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.
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.