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Heeding the Siren Song of Salmon
Choosing the strenuous life, if only for a while
Ope. Here I am, back in Alaska, on a fishing boat, hauling nets.
I did a few stints on commercial fishing boats as a kid, and have dabbled in it here and there since about 2016, when my friend Tyson Fick invited me up to Southeast Alaska to do a combination of sportfishing and commercial; at the time he had a hand trolling permit and a small boat.
Then he bought a bigger boat, the F/V Heather Anne, a gillnetter, and bought into that fishery near his home of Juneau. He’d just started in 2018, the year I got very sick. When I was released from the hospital, I was in full rehab mode and wanted a goal. Working on his boat was that goal.
That year, Tyson and I did six “openers;” periods of open fishing. Each opener usually lasts from noon on Sunday to noon on Wednesday, but they’re sometimes extended a day. I emerged bruised and battered, tired, but glad I’d done it. It was definitely “Type II Fun,” the sort of thing that hurts when you do it, but you’re happy to have done it. Like ptarmigan hunting. Itch scratched.
I got busy in 2019, then the Pandemic came. I didn’t make it last year, but this year, after Holly and I split, and my bum knee healed, I decided to ask Tyson if he needed any help. Always, he replied. So here I am. Again.
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Why do I do this? I ask myself that a lot. It doesn’t make rational sense. I can make more money elsewhere, and especially this year, with my imminent move to Minnesota, me taking a job at a grouse camp up in Remer, MN, and all the other things I’ve put on my own plate, it makes even less sense.
Deckhand life hurts. It’s basically Crossfit on a boat. Boatfit. With every keystroke I am making right now, I can feel the tight, sore muscles in my rapidly strengthening hands. Gillnetting is dangerous, too. Not “Deadliest Catch” dangerous, but yes, you can die on a gillnetting boat. And you can definitely injure yourself quite easily.
But if you don’t, you are rewarded with that languid, worked feeling throughout your body. The nights we return home, to a real bed, we rarely sleep less than 10 hours, sometimes more. That is a sleep only exhaustion at the molecular level can bring. The next morning you wake to a satisfying soreness.
Life on board is also gross. There’s no head on the boat, so we use a dedicated bucket. Tyson and I get awfully stinky on board, which we don’t notice until we hit shore… and head right to the shower. And I don’t know if you know this, but salmon are bloody. Horrifically bloody. And we bleed and clean all the fish on board, so the work is a tsunami of gore.
But here I am. Again.
Despite all the hardships, I’ve been drawn to commercial fishing my whole life. To make a living at sea, through hard, physical work — and make no mistake, I am not one of those people who think that the only hard work involves your muscles — to see all the fish, the oddities that turn up, the sunrises and sunsets, the storms even, there is something romantic about it.
And I have found that if you scratch my surface, I am a hopeless romantic.
Being comfortable with being uncomfortable is a strange draw, too. I am not an old hand. I am not a bad deckhand, but there are many who are better. And I certainly lack the suite of skills Tyson has as captain. Aboard the Heather Anne, I am in a constant, hyper-aware state of learning, watching, of not fucking things up. That is important to all of us, no matter what you do: It’s important to put yourself in situations where you aren’t the expert, or even good at, that thing you’re interested in — even if its something as trivial as a sport or game. This is what learning is.
Providing food from the wild moves me. Fishing is the last real place where humans harvest from the wild to feed the masses. I fear it won’t last for long, because even though by its own state constitution Alaska fisheries are required to be sustainable, circumstances beyond the state’s control have limited fisheries even here — let alone in places like New England or the Gulf. But at least here in Alaska we are trying to be stewards of the seas.
Those openers I mentioned? They’re controlled by Fish and Game, which checks “escapements,” numbers of fish that make it to the streams to spawn, to determine when we can put our nets in the water. And sometimes they cut those openers short if the fish don’t show in sufficient numbers. I like that. It means we’re only catching what the fishery can handle, nothing more.
Another lure is that Tyson’s boat practices pressure bleeding, a technique that uses a heavy gauge needle inserted into the fish’s main artery to flush out its blood. We bleed, gut, gill, and then pressure bleed the vast majority of our fish, which are then set, straight as an arrow, in a sea ice slurry that’s below freezing. There is no better fish care practice in the world.
This means every fish is pristine, and brings a higher price. For you, it means fish that are firmer, cleaner, and dramatically less smelly than non-pressure bled fish. It’s just short of miraculous, actually. I like being a part of something this special.
I am here for a couple more weeks. Just a short piece of a long season. Tyson is good and patient with me. I make mistakes, sometimes twice. But I learn new skills and tricks being aboard the Heather Anne every day.
Ultimately, however, I will return to my “real” life of cooking and wild foods, a place where I am an expert. But I’ll return there a little stronger, a little wiser, and a bit more humble.
Will I heed the siren’s song of salmon again? Only time will tell.