ALASKA, UN­FIL­TERED

LIFE LES­SONS IN­VOLV­ING COM­MER­CIAL FISH CAP­TAINS, BOTH SURLY AND SOLID — WITH A BIT OF FLY-FISH­ING THROWN IN

Anglers Journal - - CONTENTS - By Greg Thomas

The writer lasted just a month and a half work­ing for an ornery fish­ing cap­tain known as “The Bear,” which was longer than most mates stuck it out. Wel­come to work­ing Alaska. By GREG THOMAS

I got fired for the first time in 1986 af­ter go­ing mano a mano with a fish­boat skip­per nick­named “The Bear.”

He took de­light — or at least was cu­ri­ous, I learned — in see­ing how much ridicule a young man could take. I was 18, and we were king salmon fish­ing off south­east Alaska’s Alexan­der Ar­chi­pel­ago on a 42-foot steel-hulled troller.

We an­chored each night in iso­lated bays, far from towns and far from authorities. I woke each morn­ing at 4 o’clock with the crank of a diesel. I hit the bunk 18 hours later, try­ing to stop vi­sions of fish slid­ing by on the backs of my eye­lids. Four or five hours later the en­gine would fire, and we’d do it all over again.

I never com­plained about the work, the work­ing con­di­tions or how tired I was; we cruised some of Alaska’s most re­mote and beau­ti­ful coun­try, a pris­tine, un­set­tled coast­line that cruise ships never see. We an­chored in iso­lated, glacier-fed bays at night, un­der tow­er­ing moun­tains with wolves call­ing from the beach. We sold our fish and re­sup­plied at buy­ing scows ev­ery five or six days.

I’d met The Bear while pound­ing the docks, ask­ing if any boats needed crew. Like the other skip­pers, The Bear scoffed. Then, as I walked away, he yelled, “Hey. Can you clean fish?” Two hours later we were cruis­ing out of Wrangell Nar­rows and into Fredrick Sound, two men who didn’t know each other, never sep­a­rated by more than 42 feet of wood plank­ing. I’d never been on the ocean.

Not a Quit­ter

More than any­thing that sum­mer, The Bear wanted me to quit. He hired me to run gear

and clean fish. And run gear and clean fish I did. But it wasn’t good enough for him. A week into the sea­son, his mood soured when it be­came clear that king salmon abun­dance was down, right when the price for those fish hit a record high.

If you could find the kings and sell at that price, you could make a for­tune. But even

The Bear, a very good fish­er­man — known as a high­liner — couldn’t find them. This re­ally pissed him off. He’d yell at the ocean. He’d yell at pass­ing boats. He’d shoot at sea lions, sharks and gulls. But mostly he’d yell at me.

When we’d pass in the nar­row gal­ley, he might shoul­der me into a wall. When I cooked a meal, he ridiculed the at­tempt. If one salmon slipped the gaff, he would rip me as if this hadn’t hap­pened to him a thou­sand times. He of­ten bragged about how many deck­hands he’d been through, all quit­ters, of course.

And he cher­ished the San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Pack­ers. I’m a die-hard Seat­tle Sea­hawks and Min­nesota Vik­ings fan. Deal killer.

I wanted The Bear to fire me be­cause I wasn’t about to quit. And that meant we were stuck with each other, fish­ing the open ocean, where a push could be called a slip, where a line of hooks on a power winch could take a man to the hal­ibut grounds against his will, where on a stormy day in the Gulf of Alaska you might not see a man in the wa­ter 15 yards from a boat. It was an ac­ci­dent had all sorts of pos­si­bil­i­ties. I kept track of that man at ev­ery mo­ment.

Some­how I made it back to our home port aboard that boat, alive and em­ployed, with in­struc­tions to wash the hold and scrub the bin boards the fol­low­ing morn­ing. I knew what time I was told to be there. I also knew it wasn’t good to see The Bear scrub­bing the hold when I ar­rived.

“I told you to be here at 8!” he screamed. “You told me 9,” I replied. “Let me in there, and I’ll do the work.”

He peered out of the hold and shouted, “Go into the cabin, get your check off the ta­ble and get the fuck off my boat!” I took that to mean I’d been fired.

Kings on the Fly

It was gray and rainy, and I slinked around town like a scolded mutt, which made me stand out. Dur­ing sum­mer, no­body moves slowly in Alaska. It’s the time of year for do­ing, and I had noth­ing to do. Peo­ple don’t give boat jobs away. Even­tu­ally, I’d be seen and some­one would ask. I knew what had hap­pened. I was proud of my work. But there are two sides to ev­ery story. Word would spread, even far south to my par­ents in Seat­tle.

