Friday, December 30, 2011

Reflection: 2011

10 things  from salmon season 2011 that I’m grateful for:

10.  Coming back alive with all my bits, digits and toes.
9.   All my friends coming back alive with all their bits, digits and toes. (Though Bill had a close call when his boat, Gulkana, sunk.  Good thing he made it!)
8.   Getting paid a decent price for salmon.
7.  Having the health and strength to be able to fish.
6.  All the wonderful folks who I’ve met fishing over the years.
5.  The fact that we had heat this year on the boat.
4. The marketability and sustainability of the Alaska wild salmon runs.
3. That folks are still fighting to put a stop to Pebble Mine.
2. That I caught a 50 pound king.
1. That it is over! (until next season, anyhow).

Happy New Year Everyone!

Friday, December 23, 2011

First time for everything, part II

Skirting the rail along my boat, I shuffle along the cabin to my stern.   I look down into the water and sure as shit I can see net piled all around my props.  Another stream of swear words comes out of my mouth, which seems like the next appropriate action.  I skirt the rail again and back inside.  I get back on the radio and report to Lenny that I just ran over my net and I need to know what to do now.

He tells me I need to raise the lower unit so I can reach the props with my net wrench and preform surgery.  A net wrench is a technical term for a knife used to cut net. 

So I turn the key and am jolted by the sound of my loathsome low oil pressure alarm.  I push the toggle switch and hit the button to raise my lower unit.  I hear the motor whine, but I don’t hear the higher pitch sound it makes when it’s raised all the way up.  I figure enough time has passed for my unit to have gone up, as this gauge doesn’t really work either.

I tell Lenny I’ll call him in a few and head for the stern with my knife in hand.  Easing my way down to my swim step, which is a fiberglass platform mounted on the stern just above the water line for times like these, I quickly realize just how small it actually is.  It’s about a foot and half wide and about two feet long but the angle of the stern makes balancing on impossible.  I need one hand to hold on or I’ll fall into the drink.  So, with my net wrench one hand and my rail in the other, I’m ready to operate and remove my net from my egg beaters.  Egg beaters is another name for duel props or duel propellers.  One prop is big and one is small and they spin in different directions.   It’s more efficient that having just one big prop, but the down side is when you run over your net, the net gets tangled in the action.  As a result, the engine cuts itself.  

But as I get down there I notice my unit did not go up.  It’s sticking straight down about 2 ½ feet and I can’t reach it.  The lower unit is on a hydraulic hinge so as it rises, it comes up at an angle.  This allows a guy (or in this case, a gal) to access the props, to change them or cut web away from them and what not.

I know there is a release lever down there somewhere as I used it when my boat was on land.  I launch my hand into the cold clear water.  It’s not long before it stings. I feel around for it and find it but I can’t release the lever and raise my unit manually while holding on with one hand.  Besides once I get it up, how will it stay up?  I need some line.  I head back to the deck and grab a piece of line.  I come back to the stern and tie one end to the railing mounted on the stern.  I then thread the line around the lower unit and reach my hand into the cold ocean again searching for the lever.  I realize this plan is only going to work in theory.  I need a third hand, which I don’t have since I fish along. Deflated, I go back inside and call Lenny again for an update and advice.  He says he just pick up his gear then will head over.

I take a moment to survey my surroundings.  I’m in a good spot, really.  No much current, no one around me.  I’m out far enough away from the beach and rocks.  No eminent danger.  The weather is even nice.  All in all, a good spot to be dead in the water.

Lenny pulls up next to me.  I tie up a few buoys up and throw him a line.  He secures his boat to mine, comes aboard, gives me a kiss, then heads for the cabin.  He tries to raise the lower unit.  Again, we hear the motor going, but nothing happens.  I tell him my plan to use the release lever, lift the unit manually and tie it up.  We both scamper to the stern, one on each swim step.  This time he offers to plunge his hand into the cold water to reach the lever.  I let him.  As he does, I lift the unit.  So far so good.  I grab the line but we are unable to tie it up.  We just can’t get the right angle on it.   It’s too heavy for just one person to hold it while the other cuts the net away.  Now what?
I tell him I’ll grab my snorkel and mask,  hop in my survival suit  dive down and cut it out that way.

