“Wait… Wait… Done!” On Going Fishing after 18 Days at the Dock

30 05 2012

Marlin, Joel and I spent the first half of May waiting to go halibut fishing.

Just getting to our destination, a shallow plateau over 40 miles offshore, required more than a day’s run. We’d been watching for a four to five day weather window that never appeared, a steady barrage of gales keeping us pinned to the dock for a record 18 days. I started to feel a little embarrassed by my near-residence in the Backdoor Cafe.

Finally, we couldn’t stand it anymore. Our captain studied the online weather chart. It showed two days of “fish-able,” immediately followed by more angry red churning across the Gulf, a windbag’s hasty breath between pontificating.

Marlin sighed. “Well, the weather looks fucking horrendous. Usually we’d sit at the dock through that, but we’re not gonna do that anymore. We’re gonna go for a very expensive cruise, and maybe we’ll end up catching some fish.”

Not much of an endorsement of our departure plans, but after investing in fuel, bait, and groceries, it was time to go. The sea that greeted us wasn’t welcoming. We crashed through steel gray walls, white spray pummeling our windows. Blue tin plates frisbee’d across the cabin and clattered to the floor. The cat began licking her lips, then threw up.

Unhappy boat cat…

After five hours of this, we ducked into a protected anchorage. And when our captain nosed out in 3 AM’s dawning light, we found a new day, a new ocean. We heaved collective sighs of relief, tensed muscles slowly relaxing with the hull’s gentle bounce.

The thing about having low expectations is that it’s easy to be happily surprised. Unsure that we’d get any fishing time, Joel and I hadn’t dreamed we’d be shin-deep in halibut the next day. We cleaned madly, guts and gonads flying into the fierce beaks of black-footed albatross. When we finally hosed off our gory raingear and stumbled into the cabin for dinner, Joel gaped at the clock. “Is it really 1:30 in the morning?”

Swimming in halibut, I stuff each fish’s belly with ice before stowing them safely in bins.

Building on that day’s momentum, the trip just kept getting better. We spent two days anchored in Lituya Bay, a dream-like oasis on a brutal coastline, stuffing ourselves with shrimp as our bodies recovered and the weather passed. We left the Bay in a haze of déjà vu: countertops cleared and apologies whispered to Bear, we braced for stormy impact, only to find a glassy calm on the other side of the bar.

The boys at the hauler, waiting to see what comes up from the depths below.

Two days later, we slogged back towards Sitka in a collective glow of disbelief, gratitude, and sleep deprivation. The boat sat comfortably low in the water, the fish hold full of generously iced halibut, black cod, ling cod, and yelloweye. Trading wheel watches and weary grins, we dared to speculate that we’d caught all of our quota – that if all our poundage estimates were on target, our longline season was complete.

“This is what’s so amazing about longlining,” our captain reflected. “We just sat around for almost 3 weeks, and then we’re done in four days of actual work. With our quota down so much, the actual fishing doesn’t take any time at all if everything goes right and we get lucky.”

Marlin raised a jelly jar glass. “To a perfect trip, with just the right crew. It couldn’t have been better.”

Indeed. It’s not very often that I get to go to sea with two of my best friends. Thank you, boys, for a safe, productive, fun longline season – it was a pleasure!

Do you have favorite recipes for halibut or halibut cheeks? I’d love to hear how you most enjoy these amazing fish.

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Walking Home: An Alaska Book Week Review

24 09 2011

Alaska Book Week is almost here! October 8-15; more info here. Join Hooked in celebrating ABW from wherever you are, by cozying up with one of Alaska’s many talented authors. This is a review of one of my favorites.

Packing for halibut fishing last May was pretty simple. Longlining’s fast pace and grueling hours equate to minimal down time that is best spent sleeping. Practicing great restraint for someone who usually packs more reading material than clothing, only one book went into my sea bag: Walking Home, by Lynn Schooler.

Winner of the 2010 Banff Mountain Festival John Whyte Award for Mountain Literature

As soon as the gear was set, we retired to our bunks for a 2 hour nap. I nestled into my sleeping bag, book in hand. If I’d wanted to prioritize sleep, this was a mistake: Walking Home captivated me from the first page.

The back flap reads, “Lynn Schooler has recently lost a dear friend and feels his marriage slipping away when he sets out into the wilderness to clear his head. His perilous solo expedition – first by boat, then on foot – takes him along one of the world’s wildest coastlines, being battered by the elements, fording a swollen river, and, for several harrowing hours, becoming a grizzly bear’s quarry.

But this barren landscape is also rich with human stories – of trappers, explorers, marooned sailors, and hermits, as well as the myths of the regions Tlingit Indians. Paying tribute to these lives at a lonesome turning point in his own, Schooler aspires to understand what it means to be not only part of nature’s web, but also a member of a human community in the flow of history.”

Though Schooler “set off into the wilderness,” Walking Home is no Into the Wild. Alaskans have little patience for Hollywood-ized stories of poorly-planned jaunts into nature. True to his forty years’ experience in Alaska, Schooler’s precautions were meticulous and humbling. This is someone I’d leave the dock with, I thought. That trust in the individual allowed me to trust the author, losing myself in his gorgeous prose.

Schooler’s geographical subject, Lituya Bay, is a favored oasis of fishermen, a place particularly close to my heart. Close in physical proximity, too: at the time of my reading, we were 40 miles offshore, gazing eastward to the very coastline he trekked. His historical research was as extensive as his personal preparation, weaving several centuries of stories with his own.

Though the region’s history and his adventure are fascinating, it was Schooler’s internal journey that truly resonated with me. His voice sounded familiar – the tone of so many men in this fleet, an entire generation selfless with their knowledge and time, keeping inner tumult as firmly guarded as a hot fishing spot. Following his unflinching gaze, insights absent of self-pity or blame, I found myself wondering if other fishermen had processed their own mid-life losses similarly. As bold a venture as Schooler’s solo hike was, the vulnerability of exposing his internal process seemed a far more courageous act.

Throughout the season, I raved about Walking Home to fellow fishermen who know and love this coastline. One frowned at my summary. “His marriage was in trouble, so he just left? Huh.”

Well… Yes. I understood my friend’s disapproval. But I also recalled my own reaction to deeply troubled times, when I fled to the sea without a backwards glance to the loved ones left behind. Having needed to walk out on my own life a time or two, I recognized the necessity of movement.

Death and decay are constants in this ecosystem, as they are in our lives. Out of loss comes new growth; as nature repairs herself, so do we. Following 1958’s great wave – the largest tsunami ever recorded, worldwide – Lituya Bay’s ravaged tree-line reasserts itself. The remains of shipwrecked vessels vanish from the coastline, as loved ones exit our lives. We grieve their departures, search for the lessons of our shared time, and continue on.

Book lovers all have favorites that we return to, over and over, for familiar comfort and new insights among well-worn pages. When I finished Walking Home and immediately began to read sections to my shipmates, struggling to see the print through thickening twilight, I knew this would be one of mine. For anyone who’s spent time on the water or in the woods, who craves the wild spaces around and inside of themselves and knows the echo of their own companionship, Schooler’s work is utterly relatable. It’s an ideal read for Alaska Book Week.

Those of you in/near Anchorage, mark your calendars for February 10-18, when Perseverance Theatre will perform a stage adaptation of Schooler’s 2003 memoir, The Blue Bear. Stay tuned via Facebook, where you can subscribe to Lynn Schooler’s daily photo posts – stunning meditations on life in Southeast Alaska.

Prayer flags flying, July 4th in Lituya Bay

And you, friends? What’s on your reading list for Alaska Book Week?





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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