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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