Scenes of King Salmon Trolling (Part 1)

25 08 2012

Hi friends. We’re in the midst of Southeast Alaska’s second (and last) king salmon opening, trudging through Day 14. It’s been a rough one – beautiful weather negated by coast-wide poor catch rates, far from the season’s salvation that so many fishermen had hoped for. I’ve been looking back to July’s first king opening with nostalgia.

*****

Late June. I am lingering over a cup of coffee at the Backdoor Café, exchanging goodbyes and good wishes to local friends. Yep, leaving in the morning for the king opening, see you in a few weeks. A nearby woman overhears. She asks me to watch her science fiction paperback for a moment, then heads out the door.

When she returns a few minutes later, she plucks a small golden icon from her dress pocket, extends her hand to mine. “This is for you. Saint Nicholas keeps women and men at sea safe. Be careful out there, and come back to us.”

*****

Cap’n J and I always imagine we’ll leave town a few days before the July 1 opening. We fantasize a leisurely idle out to the fishing grounds, breaking the 18-hour run into several days, even sparing time to do something fun along the way. Between last-minute mechanical gremlins and the greedy distractions of town, it never happens that way.

Until this year. The Nerka eases into mist-shrouded Bertha Bay on the evening of the 28th, joining one of our favorite boats, the Kathleen Jo. Jeff is another young captain, a fellow boat kid who grew up to take the reins of his childhood summer home. Arriving a few hours ahead of us, “Captain Picnic” and his deckhand have already started blissfully pruning in White Sulphur Hot Springs, but skiff-master Derak jumps out to ferry us in. We sink into the scalding bath carved out of stone and gaze through the layers of rain, wondering aloud whether the coming days will bring glory or despair.

*****

On the 30th, we run all day to reach our destination, charging 40 miles off-shore straight into the Gulf of Alaska. The sea is quiet. Scanning with the binoculars, we see flocks of sea birds paddling serenely along the glassy surface. “Damn, there’s a lot of birds here!” Joel says. Fulmers, storm petrels, shearwaters, albatross… It’s as if they’re anticipating tomorrow’s opening day as anxiously as we are, eager for salmon entrails flung to waiting beaks. We trade hopeful grins; this visible link of the food chain bodes well for us.

Joel throttles back in a spot of ocean that, on the surface, appears no different from any of the surrounding blue. The differences lie beneath, and he is acutely aware of them all. He shuts the main engine off, but the auxiliary, running our fish hold freezer, growls without pause. Except for brief reprieves in town after the fish are safely delivered, this diesel drone is a relentless soundtrack to every freezer troller’s season.

*****

Day One. The alarm sounds at 2:30. We roll straight out of the bunk and into the fish clothes laid out the night before – scrubby sweatpants and thrift store hoodies, sleeves rigid with multiple seasons of salt and slime. As if no time has passed since we last did this, our bodies immediately slip into the repetitive steps of a bloody ballet.

The day doesn’t live up to my sweetheart’s fantasy, but it’s good all the same. We take turns running into the cabin to shovel spoonfuls of pasta salad into our mouths, then find a school of night biters – kings that climb onto our gear until sunset’s lingering echo is long silent. Flipping on the deck lights, I fumble through the final scrub-down, erasing every gory crime scene splash to begin fresh the next day.

It’s 11:30 when we peel off our boots and fall back into the bunk. Reaching for the clock, Joel mumbles, “Gonna sleep in tomorrow.”

“Three o’clock?”

“Three fifteen.”

*****

Day Two. With less than a four hour nap, we wake to find the Nerka lolling in almost the same spot of ocean we’d shut down in. No need to run to a fishing spot, our hooks are in the water by 3:30. The first king salmon hits the deck before 4:00, and the day officially begins.

Despite the extra 15 minutes of sleep, we’re zombies today. By mid-morning, Joel retrieves pints of Ben & Jerry’s from the fish hold. “We’re gonna crash so hard from this,” he says around a spoonful of Bonnaroo Buzz.

I swallow a -38 degree shard of New York Super Fudge Chunk. “Sleep deprivation, adrenaline, and massive sugar overload… We are fuuuucked up, buddy.”

