How to End the Salmon Season (aka Selective Memory, the Fisherman’s Friend)

Posted by on October 3, 2011 in Alaska, Commercial Fishing, F/V Nerka, Hooked Favorites, Salmon Trolling, Women in Fishing | 25 comments

A close friend was raised on a troller, fishing with his dad. One of my favorite end-of-season stories is from him:

It was a beautiful day at the Cape, flat calm, sunny, in early September. My dad looked over at me and said, “Let’s quit.”

A teenager at the time, my friend was flabbergasted. They were catching, the weather was great; why in the world would they quit right then?

My dad gestured around us and said, “I want to remember the season just like this.”

And with that – a great forecast, big coho biting, and several weeks remaining of the season – they hauled their hooks aboard for the last time that summer.

Sunrise over Shelikof Bay

*****

Our last day of the season was not that kind of day.

After several days of calm water, good fishin’, stunning sunrises and sunsets, we missed the chance to close a challenging season on that positive note. By 9:00, our hooks had been dragging for almost 3 hours and we’d caught only 11 coho. Not a good ratio.  Gusting 30, the wind threw rain at the boat in sheets as we bucked up and down the 9-foot chop. Fish-able, certainly, but miserable all the same.

On another boat, this might be called “deckhand weather” – the kind of day where the captain stays warm and dry inside, sending the crew out to run the gear, clean the fish, and handle the deck work. But the captain/crew line on this boat is blurred gossamer-fine, and Joel is not a jackass. We shivered side by side in the cockpit, heads ducked low against the pellets of rain, as we cleaned the few coho on deck.

“This is how we’re going out, huh?” Joel hollered at our surroundings. In answer, the next gust shoved us hard starboard.

Long skeins of snot hung from my nose. Clad head to finger to toe in raingear, there wasn’t a dry, wipe-able surface in sight. If there’s any test for a relationship, it’s this – sharing weeks on 43-feet of living space, always within arms’ reach of one another’s filthiest, stinkiest, sorest, most exhausted, least attractive selves. As I continued scraping kidney from the coho before me, the wind grabbed the threads and flung them long.

Raincoat on and smile gone; one of the days that our job actually feels like a job.

****

I’d been nursing a cup of coffee in the Backdoor several weeks earlier when a local teacher said, “Reading your posts, I think trolling sounds pretty good.”  I’d smiled at the familiar tone, the envy with which non-fishermen sometimes view our profession. Be your own boss and work only half the year, practically a wildlife cruise, anyway, with the sights you see. Fritter the rest of the year away, frolicking about while the rest of society endures a rigid work week in exchange for a week or two of vacation – if they’re lucky.

But as we frequently remind ourselves, “If it was easy, everyone would do it.”  With the coho cleaned and handed down to blast-freeze in the -38 degree fish hold, we rushed back into the warm cabin and grabbed towels to dry our sopping faces. Joel turned to the calculator and began punching numbers again.

“If we quit today, how much would we be giving up?” he asked. Our premium frozen-at-sea market meant that one day of scratching up 90 of these coho could mean $2000 for the boat. After expenses, Joel and I see significantly less, but early childhood indoctrination continually loops through my mind. Every fish counts!

I recalled my friend’s story, how I admired his dad’s decision to end the season with a personal value, rather than a financial one. But Joel and I sat surrounded by sheets of numbers: lists of anticipated winter expenses, balances of fish already sold, conservative estimates of what we could expect to yet be paid. When you’re young, self-employed in an unpredictable industry and looking at a long, uncertain off-season, the decision to quit a few days early could mean the cost of several months’ mortgage, car repairs, or a long-overdue trip to the dentist.

Still, I wondered, how much is enough?

A bin full of king salmon: Enough?

****

During the August coho closure, Joel and I had helped a friend who was replacing part of his engine. He came to fishing by way of upstate New York over 15 years ago, when he visited Southeast Alaska and never left. As he squeezed his grease-stained self beside the engine, guiding her 1000 pound bulk back onto her mounts, he muttered with his lingering East Coast edge, “We do it ‘cause we love it, that’s the fuckin’ pisser.”

Beyond financial worries, it’s this love that makes it tough to say goodbye. After much debate and not a small amount of sadness, we pulled our hooks aboard for the last time that afternoon. By then the rain had let up and the seas had come down, and we hugged each other close, tactile thanks for the months of teamwork. Cap’n J revved up the Jimmy for our final run back to Sitka, and I cranked up the music for my intensive end-of-year deck scrub.

Mixing the bleach-heavy solution, I thought about the traits that make a good fisherman. Endurance, observation, creativity. Patience. The ability to juggle prudence with necessary risk. Some degree of obsession. To be independently wealthy would be okay, too.

But perhaps our greatest quality is the gift of selective memory. Within a month, the day we called our last won’t matter. We’ll forget all of this season’s challenges and remember only the good. Those massive hogs of the second king salmon opening. The spectacular sunrises of early September. The joys of community within the fleet this season, boat parties that crossed code group lines and rang with laughter. If there’s one thing fishermen know, it’s that suffering is temporary, but the pride in our work and gifts of our experiences are lasting.

From us to you, with gratitude for our customers. Thanks to all for making this life possible for us.

25 Comments

  1. Beautiful……………….

    Love the pictures, see you soon!

    Be Well

  2. Beautiful way to tell the story. How blessed you are to have such a world view and selective memory.

  3. Are you home? I’m in Bellingham thursday—ferry to Juneau on Friday for mosse huntingg with my bro….coffee would be great……You rock little sister!!!