The look he shot me was priceless,  as if to say “there is no way in hell I’m going to sit here and let you get in that icy cold water.   “You are not jumping into the water” he says with clear disapproval of my idea.   “Lenny, it will be fine. I’ll get in my survival suit and you will be right here if anything happens”.  “No” he sighed. “I’ll go.”  

He hops back to his boat and emerges a few moments later in his bright orange “Gumby” suit, otherwise known as a survival suit.  A survival suit is a type of waterproof dry suit that helps protects from hypothermia in cold water.  They typically have built in feet, a hood, and built in gloves.  These gloves normally have two fingers and a thumb making dexterity impossible, hence the name “Gumby suit”.

I try not to chuckle as Lenny comes aboard in this bright orange suit, as he is doing me a huge favor.  I offer him my mask and snorkel, but it’s too small, he has to do without.

He scurries to the stern and lowers himself down into the water.  “Is it cold” I ask, feeling a bit guilty that he is getting in the water instead of me.  “What do you think?” was his reply.  I hand him the knife.  He takes a breath and dives under.  His feet pop up and fill with the air in the suit.  He comes up with a gasp.   His face is already a reddish purple from the cold, and he was only under about 20 seconds.  He shoots me a look as he takes another deep breath and dives back down.  After a few dives he ends up with a handful of web.  I help him aboard and I try the engine.  It fires up.  I don’t know if he got all the web clear, but he got enough. 
I thank him profusely.  He stoically says “Ah-huh, you’ll get my bill”.  I smile and thank him again. “Thank you, Lenny” I draw out in my cutest sing song voice. 

He hops back aboard his boat, unties and pulls away.  I get back to business.  I suit up in my rain gear and carefully, giving it a wider berth than necessary, I run to the end of my net and pick up. 

I wish I could say I learned my lesson that day and never ran over again but I ran it over three more times that season.  Having used my one and only get out of jail free card, I had to jump in the water myself to cut it out. 

Friday, December 16, 2011

The first time I ran over my net, Part I.

I ran over my net the first time on a nice sunny blue bird day.  There was not a puff of wind or a cloud in the sky.  The visibility was perfect, the water crystal clear. 

I was gillnetting for salmon on my 28’ bowpicker, the King-N-I, over in Main Bay in the Prince William Sound.  Its truly beautiful there with blue water enveloped green old growth evergreen trees and glaciers.  Marine mammals play in the water below while Bald eagles play in the sky above.  Fisherman look down into the water at their nets  and see the whole thing almost all 30 feet, all the way to the leadline at the bottom.   Fisherman can also see each gorgeous shiny salmon that is caught in the net.  It looks like a glowing flash of silver suspended in the water.  Its one of the reasons I love fishing in the Sound.  I love to run my net and look down at all the pretty salmon. 

I like to count them as I go.  Gillnetters always count salmon as they get caught in the net.   Each set, one, two, three……… hundred and forty five.  One hundred and forty……..where was I?  One hundred and sixty?  That sounds good.  One hundred and sixty one……See, we don’t mean to exaggerate every catch, it just happens. 

Anyhow, I like to count the salmon I catch.  Then I run inside and grab my calculator.  I take the average weight of the species of salmon I’m catching (reds = 6lbs, chums = 8 lbs, silvers = 10-12 lbs, etc)  Today, I’m catching reds.  So I take the six pound average, multiply by how many I caught and multiply that number by the price I am getting.  The price varies throughout the season and sometimes, isn’t even known.   It can go up during a fishing period.  Sometimes it isn’t even announced until well into the period.  But, I make a guess.  I like the instant gratification of knowing how much money I’m making.
I was running my net and looking at all the pretty fish in it.  All the sudden, my boat stopped.  Engine died.  “What the hell!?” I wondered aloud.  I ran inside and heaved up my engine hatch to look at my engine.  I think funny that I do this because even if something is broken, everything usually looks fine in the engine room.  But, it’s my reaction non the less.  I try to start my boat, nothing.  My gauges work, so I know it’s not the alternator, but, at this point, it's all I know.   I’m dead in the water.  And, of course, I start drifting over my gear.  

