A close friend was raised on a troller, fishing with his dad. One of my favorite end-of-season stories is from him:
It was a beautiful day at the Cape, flat calm, sunny, in early September. My dad looked over at me and said, “Let’s quit.”
A teenager at the time, my friend was flabbergasted. They were catching, the weather was great; why in the world would they quit right then?
My dad gestured around us and said, “I want to remember the season just like this.”
And with that – a great forecast, big coho biting, and several weeks remaining of the season – they hauled their hooks aboard for the last time that summer.
Our last day of the season was not that kind of day.
After several days of calm water, good fishin’, stunning sunrises and sunsets, we missed the chance to close a challenging season on that positive note. By 9:00, our hooks had been dragging for almost 3 hours and we’d caught only 11 coho. Not a good ratio. Gusting 30, the wind threw rain at the boat in sheets as we bucked up and down the 9-foot chop. Fish-able, certainly, but miserable all the same.
On another boat, this might be called “deckhand weather” – the kind of day where the captain stays warm and dry inside, sending the crew out to run the gear, clean the fish, and handle the deck work. But the captain/crew line on this boat is blurred gossamer-fine, and Joel is not a jackass. We shivered side by side in the cockpit, heads ducked low against the pellets of rain, as we cleaned the few coho on deck.
“This is how we’re going out, huh?” Joel hollered at our surroundings. In answer, the next gust shoved us hard starboard.
Long skeins of snot hung from my nose. Clad head to finger to toe in raingear, there wasn’t a dry, wipe-able surface in sight. If there’s any test for a relationship, it’s this – sharing weeks on 43-feet of living space, always within arms’ reach of one another’s filthiest, stinkiest, sorest, most exhausted, least attractive selves. As I continued scraping kidney from the coho before me, the wind grabbed the threads and flung them long.
I’d been nursing a cup of coffee in the Backdoor several weeks earlier when a local teacher said, “Reading your posts, I think trolling sounds pretty good.” I’d smiled at the familiar tone, the envy with which non-fishermen sometimes view our profession. Be your own boss and work only half the year, practically a wildlife cruise, anyway, with the sights you see. Fritter the rest of the year away, frolicking about while the rest of society endures a rigid work week in exchange for a week or two of vacation – if they’re lucky.
But as we frequently remind ourselves, “If it was easy, everyone would do it.” With the coho cleaned and handed down to blast-freeze in the -38 degree fish hold, we rushed back into the warm cabin and grabbed towels to dry our sopping faces. Joel turned to the calculator and began punching numbers again.
“If we quit today, how much would we be giving up?” he asked. Our premium frozen-at-sea market meant that one day of scratching up 90 of these coho could mean $2000 for the boat. After expenses, Joel and I see significantly less, but early childhood indoctrination continually loops through my mind. Every fish counts!
I recalled my friend’s story, how I admired his dad’s decision to end the season with a personal value, rather than a financial one. But Joel and I sat surrounded by sheets of numbers: lists of anticipated winter expenses, balances of fish already sold, conservative estimates of what we could expect to yet be paid. When you’re young, self-employed in an unpredictable industry and looking at a long, uncertain off-season, the decision to quit a few days early could mean the cost of several months’ mortgage, car repairs, or a long-overdue trip to the dentist.
Still, I wondered, how much is enough?
During the August coho closure, Joel and I had helped a friend who was replacing part of his engine. He came to fishing by way of upstate New York over 15 years ago, when he visited Southeast Alaska and never left. As he squeezed his grease-stained self beside the engine, guiding her 1000 pound bulk back onto her mounts, he muttered with his lingering East Coast edge, “We do it ‘cause we love it, that’s the fuckin’ pisser.”
Beyond financial worries, it’s this love that makes it tough to say goodbye. After much debate and not a small amount of sadness, we pulled our hooks aboard for the last time that afternoon. By then the rain had let up and the seas had come down, and we hugged each other close, tactile thanks for the months of teamwork. Cap’n J revved up the Jimmy for our final run back to Sitka, and I cranked up the music for my intensive end-of-year deck scrub.
Mixing the bleach-heavy solution, I thought about the traits that make a good fisherman. Endurance, observation, creativity. Patience. The ability to juggle prudence with necessary risk. Some degree of obsession. To be independently wealthy would be okay, too.
But perhaps our greatest quality is the gift of selective memory. Within a month, the day we called our last won’t matter. We’ll forget all of this season’s challenges and remember only the good. Those massive hogs of the second king salmon opening. The spectacular sunrises of early September. The joys of community within the fleet this season, boat parties that crossed code group lines and rang with laughter. If there’s one thing fishermen know, it’s that suffering is temporary, but the pride in our work and gifts of our experiences are lasting.