“Wait… Wait… Done!” On Going Fishing after 18 Days at the Dock

30 05 2012

Marlin, Joel and I spent the first half of May waiting to go halibut fishing.

Just getting to our destination, a shallow plateau over 40 miles offshore, required more than a day’s run. We’d been watching for a four to five day weather window that never appeared, a steady barrage of gales keeping us pinned to the dock for a record 18 days. I started to feel a little embarrassed by my near-residence in the Backdoor Cafe.

Finally, we couldn’t stand it anymore. Our captain studied the online weather chart. It showed two days of “fish-able,” immediately followed by more angry red churning across the Gulf, a windbag’s hasty breath between pontificating.

Marlin sighed. “Well, the weather looks fucking horrendous. Usually we’d sit at the dock through that, but we’re not gonna do that anymore. We’re gonna go for a very expensive cruise, and maybe we’ll end up catching some fish.”

Not much of an endorsement of our departure plans, but after investing in fuel, bait, and groceries, it was time to go. The sea that greeted us wasn’t welcoming. We crashed through steel gray walls, white spray pummeling our windows. Blue tin plates frisbee’d across the cabin and clattered to the floor. The cat began licking her lips, then threw up.

Unhappy boat cat…

After five hours of this, we ducked into a protected anchorage. And when our captain nosed out in 3 AM’s dawning light, we found a new day, a new ocean. We heaved collective sighs of relief, tensed muscles slowly relaxing with the hull’s gentle bounce.

The thing about having low expectations is that it’s easy to be happily surprised. Unsure that we’d get any fishing time, Joel and I hadn’t dreamed we’d be shin-deep in halibut the next day. We cleaned madly, guts and gonads flying into the fierce beaks of black-footed albatross. When we finally hosed off our gory raingear and stumbled into the cabin for dinner, Joel gaped at the clock. “Is it really 1:30 in the morning?”

Swimming in halibut, I stuff each fish’s belly with ice before stowing them safely in bins.

Building on that day’s momentum, the trip just kept getting better. We spent two days anchored in Lituya Bay, a dream-like oasis on a brutal coastline, stuffing ourselves with shrimp as our bodies recovered and the weather passed. We left the Bay in a haze of déjà vu: countertops cleared and apologies whispered to Bear, we braced for stormy impact, only to find a glassy calm on the other side of the bar.

The boys at the hauler, waiting to see what comes up from the depths below.

Two days later, we slogged back towards Sitka in a collective glow of disbelief, gratitude, and sleep deprivation. The boat sat comfortably low in the water, the fish hold full of generously iced halibut, black cod, ling cod, and yelloweye. Trading wheel watches and weary grins, we dared to speculate that we’d caught all of our quota – that if all our poundage estimates were on target, our longline season was complete.

“This is what’s so amazing about longlining,” our captain reflected. “We just sat around for almost 3 weeks, and then we’re done in four days of actual work. With our quota down so much, the actual fishing doesn’t take any time at all if everything goes right and we get lucky.”

Marlin raised a jelly jar glass. “To a perfect trip, with just the right crew. It couldn’t have been better.”

Indeed. It’s not very often that I get to go to sea with two of my best friends. Thank you, boys, for a safe, productive, fun longline season – it was a pleasure!

Do you have favorite recipes for halibut or halibut cheeks? I’d love to hear how you most enjoy these amazing fish.


Hooked Searches for Time & Space (& Takes a Little Break)

3 05 2012

One of my lit star heroes is Ariel Gore. As a social worker, I pressed Atlas of a Human Heart into the hands of the young women I worked with, one after another. And a ragged copy of her guide, How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead, has staked a firm claim on our boat’s tiny bookshelf, going on its fifth season aboard the Nerka. (Extra points of awesome: an interview with Fisher Poet/’zine  Moe Bowstern appears p140-147!)

Before You’re Dead begins, “Everybody knows it because Virginia Woolf said it: You need money and a room of your own if you’re going to write. But I’ve written five books, edited three anthologies, published hundreds of articles and short stories, and put out 35 issues of my zine without either one. If I’d waited for money and a room of my own, I’d still be an unpublished welfare mom – except they would’ve cut my welfare off by now. It might be nice to have money and a room (or it might be suicidally depressing – who knows?) but all you really need is a blank page, a pen, and a little bit of time.”