I took a di­rect route through the hard-packed streets, kick­ing at pud­dles while rain fell steadily on my head. Clouds scut­tled through the spruce trees, and ravens picked through the garbage. For the first time in my life, I had noth­ing to do. And it tasted a lit­tle like death. When I got to my friend Chris’ house, he said, “I saw your boat leave. Why aren’t you on it?”

“The Bear,” I said, and asked, “Why aren’t you fish­ing?”

“Tem­po­rary clo­sure,” Chris an­swered. He looked me in the eyes, frowned and said, “In­com­ing tide this af­ter­noon.”

“So you can hit the slough to fly-fish for kings?” I asked.

We stopped at Scow Bay, bought a bot­tle of Canadian Hunter whiskey and headed for Blind Slough. Be­fore we got there, Chris had al­ready chucked the bot­tle’s cap out the win­dow and into the brush.

Back in the 1980s, Blind Slough of­fered some of the best king salmon fish­ing you could find any­where. Th­ese hatch­ery-born kings, which ranged be­tween 15 and 50 pounds, would arrive on in­com­ing tides from Wrangell Nar­rows and as­cend a se­ries of flooded rapids. When the tide dropped and the wa­ter re­ceded, the rapids were as ex­posed as a rock gar­den and pre­vented the down­stream move­ment of th­ese kings.

Es­sen­tially the fish be­came trapped in a shal­low lake, where they schooled — 10 to 20 fish in a pack — and swam cir­cles un­til the next tide al­lowed them to move up­stream or re­turn to the salt. Chris and I climbed onto the tallest ex­posed rocks and scanned the wa­ter like blue herons, wait­ing for the kings to pass. When they did, we cast in front of them with the only flies we had: Mickey Finns. The lake was no more than 5 feet deep, which made th­ese kings run and jump re­peat­edly. They tore line from our reels in yards per sec­ond and threat­ened to take our en­tire fly lines if we couldn’t slow them down. I don’t re­mem­ber that we even had back­ing wound to our reels.

At that time, Chris and I weren’t ded­i­cated fly-fish­ers. Mostly we trolled hard­ware and her­ring, or flash­ers and hoochies, in the salt wa­ter. But my fa­ther, the artist Fred Thomas, had il­lus­trated one of Sage’s ear­li­est cat­a­logs, and as par­tial pay­ment for the work, he se­cured a 9-foot 6-weight RPL rod. He gave it to me as a grad­u­a­tion present. I packed it when I went to Alaska with dreams of be­com­ing a real fly-fisher, and fished it for ev­ery­thing be­cause it was all I had.

Chris was in the same boat: He tack­led th­ese mon­ster kings with a Fen­wick 6-weight. I think we both used an­cient Pfleuger Medal­ist smal­l­ar­bor reels. We broke off way more fish than we landed. And the amount of time we spent on the wa­ter was dic­tated by when we ran out of gear. Af­ter fish­ing a tide at Blind Slough, our palms and fin­gers were line-burned to hell.

The best fish I ever took at the slough weighed about 50 pounds. I let it go be­cause I had nowhere to keep it. Some other an­glers, a hus­band and wife on a trip north from Seat­tle, took photos of me with that fish and the 6-weight rod. They took my ad­dress, too, and said they would send photos when they re­turned home. Months later I got a note say­ing that the only roll of film that didn’t turn out in­cluded the images of that king.

In a Rhythm

My sis­ter lived in town, and I couldn’t keep the news from her for­ever. Af­ter fish­ing with Chris, I walked up the nar­row stairway to her apart­ment, which was set above a cloth­ing store and of­fered a clear view of the main street. It was like en­ter­ing a room with your own con­science. You could see it all from there, and what I saw were fish­er­men buy­ing sup­plies and gro­ceries, and maybe a last beer at the Har­bor Bar, and head­ing down to the docks to cast off lines and catch fish.

Ear­lier that day, I’d ap­proached a log­ging com­pany and asked for work. They’d told me to

buy some cork boots and then we’d talk. They’d sized me up as if they were look­ing at live­stock. I knew I’d be the guy set­ting chok­ers, mean­ing the guy with the best chance of dy­ing. I was con­cerned: I didn’t want to blow a few hun­dred bucks on corked boots and not get hired.

