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.


You Never Forget Your First: Origins of a Fisherman

28 10 2011

The twenty-four hour daylight of Alaskan summers can allow a person to forget they’re in the 61st latitude, with the round-the-clock rays that foster 1200 pound pumpkins, 120 pound cabbages, and perpetually pants-less three year old children.

That day was no different. Clad in a T-shirt, underpants, and socks, I squatted amongst the construction rubble of our backyard, happily brrmbrrmbrrm-ing a yellow toy tractor over cement chunks.

Grandpa Jim’s truck lumbered down the drive with a gravel-chewing crunch, and I ran to greet him. The turquoise sock on my left foot slithered south, while the white one on my right held its northern course.

Grandpa heaved himself loose from the steering wheel and swung me up into a hug. He was a darker version of himself – a man in black that day, shirt sleeves to rubber boots. His trademark rainbow suspenders were missing – not right for a day on the river, perhaps.

(As an adult, I will see rainbow-striped suspenders hanging limply in a store, or strapped against a stranger on the street, and they will murmur gruff assurances of safety and love. Part of me will want to scoop my arms full and head for the cashier, and my feet will miss a step, tempted to follow the stranger home.)

A broad grin split Grandpa’s face as he shifted me to his hip. “Got something to show you.”

At the back of the truck, he set me down and opened the bed. He reached in, then straightened up with a soft grunt. My eyes widened.

The fish hanging from his curled fingers was taller than I was. Gills and guts still intact, a weary rivulet of useless crimson eased down the curve of its belly, to drip from the tail to the ground between us.

“What do you think of that?” Grandpa asked, pride bursting as clearly as his forearm  muscles.

I didn’t know what to think. Circling curiously, I tilted my head back to peer into unseeing eyes. The black mouth gaped skyward, wide as my grandpa’s grin. With a single finger, I skated the slime coat down its broad back, the unfamiliar texture mermaid supple and riverstone smooth. Chinook scent filled the air.

“What is it?”

His laugh was belly-deep and not unkind. “This is a king salmon.”

Thirty years later, I will have harvested thousands of king salmon, more than my grandpa could have dreamed of, his hands twitching cat-like on an imaginary rod and reel. I will struggle with what it means to make a living off of killing. I’ll whisper apologies to fish gasping for the sea and stroke their sides, tracing scales of emerald, amethyst and opal. I’ll watch the flat aluminum of death swallow their rainbow.  And with every unmistakable whiff of king salmon, some small, dimly-lit closet of forgotten memories will shine with the echoes of my grandpa’s pride.

Grandpa Jim, Little Tele, and the First King

Thanks, Maestra Laura Kalpakian and the Tuesday night “Memory into Memoir” class, for this recent homework: to write a short memoir scene out of a photo. For the writers amongst you, this is a great exercise. I wouldn’t have thought to explore this moment without the assignment.

A Word After Kings: Wrapping Up the July Opening

16 07 2011

I’m cheating with this one, sweeties.  After our 12 day king salmon opening, my written voice is as stiff as my hands, and our imminent return to sea has no leeway for an awkward post that can’t hit its stride in a timely manner.

The short update is this. Yes, we were briefly back in Sitka. Yes, we got lucky. After a steady string of dismal July king openings, it’s a welcome change to wrap up with gratitude instead of despair. In spite of some challenging weather, we enjoyed ourselves, the beautifully-behaving boat, and even some decent numbers of fish. Neither of us were really ready to quit when it closed on Tuesday night – pretty much the opposite of our standard scene, where we struggle to hold everything together to the end and are desperate to slam the door on this high-stakes opportunity.

Yesterday was a blur of delivering fish, fueling up and changing oil on both engines, cleaning the fish hold, doing laundry and getting 16-day past due showers, and catching up with friends. Today offered more frenzy: groceries, refilling the water tank, getting rid of our recycling, sticking a pile of bills in the mail. Folks often think that our time on the water must be such hard work, but I’ve come to realize that being in town and preparing to go fishing is far more exhausting that the fishing itself.

I’d intended to trade the narrative storytelling for the photographic, this time around. Got some fantastic photos of the Nerka in action from one of our partners, and had hoped to share a little slideshow in place of the words. But uploading even one picture is too much for the meager internet connection I’ve managed to find here. “Here” is a glossy-veneered blond picnic table incongruously plopped down on the edge of the harbor parking lot. It’s quarter after 11, and the sky has finally passed through indigo to deepen into Southeast Alaska’s mid-July not-quite-dark. It’s a still, overcast evening, with the smell of a light sprinkle just on the other side of the clouds, perhaps. I’m looking out at the harbor that’s still heavily steepled with trolling poles, knowing that the exodus will begin tomorrow.

