While a normal response would have been to vomit, somehow, I had gotten used to the potpourri of fish, diesel, and body odors trapped within the walls of the warming cabin. After grinding through a steady 48 hours of picking 14,000 pounds of entangled Sockeye out of a gill net, slogging through the suck-muck, and hanging onto a bucking skiff in deteriorating weather, none of us cared. Covered in scales, dried blood and slime, we were more creature-like than human, moving around the salmon camp like a gaggle of dirty zombies ready to devour everything in our path. In the words of Lisa, a veteran set-netting colleague two cabins down, the transformation was complete…we had become “Men Of The Mud”.
Alaska has always been a draw for me, and growing up, I had every intention of living there. While life altered my course (which I have zero regrets over), the urge to experience the relative unspoiled condition of “The Last Frontier” continued to nag at me. The older I got, the more I was overcome by a foreboding “now or never” feeling. When I charged off last summer to check out the Bristol Bay salmon fishing scene my wife chalked it up as some type of mid-life-crisis. After four days, I was convinced the world’s greatest salmon factory offered a window into a serious outdoor adventure and a multitude of experiences I could share with my two daughters, Micah (17) and Echo (13).
Months later, opportunity knocked in the form of an available Bristol Bay set net operation. It was Ala Carte, in that almost everything I needed to survive the intensive 5-6 week sockeye season was included. Sporting a smashed front end and plexiglass windshield, the equipment list starred a Toyota pickup with known involvement in a rollover accident. Guaranteed to not overheat so long as the radiator cap was left loose, this fine machine met the Alaska standard – completely abused and worn out, but at least it ran…a theme that extended to my 4-wheelers, generator, boat, and motor.
Convincing two of my more intelligent buddies to sign on with a greenhorn outfitted with barely functioning equipment was my last step. I remember thinking that pulling this off was going to require the same level of salesmanship Tom Sawyer employed when he persuaded those lads to paint a picket fence for the fun of it. I did my best to conjure up an image of adventure and excitement. Mark committed to being there for three weeks, Tony for the full season. For my eldest daughter, Micah, the decision was easy…she was more than willing to sacrifice one of her last remaining summers as a youth, swear off the internet, and abandon her boyfriend for an incredible bonding experience with her dad…ok, so maybe I made her go. I left Echo behind to keep her Mother from spending all of our money.
North to Alaska
Alaska Air touched down in King Salmon, the gateway to my fishing site on the far side of a spongy mass of land known as the tundra. The plane terminal, such that it was, looked like the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange – pure chaos. I wriggled my way into the human caboose snaking around the roped off baggage claim area, a space big enough for half of us. After 30 minutes of pressing bodies with strangers, we were reunited with our duffel bags. Tony and I jostled it all outside and created a leaning tower of overweight luggage in the gravel parking lot. Looking around for our charter pilot, described by past patrons merely as a guy with a short temper, instead I found an energetic and pleasant young lady holding a clip board. Surrounded by a hoard of people that had more places to go than what she had airplane for, it dawned on me that the double fare I had paid over the previous year wasn’t going to buy the customized service I thought.
We spent the first two hours outside a cute little office swatting at the diversity of bug species that clung to our heads like halos – my personal favorite being the millions of biting Black Fly. More time passed while the people that showed up after us jumped the cue and got flown out first. Obviously, the pilot wasn’t making decisions based on the first come –first served principle as weight and efficiency reigned over reservation. I fought back a moment of anxiety as I realized our party could be split up and my scrawny carcass wedged between two beefy fellows I didn’t know. The reality was that the dicey landing zone near my camp, a narrow strip of gravel that went nowhere and ended as abruptly as it started, limited my air carrier options to a single outfit. You had to be qualified to land on a non-runway, which I guess is a good thing. With a single qualified option, I kept my impatience in check.
The skeleton of an abandoned boat at Valhalla Village where our boat was stored.
Finally, hope sprang eternal. The pilot, already grumpy because we were probably his 20th trip that day due to intentional over-booking, voiced displeasure over the amount of gear we had – after all, it got in the way of another warm body. After the cussing tapered off, he made us sacrifice two bags from our cargo. I was pretty sure a resident of King Salmon was going to be sporting my boxers, but it mattered not because at least we were all flying out together (to his credit, the bags arrived the following day).
