Chasing Kings: Southeast Alaska’s Summer Troll Season

28 06 2011

The Nerka is moored on New Thomsen’s 4th finger, a trek to the ramp that typically takes my short legs a 4 minute march. But the harbor is a different neighborhood than it was a week ago, and Cap’n J and I now incorporate a half-hour buffer – at least – for clearing the conversational gauntlet up the dock.

The harbor pulses with anticipation and anxiety. Local boats have off-loaded their halibut/black cod gear and rigged up for salmon, exchanging skates of groundline for a rainbow palette of spoons (metal lures) and hoochies (plastic squid-like lures of every imaginable color combination). December is 6 months away, yet a repetitive chorus of “Season’s greetings!” rings through the air. At each finger, we exchange hugs and how-was-your-winter updates. It’s a familiar transition back into this culture of seasonal friendships, decades-old relationships that receive only several months a year of real-time face-time. After the pleasantries, each conversation returns to the focus on everyone’s mind right now: “Well, are you all set?”

The hot hoochies of 2007. (Insert your own bad joke here.)

The Southeast Alaska summer troll season opens for king salmon on Friday, July 1st, and according to Fish & Game’s prediction, we should have 8 to 12 days to catch our quota. The past few days saw trollers from Washington, Oregon and California pulling through the breakwater, one after another. Their fisheries have suffered devastating losses, while Alaska’s waters continue to swell with healthy runs. Meticulously managed, Alaska’s wild salmon stocks support fishing families from all along the West Coast.

Few outsiders imagine the depth of regulation that Alaskan commercial fishermen experience. There will always be those who grouse about state and federal oversight, but this is supervision that I choose to take comfort in, viewing it as a concerted effort to protect our livelihood and honor natural resources.  Alaska Trollers Association, our industry advocates since 1925, works closely with the Alaska Department of Fish & Game to ensure we’ll make a living today, while taking care that we’ll still be able to do so tomorrow. It’s this effort that gives me a clear(er) conscience, a response for non-fishing friends who express uncertainty about their love of seafood. “I thought salmon were endangered… Is it really okay to eat them?”

(In a word: Yes.)

Coho fillets for winter meals

After Hooked’s last post, my dad remarked upon its theme of gratitude, that it wasn’t a value he’d observed in the fleet 25 years ago. Every generation has had members for whom the role of harvester includes an accompanying sense of stewardship, those determined to keep this lifestyle available to future generations. But I agree there’s been a cultural shift. These days, more of us articulate our pride in feeding people, being responsible for the highest quality food we can produce. Rather than lingering in doom-and-gloom predictions that our industry’s days are numbered, more dockside conversations mull over legislation and advocacy. Our collective consciousness slowly evolves, expands, and sustainability become less the language of Lefties and more an obvious necessity to our profession.

There’s a bottom line most of us can agree on: this is a life we love. As our friend Sean sums up, “I’ll fish until I don’t.” Most of us would rather delay the “until I don’t” for as long as possible.

A kiss of thanks for this 48-pounder

As I write this, my gaze drifts to the Kettleson Library windows. (My favorite library anywhere, and damn, what a view.) It’s a misty day in Sitka, with a white shroud settled over the water and the kind of rain that doesn’t seem so insistent as it’s falling, but your clothes feel like they’re fresh out of the washing machine by the time you finally make it back to the harbor. A troller just pulled out of Crescent Harbor, heading for their destined hot spot. The exodus has started, the harbors that so recently swelled to capacity thinning out just as quickly.

Us, we’ll get groceries this evening, fill up the water tank, and mosey out of town tomorrow. You can follow our weather here, by clicking on the giant purple section in the middle. I can’t tell you where we’re going… Fishermen are a closed-mouth bunch, and though the same information eventually filters to all of us, we like to pretend that our destinations are a big mystery. One of Hooked’s friends explained his strategy like this:

For the July opener we always follow this exact plan:

We always head south of town, unless we decide to go north,

or we might go deep, or we might leave early, or we might go late,

and (depending upon where we think everyone else is headed)

we might do the opposite of everyone,

unless we decide to follow them and do the same.

And that pretty much sums up trollers.  Good luck out there, friends, and stay safe.  We’ll check with you on the other side of the opening.

