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.





The View From Sitka: Home

7 05 2011

We haven’t started fishing yet, but the good ship Charity’s captain and crew have officially entered the first sleep deprived delirium of our season. (It won’t be the last.) Just a quick update to let you know that we pulled into Sitka’s Eliason Harbor at noon today, and what a day it is… Every Sitka homecoming is special, but we couldn’t have asked for anything better than today’s glassy water, blue skies, and beaming sun. Feeling very blessed and thankful, through the sleep dep haze.

The trip north was generally uneventful, just the way we like it. Took a little longer than I’d predicted: we stopped each night in Canada for 4 to 5 hours, and had an 11 hour rest before crossing Dixon Entrance, waiting out 40 to 50 knot wind storm warnings. After crossing into Alaska, we ran day and night to make it here by today, to meet the second deckhand flying in and send home the friend who’d made the boat ride up with us. Only two all-nighters, but Martin and I are both zombies now, more than ready for a full night’s sleep with the relief of the engines off and the security of being tethered to the dock. The Charity did a beautiful job of getting us here safe and sound, as she always does.

Tomorrow we’ll borrow the flatbed truck from the fish plant to start loading all of our longline gear on board, with the hopes of heading out on our first halibut trip on Monday. There’s a good forecast to take advantage of, and we’re ready to get to work.  I’m too tired to explain the blissed-out relief and joy I’m feeling, so I’ll just let some photos do the storytelling this time.

Winding our way through Peril Straits at 5:20 AM, Sitka-bound.

Exiting Olga Strait, Sitka in sight.

Mt Edgecumbe supervising the homecoming.

Home.





F/V Charity, North to Alaska

29 04 2011

A mountain of unavoidable boat projects caused a few days’ delay, but I’m now reasonably certain that the good ship Charity will pull out of Seattle’s Fisherman’s Terminal today. As certain as a deckhand ever can be, that is. If a profession rooted in taking life can offer Buddhist teachings, it’s this: Let go of expectations and attachment, as captains reserve – and continually exercise – the right to change plans.

(I have a ways to go yet on realizing this lesson.)

The Charity's last night in Seattle, until fall 2011.

Had some excitement this week. If you read Hooked’s last post, you know I was pretty casual about packing for this trip. Saved it for my last night at home, tossed everything into a couple bags. I don’t expect to be on the Charity for more than a month, and the process is pretty formulaic. Boots, raingear, toiletries, a lot of fish clothes, a little of town clothes. (“Town clothes”: A T-shirt and Carhartts that haven’t been worn while fishing. That’s pretty classy for our crowd.)

While Martin did the Costco run, I prepared to gel-coat the head floor. At lunch, he’d said we’d likely stop in Bute Dale, a mystical ghost town several days into Canada. Century-old skeletons of houses and a long-abandoned cannery slide into the bay under the supervision of a massive waterfall and one lone caretaker, Lou.

My thoughts wandered as I wiped the floor down with acetone. Haven’t stopped in Bute Dale since the last time I fished with Martin…what, 6 years ago? Wonder what’s left of it. Bute Dale… Canada…Customs…Passport – NO PASSPORT!

I called Joel in panic-stricken disbelief. We were planning to leave in the next day, and not only had I forgotten to pack my required documentation for transiting through Canada, I didn’t have a clue where I’d put it. A bad surprise for anyone; extra mortifying for the family member known as the responsible, organized one.

Cap’n J saved the day. He calmed me down, refusing to play my “What if you can’t find it!” game. When he didn’t find it in any of my usual safe-keeping spots, he drove down to the Nerka, checked the binder of required documents on our boat. No dice. I jumped when the phone buzzed several hours later, and felt my shoulders sag when he said, “Found it.”

With that, things took a turn for the better. Joel had already planned a trip through Seattle for the next day, so he made a special delivery detour through Fisherman’s Terminal. We had a bonus last lunch together, a few more hugs and kisses goodbye, and I’m now legal to travel through Canada.  Whew.

We got fuel yesterday. Over $3500 of diesel. That’ll get us to Alaska; we’ll have to fuel up again in Sitka before we can go fishing. We’ve still got a few tasks today – groceries, running new anchor line on the winch, checking the survival suits. If you’d like to keep an eye on our trip, visit here and here for marine weather updates.  We’ll be heading up the Inside Passage, Seattle to Sitka, and expect a 5 to 6 day trip, barring any weather-related delays.

June 2010: Looking back on Washington water, heading into a great forecast.

When you next hear from the F/V Charity, we should be safely tethered to Sitka’s Eliason Harbor. If we pass on the dock, you’ll know me by the halibut-sized grin on my face. I’ll have made the first walk up to the Backdoor, Romeos fairly skipping over the sidewalk to get to that homecoming slice of Bernadette’s close-your-eyes-and-whimper-it’s-so-good pie. (See? So much for letting go of expectations.)

Until then, sweet reader, may you enjoy clear skies and safe seas in your life, as you embrace your own seasonal transitions.





From the Galley: Black Cod, Sitka-Style

7 04 2011

(This is Part 2 of a series on black cod, also known as sablefish.  For more about the fish itself and how it’s harvested, please visit Part 1, Seeking the Sustainable: Alaskan Black Cod.)

