Friday, June 24, 2011

Fish and Tsunamis

"How much fish could Jen Pickett pick if Jen Pickett could pick fish?" – Rick B.

The world may never know………

Sunrise at Egg Island 

Given the choice, which way would you go? Yeah, I’d choose left, too.  We went right.
This was taken Thursday morning, June 23, 2011 about 5 AM at from Egg Island on the Copper River Flats, Alaska.  It’s hard to drive into the black abyss when it’s sunny the other direction.  But, land was the other direction and probably not many fish.  And, that is what we do.  Drive into the abyss for fish.  With glory stories of 900 fish sets driving us on.  We didn’t get our 900 fish set this opener.  Maybe next time.  We did get a smorgasbord though.  We caught reds (which is what we were after) cohos, dogs, herring, ling cod, grey cod, green eyes (yick!)  and we even caught one humpy.  You could smell it.  I don’t know what it is and maybe I’ve fished too long, but different species of salmon smell different. 
Despite the black sky, it turned out to be a pretty nice day.  Not too much wind or swell and it was even sunny at times, adding to my Alaskan tan, from the chin up and the wrists down.
Then we heard the tsunami warning.   We were listening to the Clark Howard show on AM radio (we are not one of the cool kids with satellite radio).  He was giving financial advice as he always does.  He is one of our regular programs.  Him, Dennis Miller, Michael Savage (who I can’t stand, but skipper likes.  I protested Glen Beck so we don’t have to listen to him anymore! But, apparently, I had to give up NPR.  Tit for tat.) “The way radio was” is another program we like, rebroadcasts from the late ‘40’s and 50’s.  But, we missed is last night.  Skipper knows all the programs and times in his head.  “Go 10 up” which means change the dial 10 times to the next program.  “7 down”.  I never know what station we are on, but he does.  I would have to take off my polarized glasses and contort myself at the galley table to look close enough to the radio to see the channel.  I never care enough to do either.
Anyway, Clark Howard was just lecturing a school teacher on saving for retirement when we heard a funny sound on the radio.  It said the program would return.  Then there was a tsunami warning for Alaska. Holy shit! My heart dropped.  We are in 55 feet of water in the Horseshoe, smack dap in the middle of the Flats.  Where are we going to go?  I continued to listen.  “Tsunami warning in effect for the Aleutian Islands from Unimak Pass to Amchitka Pass until 20:15 tonight.”  OK, that is way west of here, by about 900 miles and is on the other side of the chain.  I don’t think anything would come this way, it would go west.  I look at the GPS to see what time it is.  20:23. Huh?  It’s already over.  Skipper says if a tsunami comes we’d run out to about 300 feet and climb into the engine room.  We have a tsunami plan, who knew?
I was out on deck shortly after and skipper said they had cancelled the warning on VHS 16, the channel the coastguard monitors.  As I write this, I just heard on NPR that there was a 7.3 earthquake last night in the Aleutians but the tsunami warning was cancelled right after it was made.  Evidently, Alaska has several different warning systems in place to keep us up to date.  By the time everyone was on the same page the warning was over.  One official found out via email. Oh well, I guess. At least they try. 

Friday, June 17, 2011


Jumper! …….. Jumper!!

Now, was that two jumpers?  Or the same fish that just jumped twice?


