The most prized of the salmon is the king salmon, also known as kings, chinook, slick tail, and if they are big, tyee. In the open ocean, they grow to over 100 pounds and can rock a 40-foot boat when they are hooked on an outrigger. The typical day of fishing for these incredible creatures runs something like this.
In a fishing port or anchorage, the daily activity starts early; usually, around 4am as the general rule. Bait is made, engines are warmed, and the national weather service offshore marine forecast blares over outdoor speakers mounted on the aft deck of each boat. By 4:30 am, the procession begins as a line of boats head out, each boats’ course charted for some secret destination for that day, or that week, that in each captain’s mind will be the right place to be. By 5:30 am, the procession is over. Leaving after this time means the best part of the day, the morning bite, will be missed.
Fishing each day, you get a sense of the rhythm of the tides and the movement of the schools of fish. From that daily connection with the sea, a fisherman has a sense of where to go on the morning run. Missing a day throws off the whole equation, leaving one feeling just a bit lost and disconnected, having to start all over again. Asking information from other boats is considered embarrassing and professing a lack of understanding, so as a rule, it is not done. If you do ask, any advice or insight should be viewed as suspect and perhaps contrived for the shear purpose of sending you off in some fruitless chase for what are laughingly called “radio fish”. After all, fishermen and hunters are competitors for a limited resource. Everyone is expected to carry their own weight and rely on their own skills.
The boats, covered in the wetness of the night, windows mostly useless from the morning dew, and a lack of anything on the sea for light to reflect from, head out each day into the blackness, counting mostly on fate to not bring a log or equally dangerous obstacle into their path. Hours of running in the pitch black open sea at night teach a lesson of faith. The fisherman knows the dangers are there but is confident they are unlikely to cross paths with them today. So each boat steams ahead at or near full throttle into a seemingly black abyss.
The morning run is often calculated to bring the boat to the selected grounds just as the first faint hint of pale light gathers in the east. Still too dark to work, deck lights are turned on, and the fishing operations begin. Ocean salmon trolling trade fishermen can be grouped into two general camps of thought. There are the “bait fishermen” that swear by live or recently live bait as the only workable salmon attractant of choice. This group is counterbalanced by the “hardware fishermen” that insist a hardware store worth of shiny metallic lures are the only intelligent way to catch salmon, thus not allowing the boat to become contaminated with the general smell and sliminess of a herring or anchovy. There is never a clear winner in this perpetual disagreement. It depends on the day, the light, the tides, and what the salmon have for the hors d’oeuvre of choice at any given moment. Both camps of thought seem to scrape a living from the sea, and so see no need to change.
I have a good friend in Alaska that was an ardent “hardware fisherman,” and you may have drawn from the slant of my explanations that I have been and will always be a “bait fisherman.” Over the years, my friend would never hesitate to point out that I seemed to catch a good number of salmon, due to inordinately good luck, in his view. But that “I constantly smelled like an anchovy, and as such, was not fit for polite company!” I would counter that “His overflowing collection of “fish bangles” cost more than what it would take to outfit a past-her-prime Hollywood floozy, while my anchovies cost less than a nickel each and could be used for dinner if the fishing didn’t work out that day.” The argument with him was an endless exercise in trying to educate the hopeless. I am sure one day he will buy a hardware store in his retirement so he can finally have enough shiny metal to hoard and run his fingers through. Sometimes you can spot hardware fishermen because they will have some favorite lure or piece of hardware hooked to their hat. I tried the same thing with an anchovy, but the effect was short-lived.
With the morning run complete, fishing can begin with baits laid out (let us say anchovies, because, as we know, there is no finer bait!), lead cannonballs up to 60 pounds lowered on stainless steel cables. Leaders set in bins for fast deployment. The assembled gear is lowered, and the hunt begins. Salmon, as a rule, prefer the peace and darkness of the depths, and 40 fathoms is kind of like their living room, 60 fathoms their basement. Anything less than 20 fathoms is kind of like the kitchen where you only ever go when you are hungry. King salmon are also very discerning diners, so the bait needs to keep moving along, or the salmon’s sharp eyesight, even in the darkness of the depths, will figure out the puzzle.
Fishing consists of a series of long tacks, usually in one direction until salmon are found, and then in tacks back and forth to try to stay with the fish while not tangling hydraulic gear with other boats. Customs and rules apply for the coordination of a tacking fleet competing for fish. If you don’t know the rules, you often get yelled at over the water or over other boats’ “Public Address” systems. Being offshore and beyond the boundaries of polite speech, your imagination is your only guide in the creative use of profanity in these verbal exchanges. The more, the better seems to be a pretty well-accepted rule of thumb.
