Sunday, June 29, 2014

Fish Hunt

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.

Kloshe konaway
Kloshe nanitch


 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. 

Taco Tuesday.

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.  

Friday, June 20, 2014

Learning curve

Ten hours of dremel tooling and sandpaper joined our ancient stub shaft and downsized drum bearing perfectly in mechanical matrimony and we checked the last box on our endless punch list of to-do's before launching the F/V Potential into the muddy cold waters of the Nushagak River and setting afloat for the 2014 Sockeye Salmon season.

We motored a couple hours up the Wood River and dropped anchor in the eternal twilight of the Alaskan summer.  While Fred  barbecued our celebratory steaks,  I cleaned the twelve gauge and ever-so-gently sanded a years worth of rust off shotgun shells in preparation for a round of evening trap shooting.  I tucked into my miniature bunk with a smile on my face and the childish enthusiasm of boy setting off on a grand adventure into the unknown.

The boat listing starboard at twenty degrees against the river bed and Elijah & Fred jumping out of the rack brought and abrupt end to my slumber and reminded all of us that checking the tide table before anchoring is a detail one should not overlook.  The flood tide lifted our vessel into buoyancy and soon found us riding the ebb at a steady seven knots across six foot seas eastward out of the Nushagak into Kvichak Bay, arriving at the enormous mouth of the Naknek River eight rough hours later.  Radio rhetoric and social rafting of thirty-two foot boats tied three abreast ensued as my Captain Elijah reconnected with his radio group compadres, many of whom he had not seen for a year.  Being the lowly deck hand on the boat, I set the anchor, tied off mooring lines, washed windows, mended nets in the rain and general kept my mouth shut as the viscous clouds of thick bullshit enveloped the cool evening air buzzing with the frenzy of thirsty mosquitoes.

I hear the the biologists are predicting a hell of run up the Woods this year, you ever fished it?

Ah yeah, twelve years ago I had three twelve thousand pound days up there; tight fishin' though.  Shallow sandbars and narrow as hell, gotta keep an eye on things and be on your game.  

Hmm, think will stick around in the Kvichak for the free week and see what we can scratch up.  You hear what he escapement numbers are at?

Rumor is the price of fish might be up to two dollars a pound this year; hell I remember when it was thirty-five cents and we thought we were flush!

Morning dawned snotty with 35 mph west winds and a flooding tide, evidently good conditions to push fish up the river and into ours nets.  I spotted a pod of Beluga Whales fishing the river out my starboard window as I sipped my morning coffee and momentarly forgot that I was here to work.  With zeal we set forth and cast our nets into the surly waters of Kvichak Bay with great anticipation.  A tremendous catch however, was not to be had and we tendered less than one hundred pounds of fish for the days' effort.  Reports of no fish across the district eased the disappointment in our humble catch and we anchored late and consoled ourselves with a cold Coors Light.  A restless sleep was again interrupted by Elijah springing to action at the sound of our anchor scraping the gravel bed as the powerful tide yarded us downstream.  Another boat in the same predicament slid harmlessly into our bow as Fred pulled the anchor and we motored up stream to a muddy moorage in a protected eddy.

Welcome to fishing in Bristol Bay,

Elijah said sarcastically as I settled back in for a couple more hours of fitful sleep.

Rumors of fisherman scrapping out a thousand pounds of catch congregated the entire fleet on the western edge of the boundary the following evening.  As we approached from the northeast, hundreds of boats anchored neatly in rows under fines skies on the horizon dramatically juxtaposed the natural beauty and emptiness of the Alaskan wilderness around us.  The six am opener found hundreds of boats lined up like race cars, spewing clouds of dark diesel smoke into the air as they circled and weaved each other, jockeying for prime position.  At the stroke of six nets dropped into the water and the rumored shit show of fishing "The Line" became a new reality of my experience here.

Elijah signaled for us to set and we cast our neatly stacked nets off the stern.  We attentively fed, making sure the nets didn't tangle or snag on the inside of the boat.


The impact nearly knocked both Fred and I off our feet before the report of metal meeting metal registered in my brain.  As I recovered from the impact I looked up to see a scruff faced Captain with the plug of a smoldering cigar scowling down from his flybridge as our boats recoiled from the collision. His crew, just a few feet away on their boat stood wide eyed looking as shocked and bewildered as I.  No harsh words exchanged, no lewd gestures; just a an indifferent scowl and and move on.  Another day fishing the line.

Welcome to fishing in Bristol Bay.

Elijah's words echoed in my head.