Fishermen are a funny breed.  They way they act, talk, and dress.  They way they run around  in their grubby Carharts (I say “they” and not “we” like I’m not guilty of any of this.  OK, I have been known to tromp around in oil stained Carharts but I have never worn a pair of Xtra-Tuff’s to a wedding!)  Example, we pull up to a tender yesterday to deliver.  Skipper sees an old buddy on board that he used to crab with in the ‘70’s.  I didn’t catch his name, but it was something like Skuppy or Corky.  Here’s how their first conversation is years went.
Skuppy: Hey Skipper, I haven’t seen you in years!
Skipper: Well, here is your present (and he hands him our three bags of garbage tied up in grocery bags.)
Skuppy: Hey, remember when ol’ Tommy would take these and do this? (swinging the bags as if he is going to throw them overboard)
Skipper: How is ol’ Tommy?  He still fishin’?
Skuppy: Naw… too old.
Skipper: How about ol’ Olaf?
(Break, break.  Ok, the guy’s name isn’t really Olaf but it sounded good for a fisherman’s conversation.)
Skuppy: He’s up there now and he nods his head towards the sky.  He finally died here about a year and a half ago.
Skipper: How about ol’ Sven?
Skuppy: Hell no!  That f*#ker will never die!  He’s too crazy to die.  He lowers his voice, as not wanting to dis his friend.  His brother has to take care of him now.

And that was the end of the conversation.  Me and the deckhand on the other boat just glanced at each other and we all got to work off-loading our fish and getting fuel.  And that was that.  That was their whole reunion.  It was kind of like watching these two fisherman twins, Tom and Jerry.  From the outside observer like myself, it doesn’t seem that their conversations are whole but they seem to understand them in entirety. Maybe it’s not just a twin thing, maybe it’s a fishermen’s thing. 
I know I’ve been accused of down playing things.  I guess we all do, to normalize what we do, which, to us, (OK, now I have to include myself in this one) is normal.  Like the weather.  “It’s supposed to blow” translate into gale force winds.  “Can I get a sip of fuel?” translates into getting 100 gallons.  “I was going to go to Buckles Hole……but…….uh, I didn’t make ‘er.”  Translation: I missed the channel, ran aground, and am sitting here like a monument. 
On the Flats, everyone runs aground all the time. It’s a river delta, it’s shallow.  And sand bottom.  Usually, running aground isn’t too threatening.  But you could be stuck there a while if you run aground, say, on a high water that is the biggest tide of the month.  Yup, you guessed it.  You’ll be there all month.  Unless it the biggest tide of the year.  You can figure out what that means. Except Fred.  He lucked out when he stuck it. There happened to be a logging helicopter in the area that was heavy duty for heavy loads or something.  He hired him, for a mere $10,000, to come drag his boat some 300 feet to water.  I think it was the only time in history that a bowpicker did 70 knots an hour!  And though, $10K sounds like a lot, he was looking at missing a whole month of fishing.  Which, I think he was OK with because his plan was just to go to Hawaii.  But his Misses had another say in the matter.
Oh, and how about the guy that ran out of propane on the opener so he made himself a cup of coffee with his blow torch?  Yup, there is something different about fishermen………….