It’ll begin with us. The clock is already set for 5 a.m., when we’ll untie and start the search for coho that will dictate most of our next 8 weeks. Cap’n J and I are pretty fired up this year – driven – so we’re eager to get a jump on this first coho trip. They’re small this early in the season, and it will take a lot of them to fill even the Nerka’s modest fish hold. If we get lucky and land on ‘em, we could be back to the dock in 10 days or so. Hopefully we’ll have a better report for you with that turn-around. Until then, calm seas and clear skies to you. Be well, all.


Chasing Kings: Southeast Alaska’s Summer Troll Season

28 06 2011

The Nerka is moored on New Thomsen’s 4th finger, a trek to the ramp that typically takes my short legs a 4 minute march. But the harbor is a different neighborhood than it was a week ago, and Cap’n J and I now incorporate a half-hour buffer – at least – for clearing the conversational gauntlet up the dock.

The harbor pulses with anticipation and anxiety. Local boats have off-loaded their halibut/black cod gear and rigged up for salmon, exchanging skates of groundline for a rainbow palette of spoons (metal lures) and hoochies (plastic squid-like lures of every imaginable color combination). December is 6 months away, yet a repetitive chorus of “Season’s greetings!” rings through the air. At each finger, we exchange hugs and how-was-your-winter updates. It’s a familiar transition back into this culture of seasonal friendships, decades-old relationships that receive only several months a year of real-time face-time. After the pleasantries, each conversation returns to the focus on everyone’s mind right now: “Well, are you all set?”

The hot hoochies of 2007. (Insert your own bad joke here.)

The Southeast Alaska summer troll season opens for king salmon on Friday, July 1st, and according to Fish & Game’s prediction, we should have 8 to 12 days to catch our quota. The past few days saw trollers from Washington, Oregon and California pulling through the breakwater, one after another. Their fisheries have suffered devastating losses, while Alaska’s waters continue to swell with healthy runs. Meticulously managed, Alaska’s wild salmon stocks support fishing families from all along the West Coast.

Few outsiders imagine the depth of regulation that Alaskan commercial fishermen experience. There will always be those who grouse about state and federal oversight, but this is supervision that I choose to take comfort in, viewing it as a concerted effort to protect our livelihood and honor natural resources.  Alaska Trollers Association, our industry advocates since 1925, works closely with the Alaska Department of Fish & Game to ensure we’ll make a living today, while taking care that we’ll still be able to do so tomorrow. It’s this effort that gives me a clear(er) conscience, a response for non-fishing friends who express uncertainty about their love of seafood. “I thought salmon were endangered… Is it really okay to eat them?”

(In a word: Yes.)

Coho fillets for winter meals

After Hooked’s last post, my dad remarked upon its theme of gratitude, that it wasn’t a value he’d observed in the fleet 25 years ago. Every generation has had members for whom the role of harvester includes an accompanying sense of stewardship, those determined to keep this lifestyle available to future generations. But I agree there’s been a cultural shift. These days, more of us articulate our pride in feeding people, being responsible for the highest quality food we can produce. Rather than lingering in doom-and-gloom predictions that our industry’s days are numbered, more dockside conversations mull over legislation and advocacy. Our collective consciousness slowly evolves, expands, and sustainability become less the language of Lefties and more an obvious necessity to our profession.

There’s a bottom line most of us can agree on: this is a life we love. As our friend Sean sums up, “I’ll fish until I don’t.” Most of us would rather delay the “until I don’t” for as long as possible.

A kiss of thanks for this 48-pounder

As I write this, my gaze drifts to the Kettleson Library windows. (My favorite library anywhere, and damn, what a view.) It’s a misty day in Sitka, with a white shroud settled over the water and the kind of rain that doesn’t seem so insistent as it’s falling, but your clothes feel like they’re fresh out of the washing machine by the time you finally make it back to the harbor. A troller just pulled out of Crescent Harbor, heading for their destined hot spot. The exodus has started, the harbors that so recently swelled to capacity thinning out just as quickly.

Us, we’ll get groceries this evening, fill up the water tank, and mosey out of town tomorrow. You can follow our weather here, by clicking on the giant purple section in the middle. I can’t tell you where we’re going… Fishermen are a closed-mouth bunch, and though the same information eventually filters to all of us, we like to pretend that our destinations are a big mystery. One of Hooked’s friends explained his strategy like this:

For the July opener we always follow this exact plan:

We always head south of town, unless we decide to go north,

or we might go deep, or we might leave early, or we might go late,

and (depending upon where we think everyone else is headed)

we might do the opposite of everyone,

unless we decide to follow them and do the same.

And that pretty much sums up trollers.  Good luck out there, friends, and stay safe.  We’ll check with you on the other side of the opening.

F/V Juanita C at sunset, 11:10 pm, 2007

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