Loose stuff on a boat is a bad idea, and ordinarily I’m a stickler for keeping things in their right home. But by the end of the day, I stop putting the Ibuprofen away between doses. The Costco-sized bottle squats on the table, as familiar a centerpiece as the fists in my back. Petulant at being forgotten over these past eight months, old aches and pains demand attention. Oh yes, I remember you…

*****

Day Three. Joel spends most of the day in the cabin, fingers of his right hand taped together, a bag of frozen peas and carrots slowly melting on swollen knuckles.

This is a sudden, startling turn of events. Midway through the previous day, as we’d stood side-by-side in the cockpit, gutting kings in unison, Cap’n J began inhaling sharply with each slice and scrape. “It feels like there’s ground-up glass in my knuckles.”

Today he can’t wield a knife without lightning bolts of pain shooting through his right hand. Thanks to a few lucky decisions, this is one of the best king salmon days Cap’n J and I have had together. Of course it is. I handle the deck, dashing between running the lines, landing fish, cleaning fish, preparing them for the fish hold, while frustration and fear stain my sweetheart’s face. What kind of rebellion is his body staging? And what kind of future does a fisherman have, without his hands?

*****

Day Four. Team Nerka is a mess.

The 3:15 alarm drags me out of dreams – nightmares – that I haven’t yet fallen asleep. Joel’s hands continue to shriek in protest. Mine do, too, after hours of hauling giant ling cod to the surface. Aquatic dragons with fanged five-gallon buckets for mouths, they grimace and snarl as I struggle to release their hooks, then dive back to the depths with a thankless smack of the tail.

When I duck into the cabin for a cup of tea, Joel shakes his head at me from the pilot seat. “This sucks, dude. I’ve never wished for a gale during the king opening before, but I sure could use a harbor day.”

Only Bear seems unfazed. She spends all day in the fo’c’sle, curled in a tight ball beneath our sleeping bags. This is out of character, and by mid-afternoon we’re anxious – is our cat okay? When she finally bounds up the stairs and stretches leisurely in the cabin, Joel and I have been up and working for 12 hours, with another seven yet to go. I swear that’s a smug smile under her whiskers.

*****

Stand by, friends – to be continued whenever we’re next in town. Until then, best wishes to you all.





Celebrating at Sea: King Salmon, Graduation, and a Birthday

11 08 2012

Curses! I thought this one was scheduled to publish on August 11, but apparently didn’t quite get it set up right in the flurry to leave town. Please put yourself back in time 9 days, friends, and thanks for your patience with in-season difficulties.

Today’s a big day, friends.

Starting today, Southeast Alaskan trollers get our second – and last – chance this season to land on the Chinook motherlode. Many of you know from previous posts what serious business these king salmon openings are; this August shot at redemption is no different.

As you read this, the Nerka will be bobbing around out there somewhere.  Story-wise, last year’s August 15 opening will be hard to top. The weather was among the toughest Cap’n J and I have fished, nasty winds and stacked seas battering Southeast. Farther up the coast, most of our fishing partners anchored up by mid-morning, resigned to sitting out the first day. Churning seas threw a friend across his cockpit; he spent the remainder of the three-day opening nursing a cracked rib. Not an easy day, but so very worth it: abundant and ravenous, king salmon climbed the gear, grabbing hooks as soon as we put them back into the water.

I’m hoping the seas will be a bit more benign this year.

We enter this opening with high hopes, imagining triumphant rejoicing on the other side. But there are pretty major celebrations here at the starting line, too. Today is an important day for two of my most beloveds, and that’s what I’d really like to share with you.

It’s a relief and a joy when your closest friends end up with partners that you love, people you can develop your own closeness with. That’s how I feel about my “brother” Marlin’s wife Sara. We got to know each other best while longlining together on Marlin’s boat, bonding through sleep deprivation, seasickness, and physical exhaustion. Though she’d never spent time at sea before, Sara quickly cemented herself as one of the best people I’ve crewed with.

At sea or on land, Sara’s one of my favorite people to spend time with, but I’ve barely seen her over the past two years. She enrolled in an intensive nursing program, committing wholeheartedly to her studies, and today is her graduation. A gifted communicator and one of the most empathic, insightful, genuine people I know, I can’t think of a more naturally gifted caregiver.  Sweet Sister Sara, I’m so very proud of and inspired by you. We’ll be cheering for you from the blue. M’bruk!

