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On being comfortably uncomfortable working as a deckhand
The rumble of the starting engine, a basso clatter that shakes the whole boat, rattles me awake. It’s too early. Really it’s not, but I got too little sleep. Again. Time to work.
My commute aboard the F/V Heather Anne consists of unfolding my stiff and sore joints from the narrow berth in the bow into the cabin, wrapping myself in heavy, rubber Grundens raingear that stinks of me and dead salmon and low tide and God knows what else, and shambling out to the stern, a few yards away, to set a net in the predawn light.
This is, arguably, the most dangerous moment of the whole day. Salmon fishing in Southeast Alaska isn’t “the Deadliest Catch.” We’re not fishing in 40-foot waves or snowstorms, and we’re not breaking ice off the transom with rubber mallets. Mostly the weather is decent — maybe choppy and rainy, but rarely “Oh shit!” weather.
No, the unfurling, 1200-foot-long gill net whipping off the stern, a maelstrom of mesh and lead-filled line, corks, dead-but-still-stinging jellyfish parts, flying “tobacco juice” algae and perilous sags and gaps that can do anything from backlash the net to rip buttons off your gear to carry you overboard — that is the big danger.
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But Tyson Fick, captain, boat owner, friend, has done this 10,000 times. He’s chill. Actually, he’s chill almost all the time, which is a nice change from a lot of ship captains (and chefs). We alternate hands guiding/pulling/cajoling the net, which I’ve named Bilbo because it’s so baggy, into the waters near the Taku River.
The giant drum that the net spools onto starts an eerie drone from within. When I hear this I know we’re near the end of the line. And that end has “the junk,” a ratty section that is always that last bit of adrenaline before the whole thing goes over the side. Junk overboard, the net in a pretty arc, and we’re done. Time to brew coffee.
Let me take you through my days as a deckhand gillnetting salmon. It’s hard, physical labor mixed with “gillnapping,” mixed with the wonder of making a living from the wild in one of the world’s great places.
The hour or so after that first set of the net is the quietest part of the day, at least when the fishing is good. I’d cleaned the boat the previous night, done dishes and stowed everything.
Usually this is bathroom time. Oh wait — there’s no head on the Heather Anne. Just a bucket. We use a dedicated bucket for the daily business, which sounds worse than it actually is. But still, it ain’t the Four Seasons…
After that, not much to do except drink coffee, wolf down a bowl of granola and yogurt, and look at the net.
We do a lot of net looking.
If you’re old enough to remember the term “Kremlin watching,” it’s like that. Sometimes clues are obvious: A fish visibly thrashes in the net. Some giant log washed downstream with six seagulls on top is inexorably inching closer, ready to shred our net. A rip current swings the net “all endo,” meaning end over end, meaning it won’t catch fish. Mostly though, things are more subtle.
Currents can “accordion” the net, but so can fish hitting it. A “bobber down,” a foam cork hanging too low in the string, could be a salmon, or it could be just an “asshole,” a circular twist in the net that you definitely don’t want.
We “drive the net” from time to time, too. This entails cruising along it at a distance in the hope that the thrum of our engine startles salmon into crashing into our net. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. We’ll also grab one end to change its shape so the net fishes better.
This means I lean over the side with a boat hook, ready to catch the line (no ropes at sea, just lines) and flick it up to my other hand so I can loop it on a cleat before that line goes taut and either rips out of my hand, or, worse, binds on the cleat with my fingers still in it. Not ideal.
At some point, it’s time to pick.
This could be an hour or more, could be five minutes. It depends on several factors:
The net is full of fish. This is the best outcome.
The net is all endo. Damn currents.
A slick of debris or a giant log is heading for it. Debris slicks of sticks and seaweed and grass SUCK to remove from the net.
A seal, or worse, a sea lion, is marauding the net.
The tide just died, so the net is motionless.
We are heading toward the line that designates where we can and cannot fish. Cross the line and you get a ticket.
You must gear up for the pick, literally and mentally.
Picking a 1200-foot net brings aboard smashed jellyfish, some of which are harmless, like moon jellies, some of which are spicy — even flecks of them will sting you horribly days later. It brings aboard debris that needs to be removed, especially sticks, which can cause a backlash. And depending on where we pick, clouds of “white socks,” a small, biting fly, swarm us. Fun. So head-to-toe raingear is the norm.
We spool the net on the drum and in it comes. We’re watching intently for all of the above, plus fish. This is coho (silver) salmon season, so numbers aren’t huge; twenty fish in a set is nice. A fish!
It rolls over the stern, and Tyson and I paw opposite ends of the net like bears to find where the fish is snared. You want at least part of it free. If it’s the face, we do a “facial,” and I hang onto the gills while Tyson pulls the webbing off the fish.
The other method is to pick the webbing free of a fish hanging by its gills.
Either way, I grab the salmon and tear its gills, then move a few steps to a big tub of circulating seawater. This lets the fish bleed out (mostly) while we are picking the net. Salmon, if you are not familiar, are insanely bloody fish. They quickly stink if not bled correctly and the meat can soften to mush.
Over and over and over this happens, at least on a good set. At the end, I am sweating, covered in gore, and there’s a tub full of bloody seawater and salmon.
A word on bycatch. I’ll deal with this in depth in another post, but suffice to say there is very, very little. The only common bycatch we see are starry flounder, which we have named “skippy,” which are always alive and we always return to the sea.