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Grumble grumble

Grumble Grumble
This is the grumble edition of PickFIsh Tales.  A rant, if you will.  What I’m sick of.   I ‘m just going to list them, in no particular order,  not most to least or vice versa and I think if I listed them alphabetically, you’d all think I was anal retentive or have OCD or something.  However, despite what I just said, I think I am most sick of the weather.  I know, I know.  It’s Alaska, it’s supposed to be cold. Well, even 49 degrees is cold for Alaska in June.  This part of Alaska anyhow.  I’m sick of being cold.  Of working in it on the boat, working in it in town while mending at the warehouse, of waking up in it in the morning (I still have yet to figure out what is wrong with my heater in my camper.  It only works if you manually turn it on, which I do in the morning once I wake up but I still have to wake in the cold.)  I’m sick of the rain, too.  I might be more sick of that than the cold.  If it were sunny but brisk I think that would be better than rain. 
I’m sick of being tired all the time.  I made the mistake this morning of adding up all the hours I’ve been putting in.  I remember doing this once a long time ago then going one step further and figuring out what I was making on an hourly basis.  It’s a good thing there weren’t any sharp objects around then because it was a pretty dismal amount.  Like 7 bucks an hour or something.  I knew better this time to stop where I was and not add up my hourly wage.  But, I didn’t know enough to not add up how many hours a week I was putting in.  We are currently fishing two 36 hour periods a week here on the Flats.  That’s 72 hours just in itself.  Then figure in run time and skipper likes to leave the night before.  Just leaving the night before twice a week adds at least 24 hours, possibly more (but I’ll say 24 hours because anything more than that will just be too depressing).  Then ballpark that I’m mending about 15 hours a week and that’s ……holy shit!  111.  No wonder I feel like I don’t have time for anything.  I don’t!
This is on top of the fog in my brain created by lack of sleep.  Its only 2 nights a week but somehow it lingers.  On those 36 hour openers, I get about 6 hours of sleep but it is broken up into 11/2 to 2 hour chunks.  Nights before the opener, I usually get 5-7 hours of sleep.  Trouble is, when I get to back to town, my body only sleeps about 6 or 7 hours because that is what it is used to.  Besides, sleep cuts into other activity time. 
This fog creeps in and you lose the ability to think.  All fishermen know what I’m talking about or anyone else who is sleep deprived on a regular basis.  You get that 1000 yard stare and just look at something, blankly, and know you know it but you can’t think.  Then someone else will come along, who is not a sleep deprived fisherman, and look at you, incredulously, and will give you a hand.  “Jen, 2+2=4”.  “Oh, ok, uh..thanks” and I’ll sheepishly walk away.  The other morning I woke up on the boat and couldn’t remember the skipper’s name.   Shit.  What’s his name, what’s his name?  I mean, this is only the 2nd season I’ve fished with him.  I’ve only known him for about 10 years.  Jack? No.  A list of all the guys I used to fish for came pouring in.  Dave? No, that was the Gene S back in ’94.  Mike? No, good guess, there were 2 Mikes, the Coral down in southeast and the Whiskey Creek out in Bristol Bay.   Louie? Christ no, it’s not Louie! It did come to me, eventually, but what a feeling not be able to think of something so simple, something that I probably say 100 times a week  and a face that I see more that I get to see my own boyfriend’s!  Anyway, I’m sick of that.
I’m also sick of my hands being sore.   Not just the little nicks and cuts I get because my hands get dried out from salt water and crack, but sore from picking fish and mending.  I’m sick of the ache in the fingers and the sting in my knuckle of my right middle finger, the knuckle just under the fingernail.  It’s a small joint, but it hurts.  I’m also sick of smashing my hands on things when they are cold and wet.  Under the hatch covers, the level wind….I haven’t smashed them bad enough to cause any damage or bruising, just enough to smart for a while.  And you know how things hurt more when your hands are cold.  I know, I know, I should be grateful I even have a job.  I’ll try to remind myself of that next time I slam my fingers in the hatch cover.
I’m sick of my feet being clammy in Xtra-Tuff’s all day long.  I’m sick of my clothes smelling like fish.  I’m sick of smelling exhaust.  Sick of my ears hurting from wearing earmuff’s while running. (I have this nice expensive pair of Bose Noise Cancelling head phone that are light and comfortable, but I can’t wear them on this boat because there is too much vibration and they make noise.) I’m sick of flip-flopping around all day.  Sick of slamming into things and getting all bruised up like an apple.  Sick of having to hold the throttles for the entire 2 hour run down to Softuk because they don’t stay up themselves.  Sick of the loud bang everything makes on an aluminum boat.  Sick of the color of aluminum.  Grey.  (On a side note, did you know that you can’t put an copper bottomed pot on aluminum?  Electrolysis.  The copper eats through the stainless steel.  On the other hand, if you have meat that needs to be thawed out, just slap in on the aluminum deck and it will thaw in a minutes.  You can’t just set the Styrofoam package down, you have to put the meat side down.  Makes me wonder if I strip down if I would thaw me out? Just a thought.)  Let’s see, I was on a roll here………Oh, sick of my hair being a mess,  sick of not getting enough showers, sick of looking at my huge pile of laundry and mail and the too tall grass in my yard and my unplanted flowers. Sick of not posting my blog on time. There is more, I’m sure, but you get the idea.
But then, on the other hand,  after all that, I get my paycheck and think, OK.  I’ll do it one more time. 