Given that Ms. Gore’s words are near-holy to me, I’m embarrassed to admit my recent struggles. Our return to Sitka has been balm for my soul, but hell on my writing. Finding a place to work has been tough. I haven’t made a single sentence of progress on my memoir. The challenge of writing A Whole Book – even one page, one freaking word at a time – feels agonizingly impossible, like riding a unicycle with a flat tire up Everest. Blogging, so seductive with its short story capsules and immediately gratifying writer/reader exchanges, wins my attention every time.

Some days I think Bear should be my ghostwriter.

I chewed on discouragement for weeks, before finally ‘fessing up to my writing buddies. Of course I should’ve turned to them sooner. Beyond generous encouragement and support, they deftly flipped my frustration into a fun writing prompt.

Kari wrote, “Hearing about the places you’ve been forced to write kind of cracks me up. (The laundry room, the payphone room.) Maybe you should use that as a warm-up for your writing sessions. Spend five minutes describing your writing space of the moment. Then post to your blog!”

Pam seconded that idea. “A blog about where you find yourself writing these days is sure to be humorous and uplifting. Your readers will empathize, you’ll get good feedback and have a good warm up, and the positive feedback will carry you through starting what seems to be impossible now.”

These are seriously good friends – as well as excellent memoirists and bloggers. Check out Kari’s blog, Rhymes with Safari, and Pam’s, Putting on my Big Girl Panties.

Their suggestion was well-timed. Just hours earlier, I’d committed to give someone four chapters by the end of May. Breaking my word to this person isn’t an option. So I’m going to step back from all other projects for the coming weeks, fully surrendering to halibut fishing and chapter writing, chapter writing and halibut fishing. For the most part, this hiatus will include Hooked. Necessary discipline for distractible me, but bittersweet all the same. More than readers, you’re friends. I’ll miss our frequent conversations.

But a quick warm-up to get the words flowing, occasionally sharing my often-ridiculous surroundings with you before diving into the chapters, after surfacing from halibut bellies… That might be manageable. We’ll see. Apologies for the radio silence, friends, and many thanks for your understanding and patience. I hope to see you on the other side of the mountain.

Armpit deep in halibut.

Writer friends… Does this sound familiar? What are your favorite writing prompts? Any personal tricks you use for breaking your projects down into manageable pieces? How have you gotten through these funks?

Hooked Visits New Friends & Goes Fishing

25 04 2012

Just a short update here, friends. The deck is loaded with all of our longline gear, the fish hold is optimistic with plenty of ice and bait, and I just got my last shower until we’re back in town. All that remains is a quick run for groceries, then we’ll untie this evening and set off for our first halibut trip. Delivering fresh fish, we can’t stay out for longer than five days; hopefully, we won’t need close to that much time to catch our small quota.

Before heading out of communication, I just wanted to share some news with you. Hooked had a big day yesterday, appearing some new places, making some new friends.

Author Patricia Sands’ blog’s tagline is, “Everyone has a story,” and Patricia is a powerful facilitator in sharing those stories.  We’ve been following one another’s work since last fall, and I’ve been impressed with Patricia’s enthusiasm, commitment, and generosity in hosting a diverse range of guests. I was honored to be interviewed on her blog yesterday, talking about the fishing/boat life, boat cats, and writing. Please do pay her site a visit, and Patricia, many thanks – I had a great time talking with you and your readers!

If you’re not familiar with Grist, this is an excellent time to get to know their work. “A beacon in the smog,” this environmental online magazine is known for its wry, hip tone – yet they accepted an article from so-not-funny me anyway, “How Catching Salmon Can Save a Forest.” Thanks for letting one of the not-so-cool kids sit at your table, Grist!

Just in time… The captain’s got his grocery list ready to go, my crewmate’s finished submitting a couple photos to some contests, and I’m the only one holding up this program anymore. Best wishes, all – be well, and we’ll be back in touch soon.


Going Green: Training New Longline Crew, Part 2

28 08 2011

[This series on May’s halibut fishing was originally published on Alaska Waypoints.  Feels like an eternity ago, but I just realized I never finished sharing them here on Hooked. You can re-read Part 1 here, and the concluding Part 3 post should be up within a few weeks.]


The first fish to slap the deck is small, a 24-pounder. With Martin stationed at the hauler, I’ve taken the lead on training Ross how to handle and clean halibut, and class is now in session.

“Grab the gangion to hold the head steady, and bleed it like this.”  I slice an X below the cheek, and a crimson sheet billows across the deck. “Keep each fish flipped belly side up, like this, so they don’t bruise.”

We admire the glow of the fish’s underside, and I feel a flicker of self-doubt. It’s been a year since I cleaned a halibut; will I remember enough to teach someone new?  But as it turns out, memory is not the problem; verbally deconstructing a subconscious process is.