We then set the net again. Sometimes in the same place, sometimes miles away. That’s Tyson’s call.
Cleaning salmon is a bloody, gory business. Let’s stroll through it, shall we?
Fish out a salmon (see what I did there?) from the bleed tank. If the water is too deep you need to use a gaff hook to corral it, else you flood your gloves. And this is not fun. Happiness is a warm glove.
Move said salmon to the gutting tray, which basically cradles the fish upside down. Use the lightning sharp gutting knife, which has a spoon on its other end (more in a moment) to make an incision from the vent (butthole) to about an inch or two away from the collar.
Switch knives to a serrated one. Saw from mid-gills up to separate the collar from the head, then switch directions and saw the head clean off, following the curve of the collar. Be sure to saw through a sliver of the skull, so you don’t miss any meat. Toss head into the ocean. (We don’t have a market for them, alas.)
Side note: The splash of a salmon head hitting the water causes Larry to emerge from behind air molecules. Larry, on our boat, is a seagull. In fact, he’s all seagulls. One seagull is a Larry. They are all named Larry. And a flock of seagulls is called A Larry. Lesson over.
Still using the serrated knife, saw through the opening of the body cavity on each side to release the gullet. This is a gnar piece of tissue that will resist your yanking it out, so it needs cutting.
Replace serrated knife. Use fingers to wrench the gullet free. Now, through the incision, pull it and a gossamer membrane away from where the head was towards the vent (butthole). If all goes well, you pull it away clean and Larry gets a snack. If not, you need to fiddle with a dingleberry intestinal thingie.
Oh, if the salmon is female, we remove the roe sacs. Most go for Dungeness crab bait, but we sell some to local restaurants each week.
Now you pick up a heavy gauge needle that squirts seawater at about the same pressure an old man pees. You slide this into the fish’s main artery, which is just below the spine, which is way easier when the fish is lacking a head.
If the fish is very recently dead, its blood will flow quickly. If not, you need to massage the dark kidney while the seawater flows, which results in a horror film bloodbath all over the place. Like, I’m talking a cup or more per fish. At some point, this stops.
Now you use the sharp knife to slice down the center of the kidney, flip to the spoon and scoop it out, making sure to get two little splotches of kidney that hang on either side of the collar. And break the ridges of the vertebrae near the end of the body cavity to scoop out every last shred of that dark kidney ick.
By now everything looks like the end of a Wes Craven movie or a GWAR concert, so you need to spray yourself, the fish and your station down. Move that fish to a clean tank of seawater, then repeat. Over and over and over…
This is what it takes to get you pristine, pressure bled, perfect salmon. Every. Fish. And we are among the few boats that do this. Your Costco salmon? No way, unless it’s Copper River. This is the quality I was talking about in my last post, which explained why I am doing this job.
If it was a good set, I am cleaning until just about the time to pick the next set. This rotates all day long, from predawn to dusk. Even now, in September, it’s almost 16 hours. In June, it’s closer to 20.
But not all sets are good. We’ve had sets with only a few salmon in it, and a couple technical “water hauls,” where the only fish in them are skippy, who gets tossed over to fling himself into a net another day… we actually think they like it, like squirrels who seem to purposefully run across a road in front of a car.
Stack a couple of those sets back to back, and you get to gillnapping. Everything’s set, and you wait. There’s no cell service, so you stare into the wild, at your hands, which are now curled into claws, at the net, at nothing. You eat compulsively. I’ve taken to drinking more Coors Edge, their non-alcoholic beer, than I ought to. We call it “the sports drink.” I play solitaire sometimes.
I bring a book, currently The Great Plains by Ian Frazier, but it’s hard to read because at any moment you might need to pick the net, or grab it, or whatever. Hard to get more than a few pages in.
By dusk I hope for those shitty sets. On my birthday in 2018, we landed close to 100 sockeyes and cohos in one set, right at dusk. Tyson helped a while, but he had to get us to a safe anchorage, so I ended up cutting most of the fish that night. I fell into bed maybe 2 hours before I had to get up and do it again. That shit’ll give you PTSD.
When it’s all done, you anchor up for the night. Ideally, but not always, in a place with cell service. I long for messages from friends. It’s a reminder that I exist in the larger world, that I am not just a hauling-and-cleaning-and-washing machine on a boat in Alaska. Tyson and I each drink a single beer, usually Vitamin R, which is Rainier, then collapse into sleep.
Then it begins again.
Oh, my friends, but that’s just the fishing!
Once the opener ends, we head to the dock to offload the fish. Again, full gear needed, because as they crane up the giant brailer bags of fish, a rain of gurry — the term for a slurry of fish slime and seawater — pounds down on you. I hear it’s good for the skin.
Then you scrub everything down with a mix of soap and bleach. Every inch. Because what we do smells, and what we do smells horrific if left to rot a few days, even in cool, wet Juneau.
Finally, Tyson and I shamble into his truck and drive home. I head right to the shower, to scrub the stink from every crevice. A beer, maybe three, a few messages sent and received to people I care about, then The Drift comes.
The Drift is that feeling I am still on a boat, that mental rocking that can take a day or two to dissipate. It is also the waves of exhaustion that roll over me. I am no longer young. I am strong, stronger than I have been in a long time, but I still get sore. fishing hurts.
So when Morpheus comes for me, I take his hand. And dream of salmon.