Every year, from the middle of June until the middle of July, millions of Sockeye (red) Salmon, run from the Pacific Ocean, through Bristol Bay, and up one of the nine rivers that stem out of it. More salmon run through Bristol Bay than anywhere else in the world, making it a commercial fisherman’s paradise in the summer.
There is a town on the bay call Naknek, which is named after the Naknek River. The population of Naknek is only about 550, but during the salmon run, those numbers swell immensely. People come from all over the world to catch fish, and work in canneries.
The weather in Naknek is awful, to say the least. It’s a heat wave if it hits 60 degrees (F). It rains almost every day, which is actually great because the bugs go away when it rains. The mosquitoes there are some of the worst I’ve ever experienced. They’re about 3x the size of the ones we have in Ohio, and relentless.
When I was fifteen years old, my grandpa called me and asked me if I wanted to go to Alaska with him. He had been going for about ten years before me, as his cousin owned a house in Naknek and had a fishing operation set up. This opportunity is something that most people only dream of, and so I went. I ended up going four years in a row, for two weeks each time.
– – –
There were two properties where we spent most of our time while we were there. The first was a house, about seven miles from the beach. This house was where we took showers, had WiFi, and kept any clothes that we didn’t have on the beach. Also, there was a barn on the same property where the tools were kept. We came to this house every four days or so, so that we could shower.
The second place was on the beach. We had “cabins” (glorified shacks) where we slept, ate, and spent almost all of our time. These had running water and propane stoves, but not much else. There was no cell phone service. We slept on bunk beds, played cards to pass the time, and fished. That was our life.
– – –
Before we go any further, let’s talk about how we caught fish. The salmon run is kicked off by the lowest tide of the year. This is when “set-netters” (the style of fishing is called “set-net fishing”) walk out about half a mile, where there used to be water, and tie ropes to the anchors, which were drilled years beforehand. These ropes are about 250 yards long and are called “running lines”. My first year, we had four “sites”. A site is a running line which can be fished.
When it’s time to catch fish, we go out and tie nets to the running lines. We are allowed to have 50 fathoms (100 yards) on each running line, per the state of Alaska. The nets do not have bait. There are enough fish in the bay that just swim into the nets on their own.
We had 4 sites, meaning we had 200 fathoms of nets in the water.
The nets are called “gill nets”, because fish swim into them head-first. Once the net gets past their head, they can’t swim anymore, but they also can’t back up, because their gills get caught on the net. They freak out and start jumping all over. We could stand on the porch of our cabin and watch the fish hit the net.
Last piece of background information: The government controlled how often we could have nets in the water. We would have to listen to the radio so we could hear the announcement, which gave us times. For example, we might have an opening from 12 noon until 9 pm. This meant that our nets were allowed to touch the water at noon and had to be out of the water by 9 that night.
Keep in mind that it didn’t get dark until about 11 pm, and the sun came back up at 1:30 am. We were rarely out when it was dark.
OK, now that we got the boring stuff out of the way, we can finally start talking about interesting stuff. Here we go!
– – –
The very first day I got there was probably the hardest day of my life. I got off the six-hour flight and dropped my stuff off at the house. They had just gotten hit with a ton of fish, so they were rushing us to get to the beach. As soon as I got there, we had our waders on and were headed towards the boats. Some of our crew were already on the water and were “picking” fish from the nets.
I literally learned by doing. The only instruction that I had was given by my grandpa, who said to me in the car, “When you jump into the boat, make sure you get your feet in first, or else you’ll get a face full of slime.”
We waded into the water, up to about our waist. We had two boats, and one of them came to get us. They stopped in front of us, and we had to grab the side of the boat, turn it around so that it was pointed away from the beach, and then jump in.
I had to grab the boat above my head, jump as hard as I could (in three feet of water), and pull myself up.
Yeah. It took me two tries.
Upon entering the boat, the first thing that I noticed was that there was a pile of net in the boat, with fish in the net. My grandpa said, “I thought we didn’t close for an hour. Why did you already pull the nets?”
The response was, “We’re getting so many fish, we can’t keep up!”
I suppose that’s a good problem to have.
I then got my first lesson in picking fish. Here it is, in a nutshell:
The nets are made of a “cork line”, which floats, and a “lead line”, which sinks. This keeps the net spread out. When we pick fish out of the net, we get under the running line, and put it over the “rollers”, which are hydraulic powered, rubber cylinders, which turn and roll the running line, which the net, over the boat.
One or two people stand on the cork line side of the net. Their primary job is to hold the running line on the rollers, so that when waves hit, it doesn’t come off. This can be very difficult on stormy days.
Then, there are 1-3 people on the lead line side of the net. Their primary job is to pick the fish out of the net. This is done by shaking the net, and then reaching into the fish’s gills and pulling the net out (we wear gloves on the boat). The fish drop to the bottom of the boat, where they stay until we pitch them into bins. Picking is something that takes experience before you can be good at it, so I was on the cork line for most of the first year.
The ideal crew on each boat is 3-4 people. I’ve don e the job with just 2, but it’s difficult. Also, any more than 4, and people just get in the way.
The first day, we picked one site 3 times in a row before pulling the net. But our job was far from finished.
We had to sell the fish. This is when a boom truck, which is a big flat-bed truck with bins and a crane on the back, come and pick up the bags full of fish using the crane, and dump them into the bins. The bags are weighed, and we receive a receipt, which is then turned in at the end of the season in exchange for money (we are paid by the pound).
Also, we had to get the fish out of the pile of nets that was sitting in the boat. This SUCKS. The problem with it is that the fish get caught, and then when the net get dragged in, they get caught again, in a completely different part of the net.
The only way to pick them is to stretch the net out and pick the ones that get caught more than once. Then, go back through and pick the other ones.
We did this and were completely covered in sand and fish slime. When everything was said and done, we didn’t get done until 2 hours after the closing. We were the last ones to sell fish to the boom trucks that day.
I can’t complain too much, because we caught 15,000 pounds of fish that day alone.
– – –
While this day was difficult, there are very few days where I’ve learned so much in such little time.
The first lesson is that no matter how much you try to learn, there is no better teacher than experience. None of the stuff that I did throughout four years in Alaska can be learned by reading about it. You have to DO it. Whenever you need to learn or do something, do a little research, and then go do it.
Another lesson is that you have to do the hard jobs in order to achieve the goal. It’s cool to be able to say that I’ve caught fish in Alaska, or to be able to say that I’ve caught 15,000 pounds of fish in a single day. What isn’t “cool” is how I did it. The jobs I did on that first day sucked, but if it was easy, everyone would do it.
A lot of people have big goals in life but aren’t willing to work to get there. Be different, do the work.