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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