Not interested in dying for a few hundred pounds of fish, we pulled off the line and cast a couple sets for a few more Sockeye; we might not be getting rich, but we're eating darn good every night.  While Fred and I filleted our catch, Elijah drove us back to the tender boat to pick up some nets and we caught the tide back towards our home in Dillingham.  As the sun sank low in the western sky, illuminating the mountains north a burning pink, I set my compass bearing and motored into the waning light.  Seals bobbing in the rolling waters kept me company as Elijah and Fred turned in for the night and a visit from an Orca and her young calfs afforded the most magical highlight of this fishing adventure yet.

Morning found us docked up in the Dillingham harbor and I hopped back on land for the first time in five days.  I delicately straightened our bent anchor guide with a sledge hammer and Fred went to work on our failing drum motor;  the work is never done on an old boat.  The hurry up and wait game of fishing salmon is about to set in as we don't anticipate another opening for at least two more days.  The masses of Sockeye Salmon have yet to return in earnest to the rivers of North Bristol Bay.  Fishermen with boat loans much bigger than my home mortgage grow impatient as the Fish & Game biologists tally the escapement of fish necessary to sustain the fishery before opening the season to commercial harvesting.  Tension runs high and it is a good time to stay far away from the the bars.

A week in the water and less-than two hundred pounds of fish to show for it is nothing to write home about, but I am thankful for the dress rehearsal of setting, dragging and picking up nets before they are filled with thousands of pounds of flopping fish.  I am also thankful for the opportunity to wrap my head around the real and ever present dangers of working on a boat where the opportunities abound to fuck up and hurt yourself.

While it is nice to be back in town, take a hot shower and drink a cold beer or two, life on the water is growing on me quickly and I am anxious to get back out there, put my new learning into action and hopefully make a couple bucks catching a few fish.

Kloshe konaway
Kloshe nanitch


It is good to be loved.

 Net mending Zen.

 The Chinook (Kings) are running and we bought a few from a friend for freezing and roe.

Chinook caviar,  good clean living. 

 The Captain speaks!

 One am dike hike.

 Dillingham Bloody Mary.


 Shotgun shells don't mix especially well with salt water.



 Livin' the Dream.

Towing  the net. 


Bad photo of an Orca, but it is still an Orca!

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Five days in the yard.

Midnight, Dillingham, Alaska.

We fear things in proportion to our ignorance of them.
~ Christian Nestle Bovee

I am Daniel Son, Fred is Mr. Miyagi.

Paint the decks, scrub the hulls, strip the lines, clean the engine compartment, mend nets, stencil the boat, wash the dishes, install the water pump, clean the filters, the list goes on and on.  
My apprenticeship as a deckhand aboard a Bristol Bay gill netting boat has begun in earnest and I am in full leaning mode.  For a guy who knows next to nothing about boats, nor the ocean, tearing the F/V Potential  apart and putting it back together over and over again helps me bond with this vessel that I am going to be calling home for the next eight weeks. The intimate familiarity I am gaining with the craft helps calm my healthy fears of fishing the ocean as I slowly discharge of my long list of unknowns.  Call me superstitious, but I believe that if throw my heart and soul at this vessel in preparation, the labor of love will keep me and the crew safe when we are out in the shit trying to catch a few fish. 

Kloshe konaway
Kloshe nanitch


F/V Potential AKA  The Pha Q 

Birdshot is just for fun. Things really don't get serious in Dillingham until you shoot your buddy's truck with buckshot.   

 Price check on isle three please.  Dillingham is a long way from anywhere and it cost a few bucks to get things here.

 My summer ride.  I can't wait for a day off to explore as far as the gravel will take me.


 Alaskan winters are hard on old boats, but the  F/V Potential fired up on the first pull and is running strong.

 Mihn's boat, the Quickset II

 Good clean liven'

Practical jokes are already amping up and the season hasn't even started yet. 

Dave Bowen would be proud.  Tight freehand stencil by the Redhead. 

Fifteen six and a pair for eight.

 Mechanical #1:  Thirty-six year old shaft on our main drum is a little worn down.

 Icicle Foods in Dillingham will be weighing our catch and writing us checks this summer.  You can also send me cookies and whisky at: F/V Potential  PO Box 1810 Dillingham, AK 99576

My First Mate Fred owns The Brickhouse Cafe and Saloon in SF and has got some mad skills.  It is rumored that we are the best fed crew in Dillingham. 

Every boat name has a story, and some are a little more interesting than others. 

This has to come off and I am not quite sure how to go about it.

Art project day one. 

 It was just a small bear, say 200-300 pounds.

Jenny and Mom; don't worry, they are feeding me well!

If Carmen could talk, I reckon she would have story to tell.