Friday, October 28, 2011

Lucky Fishing Hat

I heard once that baseball players don’t change their socks during a series as its bad luck. Fishermen are the same way with their hats.  At first, like any greenhorn, I didn’t know this.  I would simply fish in any old hat until someone pointed out to me that I had a lot of audacity just changing hats like that and tempting fate.  Clearly, I needed a fishing hat.  You had to put some thought into the hat that would be the only hat on your head the next few months so obviously, not any old hat would do.
I racked my brain, almost to the point of losing sleep, in order of selecting the perfect hat.  Okay, actually it wasn’t that hard of a choice.  I only had one hat with me.  It was a blue ball cap that had “24/7/365” on the front.  Being that that is pretty much every fisherman’s work schedule, I thought it was fitting. Problem solved, I had the perfect fishing hat.  Until.

That next spring when I returned to Alaska at the start of the season, I searched high and low but to no avail.  I had lost my fishing hat.  Back to square one.  I think I had a few interim hats until I again, found the perfect fishing hat. 
Granted, finding the perfect hat is probably not such a feat for other fisherman as it is for me. But, I have a pin head and most hats are too big, thus narrowing the selection of cool hats down to only a few.  However, fishermen have perseverance and I continued my search as if my life depended on it.  And who knows, maybe it did. 
Alas, I knew it as soon as I laid my eyes on it.  Ah, yes, I still remember it today.  I walked into Lee’s Clothing store in Petersburg and it was love at first sight.  There was my fishing hat and it was just right.  It was a tannish beige color with three brown letters on the front.  Very elegant.  And like the other hat, it made you stop and think for a second.  Only one step better, with this hat you had to be in the know to know that those letters meant. The three letters were “PSG”, the indentifying city code for Petersburg, not only used at the airport but also used on the Alaska Marine Highway, the ferry system.  

I was in heaven, in love with my new hat for the reason that, one, it fit, and two, local pride.  Fishermen take pride in where they hail from.  It can almost be like a school rivalry, Petersburg, Wrangell, Sitka, Ketchikan.  And I was labeled PSG.
I wore my colors proudly for years.  I would tuck my pony tail though the back of my hat, anchoring it onto my head.  If the wind caught the bill and blew it off, as happened often enough, my hair would catch it long enough for me to put it back on my head. 
Later, when I expanded my fishing routine and started going up to Bristol Bay, Kodiak and Cordova, the hat became a bit of an icebreaker.  “What is PSG?” they would ask.  “Petersburg” I’d reply with pride.  It’s a status quo, really. Then the other fishermen would know that I have fished other fisheries and I was not a greenhorn, a status that I felt I had to constantly reestablish.  But, that’s a story in itself and one for another time. 
Anyway, I must have had that old hat for about 5 years or so, well until I had my own boat and it had served me well.  I was bummed when I lost it I never thought I would see it again.  Until one day, a year later, I was fishing around under the seat of my car when lo and behold.  There it was!  Tune in next week and I’ll tell you about the luck that hat brought me.
Until then, eat fish!

Friday, October 21, 2011

My first day as a commercial fisherman

This was the day I had been waiting years for.  Finally, I was a commercial fisherman.  A Copper River fisherman, no less.  And it was opening day of the Copper River Gill net fishery 2000.  Gale warnings be damned. 
I had just taken the plunge and bought in.    At last, I was a permit holder for Area E, the Prince William Sound and the Copper River Delta drift salmon fishery.  I had a new (to me) boat, new (to me) net, old raingear (I had visions of starting off my new career as a skipper with new raingear) and a new $90,000 state loan.  In a matter of a few months I had managed to: get a state loan, find a boat, find a permit, nets, get everything in working order, launch the boat, drum the net aboard, find my way to Egg Island without going dry, and get up and over the bar without too much demise.  And now, the moment I had been dreaming about for years; making my first set as skipper of my very own fishing boat.
However.  It didn’t quite go as I envisioned it.  In my vision, I make this stellar set and am the envy of the fleet.  I load up on glorious, famous Copper River Reds my first try and make $10,000 my first day.   In reality, I found myself on my hands and knees, puking on my fish, my glorious fish,  wondering what the hell I had just gotten myself into. 
May 15, 2000, the first day of the season brought 30 knot winds, 8-10 foot seas with cold rain.  Gale warnings were in the forecast and the weather was already snotty.  My steering was on the fritz, but I could still limp around and try to fish.   
The romantic notion of owing my own commercial fishing boat was taking a beating.   And so was I.  After eight years of crewing on boats I decided it was time to buy in and buy my own fishing boat and permit, the license needed to fish.  I was 28 years old wanted to figure out what I was going to do with my life.  I needed a true course in my life, opposed to the magnetic course of wandering of being a deckhand. Buying in seemed to make the most sense.  No doubt, I had other options.  I had two years of college under my belt but school wasn’t capturing my interests.  Besides, in order to go back to school, I would have to do the unthinkable, move to a city where there was a school.  My other option was to carry on my budding flying career by getting my commercial pilot’s license.  Since I already had a private pilot’s license, the state of Alaska would loan me the money to continue on.  But, that didn’t fully suit me either as I didn’t think I would like sitting still in a tiny cockpit all day long.  So, with those two other possibilities eliminated, that left only one choice, to buy in. 
I got all my duckys in a row and dove right in.  I figured if I ended up flat on my face financially, then at least I was young enough to recover. That is, if I survived.  Commercial fishing in Alaska has a fatality rate that is 36 times higher than the national average for other occupations.  But, when you are 28 you think you’ll live forever.  So who cares about national averages?
Besides, I was single, no kids and no one else I was responsible for, financially or otherwise.  It was scary though, I had never had a loan before.  Shoots, I had never even had debt before.  But, here I was plunging head first into a $90,000 debt to the State of Alaska.  To me, the loan was the scariest part.  Until I got out there, that is.
So, there I was.  I ran out the Egg island bar without too much mishap.  The whole fleet ran east, I headed west.  I was scared to death that I would crash into someone out there.  The fishery opened at 7 AM and I made my first set in the Mousetrap.  I could steer, more or less, well enough to make a set but as the day went on my steering problem got worse.  Dale, a guy in my radio group offered to give me a few pints of steering fluid.  I just had to come get it. I got as close to him as I dared in rough seas and defunct steering and he threw me the first quart of steering fluid.  Of course, he missed and it went in the drink, but I got the second one.  The steering fluid should done something but now my problem was I didn’t have a funnel.  As it turned out, it didn’t do much for my steering system but my teak did look real good.
After about 8 hours of battling the weather, being seasick and lack of steering I decided I had just about enough fun for one day.  Besides, the weather was already bad enough to make a tow impossible if my steering went completely out and it was picking up.
I limped into Egg island and headed for the tender.  I shouted to the tendermen that my steering was going out and that I’d have to make a crash landing.  I got close as I could without crashing into him and took her out of gear as they lassoed me in.  I delivered my 64 fish, tucked my tail between my legs and limped back into town. 
Turned out that the previous owner accidentally put the vent cap for the steering system on the outside helm, which is lower than the inside helm.  So, not only was steering fluid leaking out but salt water was also getting in.  I had to flush and bleed my whole steering system, which was quite a task.  Funny though that one teeny tiny little hole on one teeny tiny little cap could cost so much time and money.  Could have been worse though, I suppose.  But, I got ‘er all fixed up and went back out and caught some fish the next opener.
And that was my first day as a commercial fisherman. 