F/V Juanita C at sunset, 11:10 pm, 2007






The View From Sitka: Arrival and Appreciation

17 06 2011

After doing such extensive work on the good ship Nerka this winter, her insides pulled apart, mucked about, and put back again, we left Bellingham riddled with anxiety. Would everything work? What gremlins would reveal themselves? Spend time with boats, you quickly learn they’re full of surprises, and not the party-and-ice-cream kind.

Other than an initial scare that we were on our way to Alaska without a working stove, she was indeed a “good ship.” We enjoyed a record-quick trip at 4 days and 8 hours, our smoothest yet, the miles flying by with lovely weather and conversation. (And yes, hot food. Cap’n J saved us from days of PB & J when he triumphed over the reluctant stove.) Our friend Sean, deckhand to the Five Girls, hitched a ride and proved an excellent travel companion. Bear the Boat Cat threw up only once. Glassy-eyed in disconcertingly calm waters, she howled for Sean to move his feet from her preferred puke site, then appeared to gain her sea legs.

We pulled into Sitka at 2 a.m., Tuesday morning – perfectly timed to get a few hours’ sleep, then make it to the Backdoor’s opening for pie and coffee. We’ve nestled back into the community and have been dividing our days between tinkering on the boat, rigging up for our king salmon season to open on July 1st, and reveling in the rare opportunity to relax in town. Plenty of writing time for me, hikes and photo missions for Cap’n J. Bear’s been nosing around on the cruiser parked next to us, perhaps a fan of how rarely it leaves the dock. Pretty content, all of us.

Last night we parked ourselves on a shoreline at the west end of town, waiting for the sun to wink below the horizon. Up here these days, that’s a long wait; sunset is listed as 9:59, but the sky remains permeable for another hour. Joel got some great pictures, his first opportunity to reconnect with Sitka in the way that’s most meaningful for him. (And skilled? Oh yes. You can check out some of his work here.)

Cap'n J and Mt. Edgecumbe, reunited.

Yep, feeling pretty full of the warm-fuzzies. So it was good timing for a fellow fisherman to tell me a story of how he ended last season. He was on the run south, traveling with another boat. They stopped one evening, rafted up together in the anchorage, and cooked a Thanksgiving feast. It didn’t matter that it was late September. Their season’s salmon harvest bountiful, they gave thankful acknowledgement for the life they’d taken.

This kind of thing warms my tree hugging, hippie heart. Inspired me to give my own pre-season thanks here. I’ve received an awful lot of kindnesses that deserve public appreciation, and some of these accolades are shamefully late.

Several months back, I joined She Writes, an online writers community. After years bemoaning the lack of writers’ energy in my life, She Writes has meshed beautifully with my migratory lifestyle. The wealth of experience and project diversity is at once humbling and invigorating; I’m thankful for the inspiring conversations and new friends.

One of those happy She Writes connections is Fl (Girl with a New Life). Tina, the author, celebrates women’s stories with an eclectic blend of writing prompts, film reviews, and personal reflections.  She’s tireless, maintaining a faithful schedule for her readers, posts rich with her warm, conversational tone, with remarkable consistency.

In May, I came back from sea to find that Tina had posted about Hooked, naming this fishy little site as one of her favorite travel blogs. Her praise was a delightful surprise, a powerful example of the way stories bring people together. We live on opposite sides of the country, in daily routines that are worlds apart, yet when we share reflections of what matters to us, what’s life giving and what keeps us awake at night, we find kindred spirits. Thanks to you and your husband, Tina – I’m glad our virtual paths have crossed!

The past month was very good to Hooked. Pacific Fishing, leading business journal for the West Coast seafood industry, ran an “Introducing the Blogger” story in their June issue, and has generously posted a link on their homepage. I’ve been a Pacific Fishing reader for decades, so this was particularly touching to me, and has greatly increased Hooked’s audience. Thanks, Pacific Fishing, for your support; it’s much appreciated.

I’m thankful for a whole mess of goodness. For May’s longline job, a safe, successful, laughter-filled season with my fantastic “brother” and a good-spirited crewmate. For the Backdoor for being my Sitka haven, and for Bernadette and Sotera singing out, “Welcome home!” without hesitation or qualifier.  For all of Cap’n J’s work on the Nerka while I was gone, and the fantastic dinners he prepared upon my return. “You just keep writing,” he insisted, when I was deep in the words and would’ve ended up scrounging for a bread-and-cheese midnight snack, if not for the delicious meals he set before me.

"Dinner with Steve." A delicious sandwich, a story for another day.