My hands move with Ouija-board confidence, the knife dancing through skin, muscle and membrane with a certainty that’s absent from my words. This lesson isn’t as simple as “Cut here,” but a more intricate puzzle of, “Cut here, slice that muscle, make a cut that flows with the gill plate. Bring your knife all the way through up there, but just a shallow cut along here through the top layer of tissue.” As if guiding a child’s first Crayoned alphabet-writing efforts, I place my gloved hands over his to re-direct the blade.


Before hauling, Martin and I gave Ross our final words of wisdom – or a last lecture, depending on your perspective – on what to expect. It’s hard to convey the perpetual motion intensity of longlining, when someone’s only comparative experience is the mental grind and long-term endurance test of trolling.

“Take care of all your bodily needs before we set or haul. Go to the head, get something to eat, stash a snack or something to drink on deck somewhere it won’t get slimed. Longlining is all about speed, and once we start, we don’t stop until everything’s done.”

Internally, I rolled my eyes. Longlining is hard work, sure, but with trips under a week long, it’s only a few days of hard. You focus, go wherever you need to go within yourself to do what needs to be done, and don’t stop moving until the captain says it’s time to stop. And for that, hopefully you make some good money, stay safe, and learn what your body and mind can endure when necessary.

Non-fishing friends shake their heads, wonder aloud why anyone would voluntarily put themselves through these demands, but it’s this pushing through and beyond my perceived limits that is precisely what I love about our work. New deckhands have to make the mental leap that fishing is a job where the harder you push yourself and the faster you work, the greater rewards you see. I’m hopeful that my work partner will understand that the faster we have everything cleaned, iced, re-baited, and scrubbed, the sooner we’ll be off our boots.


But right now, we’re in the midst of it, midway through our second set. Still an ocean away from being done. I slice, gut, and scrape my way through the pile, surreptitiously monitoring Ross’s process all the while. Cringing at the knife clutched in his hand as he awkwardly wrestles one wildly-thrashing halibut after another, I wonder how to explain the power of a fish that’s one massive muscle contorted with rage, fear, and survival instinct, and the urgency of handling halibut in the least disaster-prone manner possible. Whatever I’ve said so far doesn’t seem to have worked.

Sure enough, it’s not long before an angry 55-pounder thwacks him on the wrist. He jumps back, cradling right hand in left.

“Are you okay?” These three words have been bursting from my mouth several times a day.

He nods, looking at the fish with respectful eyes. “It’s like being hit with a baseball bat.”

The 2008 all-female crew, late night up to our armpits cleaning halibut.

When Ross and I begin baiting hooks in preparation for the next morning, the day’s end is close enough that I allow myself to start fantasizing about my bunk. We’ve soaked and hauled 2 sets. No major smash on either, we’ve chipped away perhaps a quarter of our quota today, a good training opportunity without ever being overwhelmed.

I’m quietly pleased with my crewmate’s work. His cleaning motions are slow but consistent, and he’s never stopped working. One moment’s stretch, gloved fists pressed into the small of his back, was the only indicator of the day’s demands. True to my Norwegian ancestors, stoicism impresses me.

I’m piercing a circle hook through a chunk of pollock, one eye on the fiery sun sinking into the horizon, when a new smell forces its way on deck. Unlike the usual looming odors of longlining, this one makes my mouth water immediately. “Oh my god, what are you making?” I call to the cabin.

In answer, Martin hollers out the galley window. “We don’t have any bay leaf or cardamom?”

Exasperated by his first venture into the spice cupboard, he grumbles adaptations to his recipe. Even in meal-making, a captain’s plans are constantly in flux.

It’s 10:00 when I study the deck. “That’s good, Ross.” All of the halibut, ling cod and yelloweye have been iced, 16 skates’ worth of baited hooks are draped over the cockpit, and the deck has been scrubbed. After 9 ½ hours on deck in constant motion, we’re done for the day. Tofu curry over rice, Extra-Strength Advil, and the bunks are calling us home, if only for a brief respite.

At the end of a long halibut day.

Going Green: Training New Longline Crew, Part 1

4 07 2011

We’re somewhere in the Southeast Gulf of Alaska right now, in the midst of our king salmon opening, so here’s a story from my May halibut fishing, brought to you by WordPress’s great scheduled-publishing option. “Going Green” was originally published May 19th on www.alaskawaypoints.com, in my column, “Southeast, Variable.”  This post has been slightly changed from the original.

