, but in her bestseller “Going Rogue” Palin includes several pictures of herself hunting and fishing (with no dates), including this shot, the caption of which suggests that she is on the boat every summer (and is yet worded so that it doesn’t technically claim that).

Palin has run afoul of Alaskan permitting rules. In 1993, the future Governor pleaded no contest to the charge of failing to register as a set gill net permit holder (which is a technical way of saying commercial fishing without a license). Mistakenly noting it as a felony, The Anchorage Daily wrote of the incident:

“Palin explained the fishing violation by saying that she had been a crew member but took over the permit for that season from her sister-in-law. Palin then forgot to switch her registration from that of a crew member to a permit holder, she said.

But according to the records from Alaska, Palin actually had no crewmember license for 1993. She had not had one since 1989 and would not again have one until 1995 — the year she was running for reelection to the Wasilla City Council.

That six of Palin’s ten total lifetime commercial fishing licenses have come in the last seven years, while she was running for high office, unravels the story that Palin is some kind of old ocean hand. Four of the total ten permits came during or after her campaigns for governor and vice-president.

There is certainly a lot more to a commercial fishing business than pulling fish into a boat. There’s no doubt that Palin has assisted with her family’s business, even when not legally at sea. She certainly has not wholly concocted some fairy tale about her outdoorsmanship. But what Palin’s licenses do seem to paint is a picture of a candidate who has used a few experiences to justify an image makeover that appealed to a political demographic. In other words, the same thing that every politician has done since time immemorial.

Abe Sauer can be reached at abesauer at gmail dot com.