Five days ago we were running up the coast of Baranof Island, glassy water pierced only by humpback exhalations. The cabin filled with a collective pulse of excitement and relief. We were reluctant to speak of the magic we were feeling, jinx-wary, but Sean, Joel and I all agreed: this season just feels good. Hopeful. With plenty of time ahead to be smacked by reality, we’re enjoying the positivity of the present.

As we approach next week’s solstice, may it be so for you, too, sweet reader, that the light in your heart reflects that of these lengthening days. Be safe, be well, and be sure to find time for pie.

Thanks, Bernadette and crew... Love you guys.





Heading North, Take Two

8 06 2011

Seems that no matter how much advance planning and preparation time there is for the trip north, our final days are always frantic.  Way back in late April, before I headed off on the Charity, Cap’n J and I set a departure date. June 8th sounded just right… Time enough to enjoy our house after I finished longlining, time to go over the remaining Nerka details together, and time to enjoy several weeks in Sitka before our salmon season starts on July 1st.  A sound plan, indeed.

I was pretty confident in last week’s post.  It’s possible that the universe heard my confidence as cockiness: “With an intended departure date of next Wednesday, the remaining tasks are pretty slim.”  As many times as I’ve been through this process, I should’ve known better.

As you’ve heard before, fishermen’s plans change.   We planned to be slipping loose of the Bellingham breakwater in a half-hour; instead, I’ve got a cup of tea steaming beside me and am enjoying a final communion with the Bobs (you remember, our resident Stellar’s Jays) and squirrels.  Looked like we’d be hitting Queen Charlotte Sound just in time to buck into a Northwest 25.  Do-able, but we’ve got an awfully long season ahead of us to get beat up right out of the gate.

Between avoiding an ass-kicking and this week’s mad scramble of final details, the captain determined that a 24 hour delay would be acceptable.  We should still hit the tide right at Seymour Narrows, and hopefully sidestep the bumpy crossing.  Never a good idea to feel too rushed or locked into one arbitrary intention, we’re breathing much easier this evening.

We’ll have a friend on board for the trip up, someone to share wheel watches and contribute new conversation. Sean was a first-time deckhand on the 5 Girls last season. Every June, Joel and I eyeball the new crop of green deckhands and make a game out of anticipating who’ll make it and who won’t. From the moment we met Sean, we were in agreement: he was going to be the star new deckhand of the season.

And that’s how it worked out. He’s returning for a second round, but needed a ride up to meet his boat in Sitka. He and his partner, Angela – who’s a rock star deckhand in her own right, a powerhouse of endurance, strength and fishing expertise – drove up for a big send-off. It’s a bummer that our plan changed after they got here, so they’re having an unexpected amount of sitting-around-waiting-to-go time, but they’re professionals who know, “That’s the way it goes when you wear rubber clothes.”

Chaotic as the week has been, it’s a fun time to be in the harbor. After winter’s quiet and the slow meander into spring activity, everyone is in full-throttle preparation mode now. The 4 to 5 man (and some women) crews of the seiners surrounding us have been hard at work, repairing nets, sanding rails, all kinds of bustling about. We’re all a constant tide washing up and down the ramp, pushing mountainous carts down to our boats, tossing matching harried grins at each other.  This time of year, the harbor pulses with camaraderie.

Through it all, I try to remember the relief that’s on the other side of the breakwater. As soon as the lines are untied and we’re under way, none of this current chaos will matter. The mental brakes squeal, as we go from a zooming frenzy to a sedate 7 knot cruise. What’s inevitably forgotten won’t end up mattering, or will be dealt with in Sitka.  If our weather holds, we should have about a five day migration, a luxurious exemption from the rest of the world that I’m hoping to use as a mini writer’s retreat.  Fingers crossed.

Below, some photos from the past few days:

Monday: Provisioning, Part 1.

Stocking a Fishing Boat with Fake Meat Product: Oxymoron?

Cap'n J checks our survival suits. Bear, not so into it.

Sean & Ange, our ridealong squeezing himself into an if-he-absolutely-had-to suit.

Fake meat in the freezer AND prayer flags from the rigging? Bunch of hippies on this boat.

Cap'n J & T: frazzled, hopeful, anxious, and eager to be on the way north.

That’s the update, sweeties.  My remaining tea has gone cold, and some overripe bananas are begging to be transformed into bread, courtesy of Joel’s sister’s Ashley’s delicious recipe.  Be well, friends – hope to share some good stories with you by the middle of next week.





