The Golden Scrub Brush

Posted by on March 8, 2013 in Commercial Fishing, Salmon Trolling | 18 comments

One afternoon last August, the Nerka bucked hard into a steep Westerly chop. Struggling to keep my balance while flushing the blood out of a gutted king salmon, I groused under my breath. Only work half the year, watch whales, pretty much just a wildlife cruise… Right. Then an epiphany. National Fisherman publishes an annual “Highliner of the Year” issue, celebrating fisherfolks who’ve contributed to our industry. What if Hooked recognized stellar deckhands of our fleet?

Delighted by this thought of a new tradition, I got on the radio and asked our partners to help name the award. “The Golden Scrub Brush,” one responded. Perfect.

Finding good crew, after all, is a bit like finding Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket. Cap’n J and I are lucky: we’re both young/strong/able/stubborn enough to handle everything just the two of us – for now. Other captains go through the same exhaustive search every spring – and for some, even a time or two more before the season’s end.

A confession: every June, Joel and I scope out the new crop roaming the harbor. It’s become an annual wager between us, pointing out who’ll be the gem of the season, and whose sea bag will be dumped on the dock by mid-July. We’re usually not too far off.

What separates the gems from the rest? Work ethic, sure. Being observant – seeing what needs doing, and doing it – matched by an equal ability to listen, follow directions, and not presume that they know better than their captain. Being someone that captain wants to live with.

(Another troller described the iron-fist rules he gave his deckhand. “One, I decide who we’re coding with. Two, I talk first in the morning. Three, no, you can’t take a nap in your raingear in my bunk.” The deckhand? His mother.)

The physical demands of our work are teachable. Less so are the core qualities, who a person is at heart, that are so essential. Few of us are prepared to be alone with the unfettered corners of our mind, places we’ve never visited and don’t know are there until all of the usual distractions and buffers have been stripped away by weeks at sea.

A bumper sticker popular among fishermen, commonly slapped on battered trucks and baitsheds, issues the reminder: “Attitude Makes the Difference.” This, more than anything, is true. It’s why Joel and I immediately agreed on who embodied the inaugural Golden Scrub Brush Award.

Mike Skiffing the Bay 2012

(“Wait,” you say. “Isn’t that your buddy Mikey, who was just at Fisher Poets with you guys?” Yep. Favoritism? Absolutely. Mike is indeed one of our favorite people in the fleet – and also the person most deserving of Awesome Deckhand recognition.)

Joel and I met Mike Montagne in 2010, when he crewed on one of our partner boats. It was a temporary gig; midway through the season, he was living in a van in the harbor parking lot, waiting to see what opportunities would come next. This worked out well for us: we always needed a third person to help us unload. Mike quickly distinguished himself as reliable, helpful, and fun.


Mike, Betsy, T Unloading


We’ve passed a lot of fish popsicles through Mike’s hands since then. He’s crewed for my “brother” Marlin for the past two seasons. A jokester, he’s his own favorite target. One frequent self-deprecating line: “This is what you get when you hire someone out of the back of a van!” In truth, what our fleet got from that van is awfully good.

Like when a string of trollers were rafted together one evening last summer, and a deckhand dropped a gaff overboard. The current was strong in that anchorage; we watched the $30 tool drift towards the mouth of the bay, immediately out of reach. “I’ll get it!” Mike yelled. Before any of us knew what was happening, he was in his wetsuit, yanking on flippers, and plunging into the water.

To be clear: none of us get in the water voluntarily. (My feeling? Fuck that.) But Mikey’s part sea lion. As he says, “Lie around naked in the sun all day, eating fish? Who wouldn’t want to do that?” So while the rest of us spent harbor days napping or watching bad movies, he went swimming. I grew accustomed to seeing his dark head pop up amongst otters, seals, and kelp paddies.

The elder captains among us didn’t know this. They nearly dropped their Rainiers, sputtering, “What the hell’s he doin’?”

Marlin barely glanced over. “It’s what he does. I’ll fire up and go get him if he gets pulled out too far.”

The current didn’t pull Mike out too far. He caught up with the drifting tool, grabbed it, and swam back to the boats, handing the gaff up to the relieved deckhand. (Not everyone appreciated the rescue. I was standing with that deckhand’s captain, who scowled. “I was kinda looking forward to making the kid pay for that gaff.”)

At the dock a few days later, Mike was back in the water, pulling trolling wire out of a new friend’s prop.

I’ve watched him stick a verbal foot in front of bigotry, frequently tripping other deckhands silent with his matter-of-fact reproach, “It’s 2012, dude – don’t make it weird.” He and Joel have long talks about what it means to be men who’ll speak out against sexism and sexual violence, working to responsibly wield their privileges.

