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





The Nerka’s First Seabound Sunrise of 2012

1 07 2012

Surprise, friends!

Happy July 1st – opening day of 2012’s first summer king salmon opening. If all’s as it should be today, Cap’n J leapt out of the bunk at 2:30 this morning, unable to contain himself a moment longer. Right now the good ship Nerka is hopefully slowly dragging her hooks through exactly the right spot of Southeast Alaska’s coastal waters, on a pleasant ocean, with lots of beautiful wild Alaskan king salmon to keep us busy.

Unless something goes terribly awry with the boat or us, we won’t be back to shore until after this opening closes – likely 8 to 10 days from now – so I can’t offer any current updates on how it’s looking out there. What I can do, thanks to WordPress’s handy scheduled publication option, is share a different first morning with you. The video below is from April 3, when Cap’n J and I headed out to Sitka Sound for our first day of winter king fishing. For two weeks, we had an amazing time; weather-wise, it was the best April that veteran winter king  trollers could remember. We’re ruined forever, left with a starry-eyed fantasy that it’ll surely be just as pleasant next year.

Hope you’re doing well, friends. If you want to follow our weather conditions, visit NOAA’s marine weather. It’s an enormous coast, but we’ll be somewhere in the midst of the Dixon Entrance and Cape Fairweather forecasts. Best wishes to you all.





Solstice: Not a Fisherman’s Longest Day

26 06 2012

Funny how the recent weeks shrank as the days lengthened. After a spring of Sitka decadence, June dashed by. Seemingly overnight, Cap’n J and I are on the cusp of our 2012 salmon season. I wanted to tell you what we’ve been up to as we prepare to leave the dock, but in truth, I could just repost last June’s “Chasing Kings” and none of us – me included – would know the difference. Contrary to the nonstop drama of commercial fishing reality shows, a “same shit, different season” monotony is more often our industry’s true foundation.

Every year, the summer troll season opens on July 1. As the harbor buzz gets louder – sanders, grinders, and butt-rock whining over the water – our fleet’s peculiar homogeneity is evident. We’re all following the same preparatory checklists, while knotted in the same tangle of emotions. “23 seasons and every year I wonder what the next season will bring,” another troller texted me yesterday. “Nervous, excited, dread, exhausted, boredom, thankful, conflated. That about sums it up.”

Our season begins with a carefully monitored king salmon opening. We’ll leave Sitka on the 27th to get into position – a destination yet to be decided. Where will this year’s big smash be? With only an expected 8 to 10 days for this high stakes opening, there’s no room for error. Cap’n J would be the first to tell you that he’s starting to freak out.

“I had my first king salmon dream last night,” he told me over coffee the other day, a feverish glint in his eyes. “We had over 200 kings the first day. We always have over 200 kings the first day in my dreams.”

He’s got big dreams, my king salmon-crazed sweetheart. For non-fishing friends, 200 kings in a day is a very, very good day. Dream-worthy, in fact. We trollers handle each fish one at a time. Hook and line caught, they’re individually landed, bled, cleaned, and handed down to our -38 degree fish hold to blast-freeze. Two hundred black-gummed beauties? We’d never stop moving, never leave the deck, and hopefully scarf a granola bar breakfast sometime before noon. We’d fall into our bunk as adrenaline-overdosed zombies, and wake up four hours later hoping to do it all again.

Like all fishermen, we labor to prepare for what’s in our control, while bracing for inevitable surprises. (Last year it was weather. We made the best of it, turning Easterly 25 into an epic Lituya Bay beach party, as “From Fish-able to Festivity” shared.) Joel’s been tying gear until his fingers swell. I scrubbed the fish hold to a sterile shine, all set to receive opening day’s first load, and made a new door latch to keep the dorm-sized fridge from flying open on a wave. We’ve double-checked our survival gear and run both the engines, assuring ourselves that everything’s purring as it should be. I’ll fill the Nerka’s 250 gallon water tank right before we go, and we took fuel the other day. (Next time you’re feeling pained at the gas station, imagine 846 gallons of diesel.)

I only touched up our copper bottom paint this year, resulting in a two-toned patchwork that visibly pained the neighboring skippers. Sorry, guys – $162/gallon!

I knew things were getting serious when we sat down to make our grocery list. After fishing together for seven years, we’ve got a set meal rotation. Tofu pad thai on the first night out, before the bean sprouts go bad. Fake meat tacos. Lots of fish and rice. A couple frozen lasagnas for the nights we’re too busy to cook. Tuna casserole on day 12, when we’re down to just canned stuff.

Dinners were easy enough, but lunch had us stumped. We stared at each other across the table. “What the hell do we eat for lunch?” Joel asked. “Why can’t we remember?”

I reached for the computer. “I’ll ask the Facebooks… See what other folks do.”

A thread of good suggestions ensued – stew, loaded baked potatoes, and the ever-popular Stuff in Tortillas. Then a fisherman friend identified the root of our amnesia. “Lunch? You don’t remember because you don’t eat lunch when the kings are biting.”

Oh yeah…

A glorious sunset washed over the harbor at 10:30 on summer solstice, but our friend’s comment reminded me that our longest days of the year are still ahead, looming on the calendar’s next page. When the Nerka exits the breakwater, life will change. For the next three months, Cap’n J and I will embrace our most driven, compulsive selves. Up with the 3:00 dawn, to bed with the 11:00 twilight. Staying out until the hold is full, running to town to deliver those fish, practicing our best “turn and burns” – pushing ourselves to get back out as quickly as possible.