Boat-Hopping (& a Request of Hooked Readers)

3 06 2011

I launched Hooked under the grim oversight of the Pacific Northwest’s lingering winter.  Between relentlessly gray days and our “off” season’s luxury of personal time, it seemed the ideal opportunity to start this long-procrastinated conversation.  To spend hours crafting thoughtful tributes to our unique industry, deliberate over the perfect photo to accompany the text, and, when the words weren’t flowing, toss peanuts to the increasingly well-fed jays and squirrels lurking outside my writing window… Add in the unexpected encouragement of supportive readers, and this venture has been even more rewarding than I’d imagined it would be.  I’m thankful to you all for making it such a good time.

Bear keeps a close eye on the Bobs (our Stellar's Jay collective)

As it turns out, my leisurely saunter-through-syntax approach doesn’t work so well in conjunction with our “real” working life.  I’ve learned there’s an ocean of difference between the posts I’d like to share with you, and the ones that actually make it up. Hours spent scraping halibut bellies were surprisingly conducive to composing stories in my head, but the ensuing tasks – icing those fish, baiting up for the next set, scrubbing the deck, unloading, a whirlwind of shower/laundry/groceries before heading back out on the next trip – didn’t allow for much personal reflection. This business of actually being a fisherman has made it tougher to write about what it means to be a fisherman.

The Charity celebrated a safe, successful longline season. Against our initial predictions, we were blessed with beautiful weather, reasonably calm seas and sunny skies the whole way through.  Caught our halibut and black cod quota in two trips, a couple weeks of long hours, good food and music, and much laughter.  By the time we hauled all of the longline gear off the boat and set her up for salmon trolling, the work’s physical demands were a fast-fading memory, evidenced only by some impressive bruises and accentuated biceps.  When Martin handed over my crew share, I marveled at getting paid to spend time with friends in the shadow of the ferociously glorious Fairweather Range, coastline I’d never have known without this profession. Truly, our time couldn’t have gone any smoother or more enjoyably.

The top of a halibut set, flagpole bobbing beneath the Fairweather Range.

(Alaska Waypoints is getting the exclusive dish on my halibut stories, but I’ll post them here 2 weeks after their initial publication.)

I signed off from Team Charity a week ago.  Flew back to the concrete chaos of Seattle, to clenching Joel’s Subaru’s “oh, shit” handle, because zooming 70 miles per hour up I-5 is terrifying after a month of sliding through the scenery at 7 knots.

We didn’t waste any time in shifting over to Team Nerka. Up early on my first morning back, we took her out for a sea trial with the diesel mechanic on board. That went well, and Cap’n J was obviously busy over the past month. There’s a strong new handrail on the port side of the cabin, excess air’s been bled from the throttle and clutch, and the varnished rails are shimmering.  The fuel truck came down to the dock, and 529 gallons later, all four tanks are topped off. Made a quick run up to Canada, to pick up some hot hoochies and other secret weapon gear from their fishing supply stores. And with only a minimal amount of fiasco that was mostly due to a way-too-late lunchtime, we lowered our trolling poles and attached all-new stabilizer lines and chain, hopefully ensuring that the Nerka will have as smooth of a trip north as the Charity did 5 weeks earlier.

With an intended departure date of next Wednesday, the remaining tasks are pretty slim. There’ll be some big grocery trips this weekend, hitting up Costco and Trader Joe’s.  Some final family visits, including moving our houseplants to my mom’s for the next 4 months. (They do better under her care, anyway – this seasonal transfer is an extended spa treatment for them.)  Bear’s been following the piles of salmon-scented clothes, books, and groceries going out the door with an increasingly suspicious gaze, and will know what’s up after Monday’s visit to the vet for a health certificate to travel through Canada.

The salmon season brings a tremendous amount of pressure, as we try to make our year’s livelihood in 3 months, and Cap’n J and I are a pretty driven team. If I’m honest with myself and you, I can already guarantee that the internal conflict between those dream posts in my head and the sparse, sporadic ones that will appear here will only increase over the season. I wonder, what’s most valuable to you, sweet reader?  If Hooked updates are fewer and farther between, what would you most like to read about?  Any fishing/Alaska questions you’d like addressed?  Let me know, and I’ll do my best to put them at the top of the list.

The sun setting on the Charity's longline season, on our final run back into Sitka.








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