Sunday, June 29, 2014
The fish hunt begins and ends on Queens Slough of the Nushagak River.
I wake up to take a leak off the starboard side of the of boat at ten pm and notice the muddy waters below bubbling and rolling with what looks to me like thousands of jumping fish. I stick the dip net into the strong flood and immediately snag two 7 pound fish.
My Dad tells stories his father told him of salmon so thick on the Pilchuck River in Snohmohish that you could walk across their backs to the other side. I wonder if half the fisherman in Bristol Bay realize that this may be the last place on earth that this phenomenon occurs; I am thankful to be fishing for a captain that does.
The fact that I have slept less than ten hours in the past one hundred and twenty, combined with the eternal twilight of the Alaskan Summer has an amazing ability to blur a week into one long day. It robs one of any concrete perception of time passing and event sequencing. There are however a few vivid moments that will be etched in my brain for the remainder of my days.
Fishing the South Line of the Nushagak in mellow seas under fine skies I watched Tom roll the Crawdad into the two foot swells of the the flood tide and his crew toss the gear into the water. We turned the same corner and set off his forward buoy as Tom's net exploded with five thousand pounds of glistening Sockeye Salmon. We cheered across the water and pumped our fists into the air for the success of our friends. I watched Elijah agonize in frustration over missing a huge set for the rest of the day.
I hauled six hundred pounds of fish by hand into the stern of the Potential as we drifted ever closer to "The Line" as Fish and Game airplanes ran patrol five hundred feet over our heads. I pulled harder on that line than have pulled on anything in a long while. Better a couple of sore shoulders then a $5,000 ticket in the mail and chat with the State Patrol.
Fishing being frustratingly slow, Elijah bucked the opinion of our radio group and followed a hunch borne of many years of fishing this watershed. Flounder Flats rolled fast, muddy and shallow in a strong western wind as we stood on the deck fruitlessly scanning the choppy waters for jumpers. Our nets hit the water at six am and immediately sunk under the weight of thousands of pounds of fish. We spent the next four hours furiously picking fish, rotating gear and dragging our nets against a tide that pulled the dangerously shallow water out from under our boat. Seven thousand pounds heavier with fish we tugged west into growing winds and short-set another five hundred pounds as the sun sunk lower in the western sky. A good day at the office.
I stand in the stern pilothouse of the Potential picking 384 beautiful Sockeye Salmon with Freddy as a soggy wet northwest wind slammed five foots swells over the side of the boat. I pull one fish from the net for every three gracefully extracted by Myagi. Despite being cold, wet and exhausted I giggled at the fact that I am dropping my pick less frequently, my cussing in frustration has become negligible and I am possibly being more of a help than a hinderance at the net.
Nothing says break time quite like Tamales and Coors Light for breakfast. Elijah announced this morning that we are transferring to the Naknek Kvichack watershed. By law we must stand down forty-eight hours before we can set another net, and to be honest, I am more than ready for a break. We motored up the Nushagak and dropped anchor in the flat waters of Queens Slough, sheltered from the wind in the low tide. Those who have followed the pages of Front Door Adventures will know that I do not cower from tasks that require a fair amount of effort, but working the Nushagak River for the past 120 hours is by far the most physically and mentally challenging thing I have done in a while.
Thus far the F/V Potential has tendered 31,263 pounds of fish. Not only am I finding the adventure that I sought out, but I am learning much more than I anticipated and I feel pretty darn good about being part of an industry that delivers the cleanest and most sustainable seafood in the world.
Sometimes things go sideways on a boat, and rehearsal for emergencies is essential. Fire, flood, man-over-board and abandon ship drill are performed and documented on a monthly basis. Not only do these drills mentally prepare crew members for emergencies, they also identify equipment that is not functioning properly. I sleep better at night with the confidence of knowing how deal with shit hitting the fan.
Abandon Ship Kit.
Dip netting fun.
We are by far the best fed crew in Bristol Bay. Fred don't mess around.
Fresh sprouts prevent scurvy.
Mid-western cheesy potato hot dish.
Toasted King Salmon Sandwich. Living the Dream.
Clark's Point cannery.
Tying to and unloading fish onto tender boats is by far the most dangerous aspect of commercial salmon fishing.
Three thousand pounds of fresh fish.
My view from the the stern pilot house.
Sunrise always brings a little warmth to snotty wet & cold nights.
Write this down. Flounder Flats with a strong westerly and an ebb tide.
The end of one hundred and twenty hour shifts calls for a celebration breakfast.