And the other celebration? Today is Cap’n J’s birthday! Thanks to some particularly serendipitous scheduling from the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, he’s ushering in his 30’s while catching king salmon. Far better than anything I could wrap up in paper, the opportunity to chase king salmon is pretty much the best birthday present he can imagine.

In last year’s birthday post, I shared the story of how we met. I wrote about how proud I am of the captain he’s become. That’s still true. I’m also moved by the evolution of our relationship.

Our beginning seasons were rough. As Joel struggled to make the transition from carefree deckhand to liable skipper, I wrestled with my own baggage around being “the girlfriend” on board. Miscommunications and bruised emotions were frequent in those days; I’ve only recently realized how far we’ve come.

When we pointed the Nerka towards Sitka last month, on our 15th day at sea together, I turned to Joel with surprise. “I’m not sick of you yet.”

He smiled back. “I’m not sick of you either! I’m still totally in love with you.”

“Ditto. Pretty cool, that we can spend 15 days in our own universe and still feel content and willing to continue.”

“I don’t even want to go to town yet,” he said. “If we didn’t have to go in, I could stay out and be perfectly happy still.”

For ocean-going folks, that sounded like one of the most authentic affirmations of our partnership. I don’t believe in soul mates, but I definitely believe in my shipmate. Happy birthday, buddy… I’m looking forward to spending this new decade with you.

Thanks for joining me in these celebrations, friends, and bearing with this love-fest. We’ve got an unusually high quota to catch this opening – almost 80,000 kings – so we’ll be out until we can’t wedge another one into the Nerka’s hold. Until next time, best wishes to you all, and for the fisherfolks among Hooked’s readers, stay safe and good luck out there.

Photo by Cap’n J





Through a New Troller’s Eyes: July’s King Opening

15 07 2012

It seems that my friend Marlin is destined  to have literary deckhands. After a string of memoirists and bloggers, one of this season’s hands is Paul, an MFA grad focused on creative writing and fiction.

Paul isn’t green: he’s crewed on another mutual friend’s gillnetter, and worked the slime line of a Southeast processing plant. But trolling is new – a different fishery, a different culture. Like so many of us who find our footing through writing, he hasn’t wasted any time in processing his experience on the page.

While I frittered this town time away with a blend of necessary chores and soul rejuvenating socializing, Paul got right to work. I found him in my favorite spot at the Backdoor Cafe – the highly coveted corner table “office.” Intent on his computer, he explained his project – a 1000-word piece about our king salmon opening, a new sort of “Blessing of the Fleet.”

Paul posted that piece on his blog that evening. I read it right away – jaw slightly agape, stunned at his ability to fictionalize our recent experience, creating new characters on recognizable boats, while maintaining absolutely authenticity to the core emotions, struggles, and rewards of our business. It’s a rich, sincere piece of creative writing that captures the heart of trolling beautifully. Do yourself a favor and read it.

Here’s the opening paragraph to pull you in:

“Opening day on the trolling grounds and a glassy ocean receives the fleet after their long, bucking ride up from Sitka.  Sometimes July on the Fairweather Grounds is like this, like old friends returning to each other. But this July there will be only three more days of good weather.  The other days it will blow. Westerlies, southwesterlies, white caps and swells, twenty five knots winds that come whipping off the open ocean through the trollers’ welded bait sheds making a sound like a locomotive humming in the near distance.  With the winds there is rain, there is usually rain even in calm seas. It does not storm, exactly, but mists, sometimes aggressively; it is never warm.”

Read the rest of “Blessing of the Fleet” here.

 

And that’s it for another few weeks, friends. Cap’n J and I are fueling up this morning, then heading back out for our first coho trip of the season. This is where the grind starts: we’ll stay out until the Nerka’s hold is full. Hopefully we’ll be back in touch in another 10 to 12 days. Until then, be safe and be well, friends. 

 

 





The Fish of our Labor: The Nerka Returns

13 07 2012

We’re back safe and sound, friends, and here they are – the first king salmon of our 2012 season!

We’ll take another day or two in Sitka before heading out to chase coho for the coming weeks, and I’m hoping to share some more detailed stories with you before we leave. Meanwhile, just wanted to let you all know we returned safely, and with a lot of gratitude. After a nine-day opening of mostly good weather, a well-behaved boat, excellent teamwork, and some very lucky calls on where to go, we’re feeling very fortunate. Thanks for your good wishes; hope all’s been good for you, too, over the past few weeks.








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