Not a schedule that facilitates very frequent – or eloquent – posts. We’ve had some powerful conversations here recently (like this one, and this), but Hooked’s updates will likely be more postcard than lengthy letter for the coming months. I’ll stockpile the stories, keep you in my good thoughts, and look forward to being back in touch.

Be safe and be well, friends – thanks for being here.





From Fish-able to Festivity: The Changing Face of the Fleet

19 08 2011

Any fisherman worth his or her salt water knows there are no guarantees in this business. From beached loved ones craving a stone-solid return date, to green deckhands already calculating the crewshare on fish not yet caught, how often have we explained inherent uncertainties? But years of experiencing the same maddening pattern has taught us that one thing is a take-it-to-the-bank given: After weeks of Variable 10’s, glassy June seas, you can count on the weather turning to shit just in time for the July 1st Chinook troll opening.

Our first few days were those grimly known as “fish-able.” Wind with teeth, Easterly 25, and a sharp-stacked Southeast lump that kept us perpetually clenched in its trough. Stuff stored on the roof launched overboard. I buckled into a rarely-called-into-duty life vest. Wedged into a corner of the bunk, Bear the Boat Cat glared balefully, surely wishing she’d been left in her kennel at the Sitka pound all those years ago. Not fun, but definitely fish-able for a young couple who’d overdone it with a winter of dinero-devouring boat projects.

Bear isn't a fan of "fish-able" days.

We’re motivated to fish tougher this season, sure, but let’s be real: this is the Southeast troll fleet, not Deadliest Catch. So when the forecast deteriorated to two days of gales, Cap’n J and I made a beeline for Lituya Bay. (If that bee’s line was a spray-saturated UpDownSLAMcrash-ridden trek, that is.) The last boat across the bar before the tidal-dictated door closed for the night, we fell into frazzled sleep minutes after the anchor was dogged.

Chaos on the ocean, peaceful oasis in Lituya Bay.

Over the next day, the bay filled with trollers who’d fled every corner of the Fairweather Grounds, including one of the fleet’s elite. An iconic steel beauty, she was on her final trip with the highliner couple who’ve treasured her for over twenty years. Another fisherman had put his money down and the paperwork was complete, but their negotiation was firm: They would fish their baby for one last king opening.

These folks spent their career as reluctant parade masters. Couldn’t shift their tack three degrees without a cavalcade of tag-alongs immediately adjusting course to match. The final trip of beloved community members would require equal attention and hoopla.

“A day like this calls for a beach party,” declared one of our partners. His eldest daughter set off in their skiff, the official taxi service for the festivities. Chronically underestimated by those who don’t see the tough spirit within petite, Swede-pretty packaging, she cranked the Johnson from idle to wide open, rocketing around the harbor with quiet control that belied the outboard’s roar.

One skiff-full at a time, it wasn’t long before the bay’s pristine shoreline was hosting a rager. Four code groups represented, members mingled amiably over a 5 gallon bucket full of Rainier, freshly-caught shrimp, and a fifth of Jose Cuervo direct from one captain’s winter in Mexico. A vat of seafood chowder balanced over the beach fire. As the number of partygoers exceeded the available bowls and spoons, the few we had became communal, scraped clean and passed on to the next person. We ate smoked black cod dripping with oil and gooey-frosted chocolate cake from our fingers, then licked them clean.

It was hard to believe folks could be so casual, forced to take a day off at the start of our time-limited, high-stakes opening, but as one fisherman observed, “Crap weather, crap fishin’…Might as well enjoy our lifestyle.”

Just a quarter of the Sitka sneakers ashore that day. (Photo by Angela Amos)

An intense transition is happening within the Southeast troll fleet right now, as one generation phases out and another steps up. Fishermen I grew up viewing as extended family, pseudo-uncles and aunts who kept a watchful eye on dock rat boat kids, are placing hand-lettered “For Sale” signs in their cabin windows. I’ve rarely seen the changing of the fleet as clearly evidenced as it was on the beach that day. Young skippers joked with the deckhands from whose ranks they were only recently removed, while old timers circled together, marked by the wide-legged stance of men who’ve spent decades urging their bodies to hold fast against the sea. Watching our elders reminisce, knowing gatherings like this would become leaner each season and we would never regain their history and knowledge, I wished the force of their shared memories could stop the relentless passage of time.

History you can't replace, among this bunch.

But when the beer bucket contained only empties and the glacial silt-heavy shore had been reworked into boot-sucking quick mud, the clock began ticking again. The taxi service fired back up. Boats who’d rafted together peeled apart, and trolling poles unfurled like wings. With the forecast giving the go-ahead, rejuvenated trollers streamed back to work the next morning. After all, as Joel and I jokingly remind each other, “We are here to catch fish and make money.”

Midway into the afternoon, we realized we hadn’t seen that legendary boat back on the drag. Turned out her owners had headed back to town. They’d caught enough to fill their freezer for the winter, and truly, how do you follow up the biggest retirement beach party in recent history? So this one’s for you two – you know who you are – with gratitude for your years, from the protective eye you kept on the boat kids of yesteryear, to waving a friendly hand on the tack to the new skippers of today. Enjoy the novelty of a summer ashore, until we see you again. A spot on the drag is waiting, yours to rightfully reclaim, aboard whatever vessel brings you back.

The party over, taking the taxi home.








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