I call Lenny on the radio.  “My boat just stopped” I explain.  “It won’t start”.  He starts with a list of questions  “Do you have fuel?” “I should, let me check”, I retort.  At this time I have to open my drawer and scrounge around for my fuel key.  I find it and flip up my rug.  Dried fish scales scatter like confetti.   I insert the brass key, greenish with age and give it a twist.  I then grab my yard stick  I use as a fuel gauge since mine doesn’t work.  It has old magic marker marks marking various stages of fuel.  Top on is full, but I never fill it up.  Why push around all that diesel?  Then there are two or three that measure empty.  I pull out the homemade dipstick and the wet diesel line is about 5 inches above empty, which means I don’t know how much fuel I have but I know I have enough. So a task that should take .2 seconds takes me several minutes.  And after all that, I still don’t know exactly how much fuel I have, I just know I have enough.  Nevertheless, that’s not the issue.  I have fuel.

Lenny calls me back on the radio to ask what I was doing when the engine stopped.  I reply “I was running my net and it just stopped.  There are a few fish in there, too.”   He then asks the next reasonable question “Did you run your net over?” “NO! Of course not! I was a good five feet away from the cork line.”  “Well………..your net bellows out under the water depending on current and if it’s touching bottom or not.  It sounds like you ran over your net.”  My buddy suggests.  “Shit” I retort to myself, no need to push the mike and announce that on the radio, I’m content just swear to myself.

That’s all the time we have for today, folks.  Tune in next week for the rest of the story.

I’m out.  

Friday, December 9, 2011

How I got into commercial fishing

Craig, a teacher from England who I recently met sailing, asked me if I came from a fishing family.  When I replied no, his eyes lit up.  He said one of his most rewarding experiences of teaching was to encourage each gender into nontraditional jobs.  For example, he encouraged boys to go into dancing or nursing, if that’s what they were in to, and girls into trucking or engineering and the like.

His next question for me was how did I end up bucking the gender trend and get into commercial fishing.  I get this question a lot.  Sometimes folks beat around the bush and hint at it, other’s, like Craig, just come right out and ask. 

Truth is, I really don’t know.  I think maybe its not just one thing but a few different reasons.  I mean I’ve always liked the outdoors.  I prefer being outside in any weather to most things indoors.  That carried over to my work preferences.  Plus, I’m a wiggle worm.  I’ve always had a hard time just sitting still.  Still do.   I’m wiggling around right now while writing this.  Just those two factors alone eliminate a lot of job options. 

Working Monday through Friday, 9-5 has never appealed to me, though I couldn’t tell you why.  Just like I couldn’t tell you why I like the color blue, I just do. 

But, I would have to say the biggest reason is that I never really cared for “gender roles”.   I get where they came from.  The men would go out and hunt and the women would cook the meat.  But really, just because that’s the way it was done over 100 years ago doesn’t mean that is the way it still should be done.  As a result, I guess hearing that something in a “man’s job” kind of sets off something in me that wants to rebel against that.  (Did I mention that I’ve always been a bit rebellious, too?  And maybe a tad bit stubborn?  Just a tad.)

So I’ve worked on farms and in factories, and canneries, and hardware stores, and as a pizza delivery person, and on the oil fields on the North Slope of Alaska, and as a horse and carriage driver, a truck loader at UPS and, of course, on commercial fishing boats. 

I like fishing because I like being outside, I like seasonal work, working whatever hours.  I like the responsibility of making my own decisions and not having a boss looking over my shoulder all the time.  I like that everyday is different, despite the repetitive nature of the work.  I like getting out of town and being on the water for extended periods of time. And, I like the risk.

Not just the risk of loosing life or limb, but the gamble of it all.  Its what draws people to Vegas.  One roll of the dice and could make it big.  

But lets take a look at what I do when I’m not fishing.  I like to backpack and have done a 150 mile trip across the Talkeetna range twice.  I travel alone to third world countries like Viet Nam, Sumatra, and Laos, to name a few.  I was 24 when I got my pilot’s license.  I like to scuba dive and snowboard.   I’ve driven cross-country several times and a few of those times, alone.  I like to ice climb.   I’ve sailed through the Panama Cannel.  I once swam to a foreign country, illegally and naked.  But, that is a story for another time.   Are you starting to see a pattern here? 