Back in 1999, I couldn’t imagine having allies like these. I thought I had to abandon the commercial fishing world I’d loved as a child, a world that suddenly didn’t feel safe or welcoming as a young woman. To see fishermen living these values is a powerful, inspiring affirmation.

Mike brings other affirmation to our work. During a boat party last June, he swept an arm at the surrounding mountains. “We could be anywhere in the world right now, doing anything, but we’re here, doing this.” Awe filled his voice. And there it was: attitude, making all of the difference.

If the stars align, I’ll be longlining with Marlin again this spring, training Mike in the halibut arts. In the past, I’ve often not been a great deck boss. (For some of the same reasons I’ve chosen not to parent, including a streak of ugly impatience.) Sometimes it goes better, though – that is, sometimes I go better, and it seems working with Mike would foster that. I hope those stars do align. Like Cap’n J, those are two men I’d be pleased to go to sea with. And while an imaginary award is fun, this truth is really the best recognition: on deck and in life, Mike is the kind of good that encourages everyone around him to be better, too.


Stay frosty, Mikey.

Stay frosty, Mikey.


Obviously the 2012 salmon season is long past. Time got away from me on this one, as it does on so many posts I’d like to share with you. In this case, the delay worked out: today is Mike’s birthday! When better to receive a major award?  Please join me in wishing him a happy birthday. For the fishin’ folk among you, I’d love to hear your thoughts on what makes a good deckhand. Any preemptive nominations for next season’s Golden Scrub Brush?


  1. I like the troller’s rule: I talk first in the morning. Though I’m not a fisher, I may adopt that rule in my house!
    Thanks, Tele, for sharing some of your world with the rest of us. And happy birthday, Mike! What a wonderful guy.

    • Nancy! It’s great to hear you chip in over here – thanks for that. I’ve missed seeing you since we’ve been on break. Hope you’re writing!

  2. Great article. Now let’s do one on what makes a good skipper from the deckhand’s perspective.

    Happy Birthday, Mike, and congratulations on your superb deckhandiness.

    • Sometime in 1992 (I think) KCAW had deckhands up to the station to talk about their skippers and what their perspective was on being a deckhand and what made a good skipper to work with. HA! My deckhand was a college friend of the radio host! So she was up there comparing me to other skippers. Maybe that session is on tape, but maybe more fun to annually get folks back up to KCAW at the coho break to reflect on their skippers and first half of the season.

      And be gentle on us old guys!

      • Wow, that sounds like a fantastic radio show – I would’ve liked to have heard that one! (Alas, I was 14, too busy being a drunken disaster to have learned the virtues of Raven Radio.) You’ve got nothing to worry about, Joel; I’m sure you came out way ahead of the others!

        Holly! So glad to hear from you, too – it’s been an awfully long time. Hope you’ve been well, friend.

  3. Good job, Tele! Happy Birthday, Mike!

  4. Happy Birthday, Mike! What great vibes from this story.

  5. Wonderful post, Tele. Cheers, Mike! Here’s to many more.

  6. Well deserved recognition, sounds like a valued member of the team, love the frosty look!
    Bonne anniversaire!

  7. What a Great Idea for thought, discussion,….a great post

    Your paragraph beginning, “What separates the gems,…” Says it all,…
    and Man, can I ever relate to the search,..

    What a relief it is, to find a Gem,…they’re out there, just few and far between.

    • Hey Alan – Glad this one struck a chord with you, and thanks for saying so – it’s nice to “hear” your voice! Sounds like you’ve got some stories of your own re: the search… Are you still fishing? If so, hope this season brings some winners your way.

  8. Happy B-Day Mike and thanks for this comment: “Lie around naked in the sun all day, eat­ing fish? Who wouldn’t want to do that?” Now I know what my husband may have been in a previous life.

    • Ha! You made me laugh with that, Linda. Hope all’s good for you and yours. I’m heading out your way at the end of the month – hope to get some of your sunshine!

  9. tele; found your blog a few months ago; love you and joel and your blog; ive spent my life trolling; owned the north island star sister ship to nerka; live in port hardy; like to meet you and joel; maybe you cen arrange overnite stop on way north TR

    • So good to meet you, Tom – I’m glad you spoke up and introduced yourself! It’d definitely be fun to meet up and see your town through your eyes; all these years making the trip and I’ve not yet been in Port Hardy. Our program has been to run straight through, but you’ll be on the list if we ever slow down. Thanks for being here.

  10. Beautiful, had to tweet it too!

    • Much appreciated, Lynn! I’m not very good at the Twittersphere yet, so thanks for your advocacy!

  11. Saw your work via Patrick Dixsons new site Inthetote. Will read more later. Thanks for your work it gets me closer to the another profession in a humane way.
    Thanks again


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