About 45 minutes later, I silently thanked my group for flying the angry skies on behalf of the pilot as he unceremoniously pitched our gear on the ground along the North shore of Egegik Bay. The so called air-strip was distinguished by a single pole adorned with a wind sock so tattered it no longer measured wind direction. A faded and barely legible yellow sign reminded travelers that identification or a passport was required by federal law. Standing there in that moment looking out over the scrub alder and tundra, I suddenly felt the weight of absolute responsibility. While I knew from the start the success or failure of this trip would rest solely with me - it was real now…deliver or die (at least financially). I wondered if I had bitten off more than I could handle.
My sleeping bag was calling my name, but at 11:00 P.M., it was still weirdly light, which helped since we still had a lot to do before this travel weary crew passed out. After some sketchy cell service, a kid showed up on a Quad with no brakes and a cargo cart and took us to our boarded up and abandoned cabin perched on the edge of a cliff. Now I just had to find a ladder hidden in the brush, climb in through the second story window, and avoid breaking my neck as I stumbled around in the boarded up structure to unbolt the doors. All possible entry points had been bear-proofed with medieval looking nail embedded plywood, secured from the inside. I was silently thankful the previous occupants had the foresight to leave a 1/2” wrench hanging on a nail just inside the door. I don’t even remember what we had for dinner – we crashed hard on the dusty plywood bunks.
The next day (and many more to come) were spent sorting through two decades of stuff left behind in yard, leaky shop, Conex style container and cabin. Most of the equipment was covered in dust, grown over by the tundra, or had met it’s life span, but I knew it also might be critical equipment later on. Mark somehow managed to bring the generator and 4-wheelers all to life. With our food and equipment crates in storage on the other side of Egegik Bay, the boat still at large, and fishing sites yet to be staked, I was feeling the immense pressure to be ready before the fish arrived.
I found our 24 ft. aluminum Raider sitting on blocks in Valhalla Village, which wasn’t really at all like the Great Hall described in Norse mythology, but rather an old processing plant, sometimes fish buying station, and boat storage facility. It all fell under the ownership of a nice fellow named “Ken”. Somewhere in his 70’s, Ken didn’t look anything like Odin, but as far as I was concerned, he had God-like powers when you needed help. According to the previous owner of the boat, “it ran fine the last time I used it” and he assured me he “put it away for the winter just like my other boats.” I assumed that included the permanent disappearance of a battery and anchor since I couldn’t find the ones that came with the boat.
At least a century of useful things were scattered around Ken’s property - the place was like a remote last- chance- used hardware store. With a loaner battery from Odin, the first crank of the aging Yamaha 2-stroke gave me hope…for two short seconds. Ken to the rescue again as he analyzed the engine like someone who’s seen every mechanical malfunction, with every motor they make, at least a dozen times. Wet spark plugs were identified as the culprit, and once rectified, she bellowed enough blue smoke to make the mosquitos find someone else to harass. After grinding away the old registration numbers and a fair amount of Bristol Bay patina, Micah and I continued with the trend of borrowing stuff we needed from Ken. After applying black spray paint and Sharpie ink to gleaming aluminum patches on the hull (and discouraging any artistic license that could result in a heart shaped letter or numeral), the freshly registered vessel ready to launch.
While the boat sat on a trailer when I first saw it, I had to travel clear to Alaska a second time to find out that it didn’t actually come with the trailer. So how the hell was I supposed to launch this sucker? Navigating what seemed like the world’s largest loader with care, I held my breath as Ken expertly balanced the 24 foot craft on the machines metal forks, steered down a steep hillside toward the edge of the Bay, and lowered the boom. I exhaled as the boat kissed the muddy water.