Sunshine embraces a deep swell as we drift on our designated spot. We couldn’t ask for a better day to start this season’s first halibut trip, but the anticipation Martin and I feel is tempered with the anxiety of training Ross, a first-time longline deckhand.

We huddle up in the Charity’s cabin to discuss our game plan. We both have the historical perspective to appreciate how much easier our longlining experience is compared to the derby days, when halibut fishing was a free-for-all frenzy, 48- to 96-hour openings where you didn’t sleep, eat, or stop until it closed.  Compared to those days of lost boats and broken bodies, we’ve got it easy under today’s Individual Fishing Quota (IFQ) program. But we don’t talk about that. Deliberately severe, our tone is designed to convey this fishery’s gravity and risk to someone whose experience is limited to a couple troll seasons.  Parrot-like, we repeat, “Longlining is a different animal.”

Martin and I will snap on all of the gear, but I hand out sheathed red Vicky knives for everyone to wear at their waist. “If you ever get hooked, cut the gangion, not the groundline. If you cut the groundline and it’s the side that’s connecting you to the boat, that’s it – we can’t get you back until it’s too late.”

Deck full of gear, boxes full of bait.

Without a drum on board, we set from 55-gallon Rubbermaid tubs. Each tub contains one skate, 300 fathoms – 1800 feet – of coiled line. We have 16 skates on board, and will put out 2 sets, 8 skates each.  No old salt knot-tying skills required; Martin has spliced stainless quick links into the ends of all our skates. Ross will connect and monitor the line going out, so we put on our serious voices to discuss this job.

“Always, ALWAYS clip the bottom of the first skate to the top of the second, and so on. Double and triple check your work. This is beyond critical.”

Several moments later, Ross revisits this, a concerned furrow forging his brow. “What happens if, despite my best efforts, I hook them up the wrong way?”

The detailed answer involves explaining that we’ll suddenly have 1800 feet of line flying overboard in one massive, disastrous snarl, but our captain has a more succinct response, punctuated with a long, flat stare: “We’re fucked.”


Over the years, I’ve played deckboss on several friends’ boats. You’d think 7 years as a social worker might influence my training tactics, that I’d approach green crew with patient explanations, nonjudgmental correction, and empathy for the overwhelmingly foreign world they suddenly find themselves in. You’d be wrong. I’m a very good deckhand, but a terrible teacher.  Though the guys I’ve trained all became strong, competent crewmen, they had an unnecessarily hard, demanding classroom under my tutelage. Full of unfair expectations, I want to see things done Just So, and I want them done yesterday. I want alert eyes and quick hands, a clear mind that is obviously tracking what’s going on, a coworker who will observe how something’s done and then do it that way himself.

I might as well be compiling a wish list for an ocean-going Mary Poppins, with such impossibly unreasonable criteria for what makes a good crewmate, and have periodically shaken my head in self-disgust. Seriously, Tele? Does it really matter if he does it this way, instead of that? But moments of self-awareness don’t equate behavior change, and I suspect Ross is in for a steep learning curve.


For today’s training purposes, we put out only one set of 8 skates. “Makes my productivity sense twitch, but this is the right way to do it,” Martin sighs. As the saying goes, the only thing worse than not getting ‘em is getting ‘em, and if we set all 16 skates, Murphy’s Law would surely guarantee that we’d land on a major smash with one crewman who’s never cleaned a halibut.

In spite of the anxiety, setting goes smoothly. Covetous albatross croak hoarse complaints as baited hooks sink quickly out of sight and our bird avoidance gear streams parallel to the outgoing gear. Ross takes to his job quickly, calling warnings to us whenever the end of a skate approaches. The tension coiled in my belly loosens as I toss the flagpole overboard. “We’re fishin’!”

We're fishin'!

Cleared of tubs of gear and baited hooks, the deck sprawls like a skating rink. Slippery like one, too: Ross and I scrub the sheen of pollock oil and hose off smeared humpy guts, to the muttered delight of the fulmars treading water right beneath our scuppers, gobbling each morsel that flushes overboard. When everything has been properly set up for hauling (indeed, Just So), I give one final, critical survey. It passes, so raingear is peeled off and hung back up.

Martin shuts down the engine and says, “We’ll reconvene in 3 hours, have some lunch, then start hauling.” Bright sun paints the cabin walls, but we immediately head for our bunks, preparing for the intense go-go-go pace that’s just ahead. Before I can wonder too much about what our first set will bring, the sounds of water lapping at the hull next to my head and the hen-like clucking of seabirds lullaby me to a sound sleep.

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