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Copper River Flat's 4th & 5th Fishing Period.

There was a big run out tide Monday morning before the opener.  Skipper got up at 4 AM to run out the Grass bar.  Low water was a 6:47 AM with 12 feet of water moving.  Crossing the bar at low water could get a bit dangerous.  Unfortunately, this proved to be true, though not for us.  We were floating around waiting for the 7 AM work bell to go off when we heard someone relaying a MAYDAY call to the Coast Guard on channel 16.  Hearing a MAYDAY never ceases to send a chill straight through to my spine, each and every time. 
At first, we were getting just getting bits of information, waiting for the story to unfold.  The fishing vessel (f/v) Topnotch was standing by a vessel in the break at Kokenhenik Bar.   Vessel was upright but appeared to be without power, two souls on board.   Coast Guard asked the make and color of the vessel.  Topnotch reported that it was a 30’ aluminum bowpicker.  Well, that narrows it down to about half the fleet.  After a few more minutes Topnotch spelled out the vessel name “Golf-Uniform-Lima-Kilo-Alpha-November-Alpha”. Skipper and I looked at each other, incredulous.  At the same time, we both said “Did he just spell out Gulkana? That’s my buddy, Billy Jr., fisherman, direct marketer, Copper River Salmon Marketing Association Board member, Prince William Sound Yacht Club President, Wine on Wednesday (WOW) goer and boat builder extraordinaire.  6 flags over Billy. So named after the 6 pennants he flies on his boat.  Flew.
Topnotch, being a single engine, fiberglass Miller rig, and the wrong side of the bar, was unable to assist.  There would have been 2 to rescue if he had attempted.  The Gulkana was on bottom in the breakers and taking ‘em over the cabin.  I waved to him on his was out the night before.  We were both leaving the harbor at the same time.  I could see he had his girlfriend Lori with him.  I don’t think she usually fishes with him but since it was a long weekend, Memorial Day and all, she probably had an extra day off.  It was a nice forecast and probably thought it would be a fun time on the flats.
The f/v Cape Fear , an aluminum twin jet boat, came in from the other side of the bar to tow Billy and Lori out of there, but got the tow line sucked in his jet and was unable to assist.    The f/v Sewak, also an aluminum twin jet rig was able to get a hold of the Gulkana and tow them out of there with both on deck in their survival suits.  The Sewak is Bill Sr., Billy Jr’s dad.  Billy built both boats. 
In the mean time the Coast Guard was sending a helicopter with a pump, but it was 45 minutes out.  The Sewak was able to tow them to safety but reported that only the bow rollers of the Gulkana was the only part above water.  She sank in 80 feet of water.
Here is the story I was able to piece together. Billy was running out, rode a wave, came down on the bottom and snapped off his two lower units.  A wave hit his stern, busted out both windows, flooded the engine room and left them without power, which is why they never made the MAYDAY call.   Several 12 footers crashed down, tweaking the cabin and making it impossible to open the door.  They were able to escape out the window.  They were pounded by breakers about 45 minutes before anyone could get to them and tow them out of there. 
It’s been a crazy season so far.  The weather hasn’t been too bad, only that one opener, but there sure have been lots of rescues.  Luckily, so far, everyone has made it through. 
Fishing was pretty good on Monday then slowed down a bit for Thursday's opener.  Thats the way she goes though.  We'll try 'er again on Monday.  Until then, eat fish!

I’ll catch ya on the flip side. 

Friday, June 3, 2011

Stand by to stand by

This week's blog will be delayed a day due to a conflict of scheduling.  Basically, short version, fishing trumps everything and it taking over my life.  Correction, has taken over everything in my life!  However,  the new post will be up on Saturday.