EDITOR’S NOTE: Part 1 appeared in our October issue’s front cover where Mike explained his draw towards “The Last Frontier” of Alaska. This past summer Mike fulfilled his lifetime dream and shared the Bristol Bay fishing scene and experiences with his 17 year-old daughter, Micah. And so, Part 2:
One of the things you learn is that the set net community is nothing but nice, and everyone is more than willing to drop everything to get you out of a jam, even when they don’t know you. The code of conduct is simple; at some point everyone is going to need help, and when you get that help, you pay it forward because it won’t be the last time. Compare that with people that go about their own business in some of our cities when someone is getting mugged…I can’t help but marvel at how socially disparate we can be. While not the only time I experienced selfless help while fishing this season, the most memorable was during the peak of the salmon run.
By July 6, we were slammed with fish – historically, the run is more spread out, but this year they all came at once. Old timers lamenting the odd situation started a lot of conversations with “I can’t remember when…”
We were down to three of us from four, and we were working double shifts. We had to dig deep for the grit to continue on…we were pushed to exhaustion trying to keep the net clear so that we maximized harvest while catching was good, and trying to prevent the net from breaking or drifting from a pulled anchor (a real concern when it’s full of fish in strong currents.) The physical demands, long hours, and lack of sleep turned us into robots as we pushed through a two day fish picking marathon where we caught about 14,000 pounds. Then the weather kicked up, increasing the challenge and risk of trouble.
One day we found ourselves in a Southeast “howler” that clocked in at 30-35 knots. We couldn’t get the net properly retrieved and cleared of fish due to the storm and strong current, so the next opportunity for access was during low tide, when we could safely pick fish from the exposed net from shore. Micah and Tony worked feverishly on their knees in the ankle deep mud while I hustled to get a cart and commandeer a quad with a functioning 4x4 gear. We had watched a guy travel around on some gravel patches without getting stuck in the goopy part of the substrate, which dominated most of the beach. I thought we could do the same, saving us from packing thousands of pounds of fish through the goop to the upland area.
Tony took off on the wheeler with the cart and fish in tow like he was being chased by an ax murderer. Buried above the frame after 100 yards, we unloaded half the catch. Still stuck. Next thing I know, a kid jumps off another wheeler and runs down to help push. Tony gets going, travels another 50 yards, and is again buried. Two other guys drop what they are doing and hook two quads to ours and pull. I swear it looked like a mudder-festival with clods being slung ten feet high.
After a lot of effort, the rig was yanked into a shallow creek bed. Safe, but not done. I still had fish to be unloaded at the tide line, with the water now inbound. Yet another crew came to my rescue, retrieved the fish, and delivered them to my boat. They were like an army of ants on a carcass. A blur of movement and they were done. That team had solved a problem that would have taken me hours to address, and they reduced it to minutes. At 2:00 A.M. we found ourselves washing the mud off of each fish, handling the same fish at least three times that night. Thinking back, I vaguely recall telling the crew that I thought the day was going to be an easy one.
You can just throw away those extreme physical fitness videos because I discovered the best weight loss program ever…with caveats of course, like…don’t do this if you have a heart condition, have to eat within 24 hours, require sleep, are prone to injury, are scared of drowning, scared of the dark, or are slower than a Brown Bear. I am sure my learning curve caused us to work harder than we had to, and at times when we didn’t have to, all helpful in shedding pounds. Between the stress and the physical demands, I lost 18 of them in 5 weeks…topping out at 148 pounds. Tony my buddy and deckhand, lost 20. I have no idea if my daughter lost any weight, and in a rare moment of enlightenment while writing this, decided not to ask.
The fish plants quickly became plugged with fish, which caused managers to impose delivery limits. The pause in production resulted in some rest, but the stress remained. Instead of worrying about how to catch fish, we had to figure out how to keep from catching too many? We tried a couple of things, like fishing a shorter net, and on the advice of a veteran, began to tie off sections of our normal sized net as fish are removed. Somehow we managed through it without being stuck with extra fish nobody would buy.
Finally the fish plants caught up on production and restrictions were lifted. Life was a bit more normal as the run also tamed. But our mojo had been broken by the industry imposed stall, and I began to stress over meeting our harvest goals, i.e. surviving this financially. I decided we needed to try and fish more, which meant fishing during the growing hours of darkness.
When we began our fishing in June, we had almost 24 hours of daylight. I was surprised more than once when I looked at my watch…2:00 A.M. Holy Crap, we had been going for 18 hours! This worked out well for us green horns, because at least we could see our mistakes in the daylight, but this didn’t last forever. When June turned into July and the long days became shorter, I had to fish some in the dark.
And things did go wrong, beginning with my first night time trip. I launched into the abyss and wind with all the false confidence I could muster and pulled off the most beautiful set possible. Proudly standing on the beach with Tony watching fish hit the mesh. I remember saying out loud ”hey, that wasn’t so bad.” Tony agreed. The thought was abruptly interrupted by the sound of a line snapping. I stopped breathing as the net corks rocketed over the mud and toward the sea. I instinctively made a grab for it. Following my dumb %$# move, Micah lunged for a line to help. I barely stopped her, which is a good thing because she is stubborn like her mother and it would have become girl v. net, with the girl determined to win. I was afraid to look. I had effectively turned a 60 foot fish tendering vessel anchored 100 yards away into a gill net taco.
A nice haul of sockeye from beyond "The Mud".