Naked and Afraid
As Tony and I drove the 12 miles down the beach to find fuel for the boat and equipment, the people of the North Side were on the move, all with the same mission intensity to get ready for a run of fish predicted to arrive in record numbers. We stopped a lot along the way to make introductions and learn what we could about the area, resources and catching fish. Without exception, I found people to be welcoming, all extending an open invitation of help should we need it. This included an intense and fairly amped up guy who seemed completely comfortable winging things – he showed up in Alaska for his first season without a permit, boat, fishing sites, or even a sleeping bag. Somehow, he managed to pull together everything he needed for an operation. As we chatted him up, one thing was clear - what our new friend may have lacked in preparedness was offset by an abundance of enthusiasm (and likely a touch of crazy). As we drove away from his cabin, I realized I didn’t catch his name, so I looked for the sign that everyone is required to post in front of their sites. And I found it - above his name and permit number were the words “Naked and Afraid”, an obvious play on the survivor style reality show, and a humorous reflection of his state of mind when he arrived here. While I intended to embrace my own experience with plenty of clothes and a plan, I had my own fears. Three days into it, I still didn’t have everything I needed, and time was growing short. I had 3,000 pounds of equipment and nets waiting for me across the Bay in Egegik Village.
Egegik Village is located on the south bank of the Egegik River on the Alaska Peninsula. The Becharof National Wildlife Refuge and Becharof Lake are accessible from Egegik. Becharof Lake is the second largest Lake in Alaska and is the nursery for the world’s second largest run of sockeye salmon. The village itself is home to 30 permanent residents in the winter – a hardy bunch that doesn’t seem to need a lot of infrastructure to survive…fish processing plants, a post office and a liquor store pretty much sums it up. If you do find yourself needing something, your options are limited to the fish plant, a bush plane, or a merciful fellow fisherman who remembered facing the same circumstances in the past and had the means to help.
I almost forgot, there is a Fisherman’s Hall in Egegik, which serves as an important community and cultural center, which I am glad to have made the time to check out. While trying to fit in a shower and doing laundry at the cannery in between fishing tides, My daughter, Micah, struck up a conversation with one of our neighbors, a sweet lady named Sarah, who seemed to have the same schedule as we did. Micah was describing how her self- imposed salmon and rice diet was making her hallucinate about junk food. Sarah, who has strong family roots in the area, mentioned that the Fisherman’s Hall had a variety of snacks to choose from, even offered at prices similar to those found in the Lower 48. No sooner had the words left Sarah’s mouth and Micah said “OMG, c’mon dad!” I was practically dragged through town as she speed walked her way toward the prospect of sugar. The hall was a beautiful structure, a refuge from the harsh and dirty fishing environment and in direct conflict with the rusty shipping containers, abandoned equipment, and weathered cabins. After honoring the “boots off” policy, I was treated to a lodge style stone fire place with cool whale bone art, big screen TV, plush leather chairs, and air that smelled the opposite of our cabin. I found myself fairly self-conscious over the condition of my socks….along with my general hygiene. The nice lady behind the bar filling Micah’s order of pastries, candy bars and Cheetos didn’t seem to mind – I’m sure she has experienced her share of smelly fishermen, my daughter notwithstanding.
But alas, we didn’t have a lot of time to mess around the village or relax in the comfy chairs at the Hall. Trips were usually brief and had purpose such as showers, laundry, or retrieving my supplies stored at the fish plant. Forays to the village had to be timed around higher parts of tide because some low tide conditions prevented crossing the Bay. I couldn’t afford to lose fishing time, so I was always a bit panicked over being stuck on the wrong side.
When your total commercial fishing skill is tying a bowline knot on the second try, a fellow can use all the advice he can get. The “where” to fish was fairly straightforward because set net sites are typically leased. While leases are not legally necessary, having an assigned fishing spot does help avoid getting shot. Except for the four whirlwind days spent last summer shadowing the Alaska crew who introduced me to all this, I was clueless as to “when” and “how” to fish.
The Man who would provide technical advice on “when and how” to catch fish just sort of showed up in the form of a 40’s something, bearded and bespectacled local with stocking cap pulled down to the top rim of his glasses. Justin knew the prior residents and even had history fishing for the camp in his youth. This fact was verified via artwork displayed in a permanent ink medium on the wall of the shipping container that served as a shop and bunk house.