So, when someone asks me how I got into fishing, I think I did it for the same reason a banker is a banker or a chef is a chef, or a pilot is a pilot, or a dancer is a dancer.  People just tend to gravitate to what they enjoy doing or what they are comfortable with doing.  It just so happens that my gravitational pull tends to take me to a little further parameters than others.  

Friday, December 2, 2011

PickFish holiday recipes

As the holidays are quickly approaching, and at least one has already passed, I figured it was time to share some of my favorite fish recipes. Some of these are great party treats and some are for when the party is over. None are super elaborate, I ain't no Martha Stewart of fish.

My all time favorite is fast, easy, and delicious.

Smoked salmon grilled cheese.
Grilled cheese sandwich made with cheddar add 1-2 table spoons of smoked salmon, preferably Copper River Smoked Salmon. :) Add Dijon mustard.
Add a small amount of habanero cheese or dip in habanero mustard. This will be a bit spicy.

Smoked salmon dip

1 jar of smoked salmon
1-2 packages of cream cheese (or Neufchâtel cheese which I prefer because it is softer and has less fat)
Mix together
Add either dill and lemon juice or, for a nice holiday flare, red onions and capers.
Serve with crackers
Note: If you put cream cheese in a double boiler until soft it is easier to mix. You can also add a bit of milk or 1/2 & 1/2 for a creamier consistency.

Smoked salmon and pesto pasta.
Make your favorite pesto pasta (either by scratch or package) mix with 1 jar smoked salmon, toasted pine nuts and parmesan cheese. (I told you these are not elaborate.)

Crab Eggs Benny
Again, your favorite eggs benedict recipe. Replace the Canadian bacon with Alaskan King crab (or I guess any crab would do in a pinch, even surimi, which is made with Alaskan pollock.)

Smoked salmon quiche
Yes, real men do eat quiche. Especially smoked salmon quiche.
Take your quiche recipe. Add red peppers, sliced how ever you want (this is not one of those blogs that tells you how to slice your peppers, I'm sure however you do it is just fine), cheddar cheese, green onion and smoked salmon, about half the jar. Bake. Enjoy. (Evidently though, I'm not beyond telling you to enjoy your dish.)

Blackened salmon
First, pour yourself your favorite adult beverage.

Crack a window! Seriously, I'm not kidding here.

Take any WILD Alaskan salmon, fresh or frozen. This is a great recipe for frozen salmon that has been in the freezer a little too long. It cover up that freezer taste. Now, I'm not talking about nasty white freezer burn, give that stuff to your dogs. But, if it's been in the freezer a while and has slight freezer taste, this will mask it.

Slice salmon filet across the grain into 1/2 inch pieces.

Turn oven fan on high. Again, I'm not kidding here.

Put a CAST IRON pan (seriously, it has to be cast iron. I ruined a stainless steel pan once with this recipe.) on High heat until white hot.

Take a plate and cover with Chef Paul Prudhommes Blackened Redfish Magic Seasoning. Dip the salmon slices in seasoning until covered on both sides.

Carefully, without burning your fingers (tongs may be the way to go here or a fork) cook salmon in white hot pan for about 20 or 30 seconds on each side. Salmon should be medium rare in center. It will keep cooking once you take it out of the pan. If you want your salmon overcooked, cook longer.

This dish is good with turmeric rice and some green veggies like asparagus or broccoli.

And finally, I saved the best for last. Now, this recipe I have to give credit to the Marsh sisters. It is taken out of their book "Fishes and Dishes" a cookbook story book about their crabbing and fishing in the Bering Sea. It is a great book and I recommend it.

Smoked salmon deviled eggs
Make your favorite deviled eggs recipe. While you are mixing the yokes up, add 1-2 teaspoons of Wasabi mayonnaise and 1 tablespoon smoked salmon. Finish as usual. Yum yum in the tum tums. The best part about this recipe is not only is it super tasty but you don't have to share too much of your smoked salmon! A little goes a long way.

And there you have it. If you have any recipes of your own to share feel free to add them in the comments.

Until next week, eat fish!