The net had broken on the upland anchor side and swung outward until it wrapped around the tender. I had talked to Mike (the tender operator) before about the strong currents and the minimum control I would have if something went wrong. The tender was one of my drop off points for catch, so on the other hand, having him close by my site meant I didn’t need to run my skiff very far to deliver fish. Tony woke Mike up and we were understandably subjected to several moments of extreme unhappiness, punctuated by a number of expletives. His anxiety was directly related to the likelihood the net was wrapped in his wheel, which wouldn’t have been such a big emergency had the engine on his boat not been running in order to hold anchor in the current (removing it would have required a diver or pulling the boat from the water.) It would have also helped if he hadn’t been there in the first place.
Mike went into the cabin of the tender, slamming the door behind him. When he emerged dressed in rain gear I saw a complete transformation – calm and collected. His ability to properly assess the situation beyond “we are screwed” was obvious as he hopped onboard my boat and laid out a plausible plan.
I granted him instant situational respect. Tony powered the boat into the current while the tender’s crew (Mike’s family,) Micah and I unraveled over 300 feet of fish and gear from the encapsulated vessel. The tense situation abated quite a bit once all of us realized the net wasn’t in the prop. We had started fishing at 9 P.M., it was now 2:00 A.M., and we only had 250 pounds of fish to show for it.
Going the extra mile, Mike insisted his family pull the net onto the tender, fathom by fathom, while we picked the fish out of the suspended mesh. This was appreciated because the alternative was to pick the fish out of a heap of net piled up on the floor of our boat with minimum illumination from our tiny deck lights. Mike’s super bright halogens lit everything up like a stadium.
Micah dug in and cleared the net of fish as it was pulled from our boat to the deck of the other tender, about as fast as any pro. When it was over, Mike looked down from the deck of his boat and told Micah that he was impressed with the job she did. Coming from a guy that knows the difference and not inclined to throw compliments around, especially when we messed up his evening, those few words meant a lot to her – my tired little girl was beaming like she got straight A’s on her report card.
Mike encouraged us to get back in the game since we miraculously hadn’t destroyed the net. After some consideration, I tactically decided take the rest of the night off.
Critters of the Tundra
Depending on which side she presented to you, my daughter looked like she was either a journalist on assignment, or on a jihad – a fur lined mad bomber hat encasing her head; a scarf often pulled to the nose, less a matter of style or comfort, more in defense of multiple species of biting insects – a camera hanging from her neck, and a Remington model 1100 loaded with slugs slung on her back. The camera was her idea, the gun was mine. I worried about the local brown bears who seemed more comfortable around us than we were around them. It became obvious Micah was far too confident on her 4-wheelers ability to create distance should the subject of her photo-op become annoyed. But she fearlessly got some great shots and lived to tell about it.
Even though my perspective on bears aligned with the grizzly scene in The Revenant, these bears were more of a nuisance than anything else. One particularly pesky devil decided it was fun to munch on water pumps, which motivated several people to look for spare plumbing parts and a kill permit. Closer to home, two younger animals visited our cabin and decided to bite into my rubber raft, sample my cooler, and scare the hell out of Tony and Micah by peering through the cabin window. I happened to be asleep in the loft when this unfolded and missed the whole thing. I do remember Micah excitedly shaking me awake – but I was pretty out of it, thinking she was telling me that we had visitors – I groggily suggested she invite them in and went back to sleep.
National Geographic moments were everywhere, especially since it was nesting season. Ever the naturalist, Micah spent what little down time we had bothering Sandhill cranes, interrupting foxes from raiding bank swallow nests, and turning the gull colony on Egg Island into an angry dive bombing swarm intent on pecking a hole in us. With the exception of Micah wriggling along the tundra on her belly while holding her telephoto lens out like a water witcher’s tuning rods, opportunities to observe wildlife undisturbed by humans were everywhere.
Outside of sustaining a living, what possesses someone to engage in the high stakes Bristol Bay madness each season likely has a connection to some man v. nature thing, an opportunity to satiate an inherent hunter-gatherer instinct, or maybe a sense of adventure. For me, it was probably all those things. But I was also attracted to the simplicity of it all. What I mean is, there’s no one to blame if things go wrong, no place for the uncommitted to hide, no entitlements. Everything is earned through meeting basic expectations– come prepared, take responsibility if you’re not, have a positive attitude, and possess the grit to go hard when you are needed. Failing to meet those expectations usually means a plane ticket home.
I admit I have always treated my girls like princesses – and I knew full well that the polite, semi-coddled world we normally inhabit would at times collide with the blood and guts of commercial fishing. I worried a bit over how this all was going to play out with my daughter, and the affect it would have on our ability to “bond”. The collisions came soon enough with dozens of tense moments - like when gear got tangled in the motor, got wrapped around other boats and buoys, or we were trying to outrun a storm with a boat load of fish heavy enough to cause water to come in over the sides .
Coming as no surprise to anyone with a teenage daughter, there were communication challenges for sure. I admit there were several periods of excitement where I projected my voice with extreme emphasis, which she obviously misinterpreted as “yelling”. This generally resulted in me being unjustly labeled as rude, which was then followed by sulking and a desire to throw me overboard. We got through it all with eventual introspection, fist bumps, and the knowledge that in order to be successful on an individual basis, we had to operate as a team. Plus I stopped yelling as much.
The fish were still running by the time we had to go, but alas, I had to get back to my real job. We finished up the season with a respectable total catch, meeting our goal. While I have never worked so hard in my life and still feel the onset of nausea when I consider the high expenses and risks, I am ready to do it again. When I look at the total experience, there were endless opportunities for personal growth and reinforcing some core values. I am blessed to have friends like Mark and Tony, who stuck it out under some extreme conditions without complaint. Tony, who went the whole distance, was a bed-rock of common sense and a good balance for me, especially during the times I became crazed. The debt I owe them is equivalent to a kidney donation.
As for my daughter, she could not have impressed me more. She turned out to be as tough as the next guy, understanding and embracing the need to “go hard”. I couldn’t have done it without you Squirt!