While Justin’s early visits to our camp seemed to parallel a source for Copenhagen snuff and an interest in Mark’s quickly declining supply of Black Velvet, he kept checking in on us, especially when we faced particularly challenging conditions. It was obvious that he genuinely cared about our welfare - which I found to be true with all the people we met. Anyway, he became our “go to” guy on everything from access to his gravity fed shower to getting veteran advice on fishing. There’s no handbook on how to become a set net fisherman, and he patiently answered my plethora of questions, even the dumb ones. He may not have realized it, but the kindness he and his side-kick Jason showed us made me feel like we were part of the community. More importantly, he gave me the knowledge needed to boost my confidence, an essential element in surviving in this kind of risky and competitive business.
Learning the Ropes
There are as many ways to run a set net operation as there are colorful personalities in this starkly beautiful land, but only two basic systems. One relies on a vehicle to deploy and retrieve a net utilizing a series of running lines and pulleys. The second method is to drag the net from the beach out into the water with a boat. Simply described, the net is connected between two points. An upland anchor is buried in the mud and attached to the first part of the net by a leader, with the majority of the net then stacked or piled high, and as close to the water as possible. A mobile anchor is then attached to the seaward end of the net and ultimately towed offshore with a post at the stern of the boat. The net unfurls, and then the mobile anchor is thrown off when the end of the net is reached…and hopefully none of it is tangled up in your prop.
Our maiden launch went pretty well. I am unsure what was wound up tighter, me or the vintage 115 HP 2-stroke as I charged offshore full throttle while dragging 100 yards of net, leader, anchor and chain across the mud behind me. The result should be a net laid out perpendicular to the beach. If I failed to get a straight set, I would be infringing on my neighbors opportunity to catch fish on either side of (Sockeye follow the shoreline), and worse, risking entanglement with their gear. Somehow I pulled it off, and I probably said to myself “hey, that wasn’t so bad”. I soon learned during subsequent attempts that I had merely been lucky.
Case in point. I wasn’t far into my fishing career before I discovered one of the many variables that came with my method of getting the net out (compared to a truck and pulley system). Powerful underwater currents and wind were significant factors in a successful deployment. Some of the tidal exchanges were well over 20 feet, which means a lot of water is moving through the bay. The bigger the exchange, the more I had to compensate for it when pulling the net out into the water. Under these conditions, I had to virtually tow the net with the boat parallel to the beach in order for it to eventually come to rest at a right angle to the shore. Once the current swept me to the proper position, I had to drop the seaward anchor just at the right time. Pulling the net directly offshore would invariably result in being washed up or down stream, and I would have an awkward angle.
Unfortunately, I became familiar with misjudging the power of the rising and falling of the sea. Once it’s in, you’re either live with the result, or you have to retrieve the whole thing and start over, which is a time consuming pain in the ass, and worse yet, you lose fish. One day decided to straighten out a crooked set and paid for it. As soon as it entered the water, the net instantly exploded with 3,000 pounds of salmon, tails thrashing the surface to a froth and adding pressure to a net already under stress from the extreme current. I wasn’t satisfied when I dropped the mobile anchor so I tried pulling on it with the boat to straighten the set out.
My determination eventually snapped a line. I felt sick to my stomach as I realized what kind of cluster was sure to follow. Still anchored upland, the now free outside or seaward end of the net was quickly pushed toward the beach, putting me uncomfortably close to the next site. We had no choice but to use a less preferred method to haul the net into the boat, and do it as fast as possible lest we get tangled up in another set. When properly brought aboard, the net is pulled across two rollers positioned at the center of the boat. With the boat under the net, it then moves laterally back and forth between the two anchors lifting the net and fish out of the water and bringing them onboard at whatever pace you wish. The fish are suspended in air above the deck, making it easier to extract them from the mesh. In this case, they were in a pile of tangled mesh on the floor. I didn’t make any friends during this tide.
Editor’s Note: In our November issue watch for PART 2 as Mike goes into the details of the Sockeye Invasion, Tundra Critters and Going Hard.