Some days are slow, and the time and distance between fish are great. On those days, the radio can offer some relief, whether it be a marine vhf, sideband, or a CB. Sometimes on those slow days all you catch are hake, a generally useless fish, except to the Russians, who think they are just about the best fish God ever made. Hake have rows of needle-sharp teeth and when taking out the hook you often end up with a finger perforated with a whole row of tiny little holes, each spouting a little fountain of blood. Fishermen are no fans of hake, unless they are Russian, in which case they probably call all of their friends to brag about having a hake or waving it at other Russian boats to show them they have nothing on you.
Usually, on these slow “hake only” days, some young new-to-the-endeavor commercial fisherman will sincerely ask on the radio if hake are any good for anything. This is where one of the veterans of the fleet will offer to give the young fellow a recipe that will make catching a hake a “great boat moment” rather than just “another stinking hake moment”. The gullible victim, either out of genuine interest in eating a hake, or more likely, out of polite deference to a old-timer, will indicate his readiness to learn obscure and guarded information. The recipe usually runs about 5-10 minutes to be thoroughly detailed and goes something like this:
Hake should be fileted carefully to remove the bones and skin to reveal the presently awful, but soon-to-be transformed white flesh. The filets are then rubbed with a seasoning consisting of at least 10 ingredients, each herb or spice carefully listed, and the proportions gone over twice so there are no errors in the marinate. Sage is a must, you should always keep sage onboard, and persimmon, it’s not going to taste right without a dash of persimmon. The filets are marinated in this mixture for at least two hours in a lower shelf of the onboard refrigerator or in the ice hold if that is easier to accommodate.
After marinating, the filets are placed on a clear pine baking board. Cedar should only be used for salmon, for hake, and its’ part of the secret, the board must be clear pine in that knots can introduce an unpleasant taste. The onboard diesel stove is then heated to 325 degrees and the filets are baked on the board for 25 minutes. After removing from the oven you can then let cool for serving, at which point you scrape the hake over the side and eat the pine board.
It usually takes a minute or two for the young fella to realize he has been taken in, and it can be a little confusing to hear 20 or 40 other boats laughing over the radio all at the same time, but it does leave the new fisherman with an increased sense of awareness of whether a question is stupid or not before they ask it.
Other stories are told over the radio on slow days, ‘The Story of the Little Seal” Fishermen hate seals, sea lions, and the like because they steal the fish, so it is pretty humorous to hear an old commercial fisherman telling kind of a “bedtime story” about a cute and much-loved little seal. Most commercial fishermen will gently thumb their wheelhouse shotgun as they listen to the tale drifting from the radio. Or there is “The Story of the Big Bite 20 Miles Up The Coast Going On Right Now!” that you should pull your gear and run for. As the story unfolds, there is always a boat or two that are new to the fleet that do, in fact, pull their gear and start running.
Usually, when enough time has passed for these eager opportunists to have made it about 10 miles, the storyteller will get back on the radio and say, “my god, I got that all wrong! The hot bite is south, down the coast! Gosh, sorry I screwed that up, but the fella that told me got it mixed up!” This is just a sampling of other parables of absolute bullshit that help pass the time between “hake only” days and moments of complete and utter chaos that erupt when the salmon are found.
Fishing goes on until darkness or the weather forces a retreat. All in all, there is simply no better way to spend a day, surrounded by incredible scenery, a waterfront view, and as much adventure as you are willing to put up with. At the end of the day, going to sleep usually takes less than a minute and your last thought of the day is that you can hardly wait to do it again!
My commercial fishing boats grew quickly in size so I could venture further yet onto the water. In a somewhat unusual contradiction, I learned the further I traveled out onto the ocean, the more desolate it became. Those few things I found further into the deep proved to be much more interesting than anything on the land, and during these voyages of discovery, you get to fish! Commercial fish, in fact. What could be better?
There isn’t a great deal more to say about commercial fishing. You kill things, you eat things, or they eat you. It is a solitary activity, and, considering the kind of fishing I was involved with, trolling for ocean salmon and tuna, there is only a small crew or no crew at all. As a result, going long periods, days in fact, without talking to anyone was normal and it explains why most Alaskans don’t have much to say even after you have known them for a long time. The solitude out on the open ocean offered me the opportunity to truly come to know myself. This solitude suited me perfectly, and I treasure every moment I could do it.