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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