I’m just a week out from heading off to commercial fish for red salmon in Bristol Bay. This blog post can be the equivalent of hanging a “Gone Fishin’” sign on my door.
Several people were wondering what I actually do during the summer, requesting a “day in the life of”-type of post, so I figured I would leave you with one! (I also have another, more general post about it here.) Now, when you’re wondering where the heck I am, you can read this and use your imagination (and the visual aids provided!).
Pre-season (until June 15th):
This is the time we get our boat and nets and other miscellaneous odds and ends (like ourselves) ready to fish. It usually involves twelve hour work days, with activities such as boat painting, fiberglass work, engine maintenance, and net hanging. This is when my out-of-shape body whines a lot as I lift heavy things and bash it around all day.
The pre-season is usually only two to three weeks, depending on what projects we have, but this year, we bought a new boat. So it’s going to be six weeks of installing a new engine and fiberglassing an entire back deck and twenty fish-holds.
Early season (June 15th-July 1st):
Fishing is pretty mellow at this time. The fishery managers/biologists start us out on one tide per day, usually around low tide and only lasting for about four to six hours. Sometimes we even skip days entirely. I’ll still probably be doing some work around the dock and hanging nets when we’re not fishing. And if we’re lucky, the weather will be lovely (it’s usually 40 degrees, blowing and raining), and we’ll throw a giant bonfire party on the beach that lasts throughout the night like the midnight sun.
Fishing itself involves unspooling our 900-foot drift net from the reel in the center of our boat out over the roller on the stern. We lay it out depending on the tide, wind, sandbars, where the fish are running, and where the fishing boundaries are. (You don’t want to cross those. The fishery is sustainably managed, and the managers take their job seriously. You drift over the line, and it’s a $3-6K ticket, plus a court date—that you have to fly to in the middle of the season in order to make.)
At this point, we catch anywhere from a couple hundred pounds to a couple thousand pounds on a good opener (though we had a freakish first day last year where we caught 13,000 pounds). And usually our openers are during the daylight hours, because the fish aren’t moving much at night (or moving much at all), so it’s pretty calm, fun fishing.
Peak of the season (July 2nd-July 15th):
This is where it gets a little crazy. The fish start pushing—hard—in huge balls or bands. The biologists freak out because they’re getting too many fish upriver (which could potentially crash the fishery), and suddenly we’re fishing two tides per day, which usually means eight hours at a time with only four hour breaks in between—at best. In those four hours, we often have to deliver our fish (which can take two hours on a busy opener), cook, eat, mend a giant hole torn in our net by who-knows-what, and sleep. Doesn’t leave much room for sleep.
And when it gets REALLY busy, there can be eighteen-hour-long openers, or the fishery can even be thrown wide open to 24/7 openers. And we’re usually not just twiddling our thumbs. There are so many fish in the water that we’re constantly picking them out of our net, resetting the net, and trying to squeeze in deliveries when our boat gets packed. Last year, we caught 16,000 pounds in a single net in two hours. That’s a hellofalotta fish to process—it took hours to get it all in the holds, and then our gunwales were only a few inches above the water. Then we had to deliver, which took three hours, during which time we ate a Cup of Noodles and a Snickers bar a piece (yes, healthy, I know—but there’s not always time for healthy)… and then we went right back at it for another eighteen hours. And then sixteen hours. And then twenty-four hours. I only had an hour-long nap per day for about five days, and you can get pretty darn crazy. Which for me usually means laughing maniacally or crying at the drop of a fish.
My fingers also get so swollen I can hardly bend them, I have to slather them in Bag Balm to keep my skin from cracking, I get so coated in fish slime and scales that some even get stuck on my face for upwards of a week, my hair gets so gross I just tuck it under a hat and try to forget it exists…
…and yet I keep doing this every summer. Because I love it, for some insane reason. There’s just nothing like having your entire universe boiled down to catching your living, eating when you are starving, sleeping when you’re about to fall over from exhaustion. It resets my priorities like nothing else can. I feel so refreshed after a fishing season that I have my most productive months of writing (by far) afterwards. And there’s just nothing like standing on the deck of a boat at eleven at night with the sun still sparkling on the water, eagles soaring overhead, grizzlies stalking along the beach, seals cruising around the boat, and the occasional pods of belugas rolling in the surf off our stern. Nothing like it.