Friday, October 14, 2011

So what's it like, anyway?

A few readers have been asking about the ins and outs of fishing.  If a picture is worth a thousand words, I wonder what a video is worth.  Check out a few of my favorite YouTube fishing videos and photos.

We'll start with this top 10 must see videos of Cordova.  Number 9 is specifically about Copper River salmon.

This one is an overview of Cordova and the Copper River Salmon Fisherie:

Another one about the fishery stars the infamous Copper River Salmon Fisherman George Covel:

This one is one fisherman, Dan Bergquist's account of another day, another dollar.  It's not the nicest day on the Flats but a typical one.  Don't get seasick.

One more of how salmon go from the ocean to the smokehouse:

I hope you enjoyed the videos.
Until next time, eat fish!
I'm out.
Until next time, eat fish!

Friday, October 7, 2011


A reader recently asked me that if the weather is always bad and if I’m always miserable and in peril, why do I fish?  Well, good question.  For starters, I’m not always in peril.  But, who wants to read about the boring moments?

Truth is fishing is often tedious and boring.  Mind numbing boredom. You set your net and watch it fish. 900 feet of cork line bobbing lacklusterly in the ocean.  Hours and hours of sheer boredom, only punctuated occasionally with moments of sheer terror.  

If everything goes right and the weather is more less decent, things are boring.  This though, is a good thing.  You can just drift around, feeling mother ocean slowly rock you back and forth into a soft lullaby with each swell.  You witness the most amazing skies: sunsets, sunrises, moonrises, shooting stars, Northern lights, all while smelling the crisp salty ocean air.  Marine mammals play in the surf.   Otters float around the net with their little paws sticking out of the water, as if waving “hello”.  Birds follow the corks, thinking they are part of the flock.  Arctic turns dive for little fishes.  Seagulls squawk.  Puffins accent the sky with their little orange beaks.  Whales spout in the distance making impromptu “Old Faithful”.  Porpoise play in the waves.  Fish jump.   Seals smile at you with their eyes.  Sea lions nibble.  It’s a wildlife viewing extravaganza.

You can feel the warm sun on your face as you sit, lazily, in the skipper’s seat, feet propped up, watching your net.    The sun’s heat accentuated as it comes in through the window combined with the heat of the diesel stove. Water rhythmically lapping against the hull.   You daydream about all the things you’ll do with the money you are making.  Vacations, new truck, new nets, that upgrade on your boat.  Splash!  You see another fish hit the net.  One more 20 dollar bill slipped into your pocket. Strike-O!  Fish clatter.  Another 100 bucks.  And you haven’t even finished your first cup of coffee!!  Isn’t this just a dream come true? 

Here you are, on your very own commercial fishing boat, in Alaska.  Your own business.  You you’re your boat whatever you want, paint it the color you want.  In some cases, design and build it however you want.
Your boat is not just a way to make money, but your own little home away from home.  You cook on your boat, sleep on your boat, change your clothes on your boat, feed yourself from your boat.  Make a living from your boat. It keeps you safe and warm, protects you from the elements and makes you money.

You are your own boss, make your own hours, fish where you want, when you want, and how you want.  You call the shots.  Answer to no one.   You work your ass off half the year and can take the rest of the time off, if you wish. You take pride in your profession.  You are an Alaskan Fisherman.   The world is your oyster.

And that is why I fish.