    • Judi! Sorry that we’ll miss each other this time – I’m actually in MT this week. Joel just saw his first (2) moose in Glacier, pretty special. We’ll work on a coffee date for this winter!

  4. and my spelling is ridiculous at this hour!

  5. I remember our last day pretty well. Full raingear, water coming through the baitshed sideways, but I felt so happy anyway.

    • And us the only two boats out there! Not a bad way to end at all.

  6. Tommy fished the second to last day down by ketchikan. He had a very good day and decided to stay to see if the 20th was going to be fishable. It turns out that a storm warning was posted but Tom thought he was going to be in a great anchorage.

    “It was a dark and story night”… Tom said he was blown out of the anchorage two or three times. One time his anchor was fouled on SOMETHING and he could not raise it but it was not stuck to the bottom. So at oh-dark-and-windy-thirty he was jogging around in 40+knts with his anchor out. He got out of the jam by dragging the snag back into the anchorage and somehow it let go when it was on bottom.

    Tom did not fish the 20th; he got to town, tied up and slept until the next day when he pitched the last load.

    “Not with a bang but a whimper”… And a shudder and great big sigh of relief that Patty had the compassion to not extend the season.

    By the way, there is a tuna bite off the River, almost a ton a day. To bad the boat is in Sitka, eh?

    • “At oh-dark-and-windy thirty” – I may have to steal some of your lines, Joel, if you keep leaving such perfect comments!

      You’re right; I should’ve included a post script thank you to Pattie for closing the season on the 20th! Glad to hear that you’re home safe, and you can have that tuna bite all to yourself, sir. Winter kings is off our table, since we shipped the liferaft south to be serviced. See you at Expo, if not before?

  7. I devour your posts for the way you craft phrases, paint images, capture emotions, and I always end up with a craving for salmon…hmmm why is that?

    Seriously admire the way you live your life. Seriously love your writing. When is that book coming out?

  8. Aw, thanks, Tracey. Beyond finding such simpatico messages in your own writings, I really appreciate your generosity as a reader and responder. I envy anyone lucky enough to be in a writer’s group with you!

  9. It did’nt take me 2 weeks to forget. The sign was out of the window in 4 or 5 days.

    • Ha! Well, Dave, I’m not surprised that your selective memory would be that much more finely developed than the kids’ – we’ll aspire to reach your level. 😉

      I did indeed notice the sign being gone – gave me quite a jolt at first glance! As much as I know you two have other things you’re ready to do, I’m selfishly thankful that we may have your company for another season. Hugs and best wishes to you both.

  10. Not a Jack-ass huh? Best line of the season!!!! Right up there with “Well…..We ARE up here to make money!!!!!” BTW it was so great to have some special memories with two of my favorite peeps this year.

    • That July comment you liked so much might make it into a future post yet, Dan-o! Yes, it was SO good to have you and family with us again – your positivity and energy are serious gifts to the fleet. Looking forward to seeing you all over the winter!

  11. I will never forget that afternoon we pulled the gear early it’s funny how such small amounts of time effect our future selves. And how strong the talent for holding on to the good can be.

    • And the power that our individual stories can have when casually shared with others. You two were alone on the boat that day, but it surely seems that a lot of other folks can relate to the message.

  12. “This is how we’re going out, huh?” Joel hollered at our surroundings…..

    I totally relate to that image! Who doesn’t occasionally “weather scream” from the cockpit?

    • I’m not surprised that line spoke to you, Dennis, as hardcore as you are! (Of course, now that you’re a gentle dog fisherman…)

  13. I just love this story! The self-satisfaction of knowing you did it together and survived! There is great pride in the end result. And then, one month from now, some “shit” just doesn’t matter! There is an admiration we all should have for this existence. It is not for everyone, but for everyone that participates it is certainly something to be proud of!

    • Thanks, Donna! I’m not at all surprised that you know exactly what I was talking about!

  14. Your list of traits of a good fisherman, right on. I would just add “a cynical sense of humor” for my cousin who unlike me stuck out trolling for 55 years, and off Oregon– a mean coast. He made a living until the closures wiped them out. And he always refused to take credit for being talented–“I just fished harder than the others.” Baloney, it was more than that! Thanks very much for bringing it all back.

    • You’re right, Nancy – that IS an important inclusion! Funny oversight… The Nerka’s helm is pasted with relevant fortune cookie messages, including this one square in the mdidle: “A sense of humor will see you through.” That one went up on one of the seasons when EVERYTHING seemed to be crumbling around us, and sure enough, those things all seem fairly funny now.

      Your cousin sounds impressive indeed, and very familiar. One of my favorite traits of the fleet’s older generation is their self-deference, their refusal to talk themselves up, when it’s very obvious how much skill, strength, and determination played into their success. Whether several seasons or seventy, you know what it’s all about; bravo to your cousin, and bravo to you, too, Nancy!

  15. You have real talent. Thanks so much.

  16. Great artical and may I add if you try to get someone who has never been selfemployed they think that all you do is hang out a shingle and the money comes with no hard work no sacrifice and life is all roses. A 9-5 mentality everyone pays their dues and sometimes it works and sometimes it does not its a bitter sweet thing but its life and the challange is worth the effort. Keep up the good work and I wish you nothing but the best in all of lifes endevors and keep on writting.

    Selfemployed

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