Our friend Jerry Dzugan is the director of the fantastic Alaska Marine Safety Education Association (AMSEA), a tireless advocate/teacher working to keep fishermen and other mariners safe. Fortunately for us, he’s equally enthusiastic about inviting friends over for dinner, and is a pro at cooking up Sitka’s natural bounty into healthy, delicious meals. I’ll be forever grateful to Jerry for introducing me to the joys of black cod and sharing this quintessential Sitka recipe.

Black Cod Marinade, Sitka-Style

1/2 c Yoshida’s teriyaki sauce

1/4 c apple cider vinegar

1/4 c orange juice (I prefer an orange, so we have fresh zest with the juice)

1 pound of black cod.  We use tips because that’s what we have; a fillet would produce equally delicious results.

My favorite kind of recipe - simple!

With the fish spread out in a shallow baking pan, we start by grating orange zest over the meat.  After that, we squeeze the juice into a bowl and mix in the Yoshida’s and vinegar. Pour the marinade over the fish and let it refrigerate for a while – “a while” meaning a couple hours to overnight, depending on your time frame.

When you’re ready to cook, prepare a skillet over medium-heat with a teaspoon or so of sesame oil and a little minced garlic.  We let the pan get fairly hot, so there’s a satisfying sizzle when you add the fish.  We pour a couple tablespoons of marinade in and put a lid on.  You should be able to flip it over at about 4 minutes in, and may want to add a bit more liquid.  After another 4 minutes or so, you’ll know it’s done when the meat flakes apart under a fork. Much of the marinade will have cooked off, leaving a heavier glaze behind.

Sizzlin' away...

Such a very simple recipe for something so delicious.  My favorite ways to serve these are equally simple: fish as above, rice, and some veggies, or tossing the fish in with stir-fried veggies and yakisoba noodles.  (Baby bok choy seems especially happy to be partnered with black cod.)  You’ll feel your body thank you for such a good meal!

As beautiful as it is delicious.

Black cod is a tremendously versatile fish that Americans have been missing out on.  Stay tuned for Part 3 of this series – black cod with miso soup.  If you’re still struggling with a cold, reluctant spring, as I am, that one goes out to you, sweet reader.





Seeking the Sustainable: Alaskan Black Cod

6 04 2011

It’s been almost 1 month since Alaska’s 2011 longline fishery opened. Maybe you’ve seen banners around your grocery’s seafood counter, promoting the sudden market availability.  “Fresh Alaska halibut is here!”

Lesser known among Americans is black cod (aka sablefish) which is also being fished right now. Japanese and European markets have been clamoring for black cod for decades, and domestic interest is increasing. These torpedo-shaped beauties saunter through the darkest depths of our Gulf waters, requiring gear set in up to 400 fathoms. Some perspective: walking that length from ocean surface to sea floor would be the equivalent of climbing three-quarters of the way up Mt. Edgecumbe, a strenuous day’s hike. Fishing in such depth places tremendous tension on the line, making this a higher-stress, higher-risk fishery than some others.

(Ten years later, I still remember the T-shirt a local fisherwoman was wearing in the P Bar – that’s Sitka’s Pioneer Bar, for those who haven’t been. Handmade, white letters blazing from a black background, it boasted, “Longliners do it deeper.”)

Snapping on baited "tube gear" on the mainline that's flying by. Very tense line, very tense crew.

Like halibut, black cod is managed by an Individual Fishing Quota (IFQ) system. Alaska’s longline fisheries are heavily-regulated and meticulously monitored, earning both of these species a “Best Choice” sustainability rating from SeaWatch’s Marine Stewardship Council.  The National Marine Fisheries System has an excellent summary of the black cod’s life history, habitat, management and sustainability.

Black cod might as well be black gold. A limited number of boats can participate in this fishery, and with deliveries earning close to $7 per pound, the competition for deckhand positions is December-gale fierce. Though I grew up in the fleet, I didn’t manage to land a spot on a longliner until I was in my late 20’s. I’d been squeezing salt water from my socks for over 2 decades before the first velvety bit of black cod melted on my tongue.

That first bite was instant love, but as with many things, love wasn’t enough. My freezer rarely contained this rich white meat. A deckhand doesn’t walk away with much take-home fish – particularly not at these prices. My world shifted when a friend introduced me to black cod tips.

Black cod are sold headed & gutted. The heads are chopped off by the processing plant, slated for disposal. Tips are a delicious nugget of meat nestled between the jaw and collar.  Too small and time-consuming to be lucrative for a business, they’re perfect for the local salvager who’s willing to dumpster dive for fish.

If you’re lucky enough to have a fisherfriend you can beg some black cod tips from, the sun is indeed shining on you, my friend.  Otherwise, check in with your local seafood store and consider splurging on a fillet.  It’s not cheap, but it’s a rich flavor where a small piece will provide monumental taste (along with high omega-3’s and other heart-related good-for-you’s.)

Please check back in for more of this series: in Part 2 I’ll share a marinade recipe that’s a Sitka classic, and we’ll share a tribute to our friends in Japan in Part 3, with a black cod miso soup recipe.  Meanwhile, best wishes to the men and women longlining out of Sitka, facing 13′ seas right now – stay safe, sweeties.

 








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