Af­ter I’d stared out the win­dow for a while, my sis­ter said, “Laurie’s boyfriend, Mark, is look­ing for a deck­hand, and he’s leav­ing in a cou­ple hours. You should meet him at PFI. He’s get­ting ice right now. And he’s ex­pect­ing to see you.”

I didn’t want to head for the ocean with an­other per­son I didn’t know, but I had to. And when I did, Mark and I only needed sim­ple con­ver­sa­tion to reach an agree­ment.

Mark: “Who were you fish­ing with?”

Me: “The Bear.”

Mark: “Why aren’t you fish­ing with him now?” Me: “Got fired.”

Mark: “How long did you last?”

Me: “A month and a half.”

Mark: “You lasted that long with The Bear? You can fish with me.”

Me: “I got to know some­thing: Do you like fish­ing? Do you en­joy it when you’re on the wa­ter? Or do you just yell at the ocean, too?” He laughed.

An hour later we were un­der­way on the Eld­ing, a 32-foot wooden dou­ble-en­der that listed heav­ily when we stood at ei­ther gun­wale. This boat had sunk twice in the har­bor be­fore Mark claimed her, which didn’t sur­prise me: The Eld­ing was tiny, com­pared to the 42-footer The Bear ran. When Mark and I an­chored in Pat­ter­son Bay and fin­ished a chess match, I made a ta­ble into a couch and threw a sleep­ing bag onto it. I locked one leg un­der a brace so I wouldn’t roll off in the night.

In the morn­ing we rounded Cape Om­maney on our way to Mark’s fa­vorite king salmon grounds off Bara­nof Island’s west coast. This ranks as the scari­est hour of my life. The tide was build­ing, and gi­ant waves tow­ered, then broke over the Eld­ing, wash­ing through the scup­pers and across the deck and even­tu­ally right into the wheel­house. We made no head­way against the wind and tide. We could only keep her bow pointed into the waves and hope for the tide to turn. The Eld­ing listed cat­a­stroph­i­cally a cou­ple of times, and I con­sid­ered putting on a sur­vival suit. Mark didn’t flinch. Why, I won­dered, was he so calm when we were about to die?

I had good rea­son for con­cern. Cape Om­maney has a rep­u­ta­tion as be­ing one of the eas­i­est places to die in Alaska. This started when Ge­orge Van­cou­ver tried to round its tip back in 1794 and nearly lost both of his ships, the Discovery and the Chatham, on the rocks. The ships survived, but one of his crew, Isaac Wooden, fell over­board and wasn’t re­cov­ered. Van­cou­ver named a tow­er­ing pin­na­cle off the cape in his honor. He called it Wooden Island. That was the rock I’d de­cided to swim for.

Af­ter a few days, Mark and I de­vel­oped a great rhythm and caught a lot of kings, mostly around sub­merged pin­na­cles. This was big-risk fish­ing be­cause those pin­na­cles would eat gear and snap out­rig­ger poles if we made a mis­take. But if we fished th­ese pin­na­cles on the right tide, and the fish were there, we could rip them up.

That’s what hap­pened one day at a place called the “smoke hole.” It keeps that name be­cause you can see black diesel ex­haust coming out of the stacks when a fish­er­man mis­judges the depth and starts to hang gear on the bot­tom. For­tu­nately, we were the only boat in the fleet on th­ese fish, and it didn’t take long to know that this was a once-in-a life­time op­por­tu­nity. The catch­ing started when we first set gear, and it didn’t stop un­til we quit af­ter dark. It seemed as if ev­ery king salmon bound for the Columbia River had massed here, just for us. We slept for a cou­ple of hours and went back at it.

Most skip­pers won’t let a deck­hand gaff the largest kings, the “money fish.” Each of those fish, es­pe­cially when you’re get­ting al­most five bucks a pound for them, could fetch a few hun­dred dol­lars. We were get­ting a lot of them, and they were big. Thirty-pounders came over the rail ev­ery half-hour. You could tell that th­ese fish were hooked when our taglines, which are at­tached to out­rig­ger poles, started shak­ing. One tagline on my side of the cock­pit was shak­ing like mad, and the line was stretch­ing far from the pole.

Mark saw it and said, “It looks big. Bring it up.” I worked the hy­draulics and brought the first brass spoon in, then a sec­ond and a third be­fore we could see a king’s sil­ver side about 10 feet down. It was a gi­ant, and Mark strug­gled to keep his com­po­sure.

“I should take it,” he said, quickly rev­ers­ing to, “You take it. I’m just go­ing to stand over here. I’ll shut up. Just don’t miss.”

Just as quickly, Mark was on my shoul­der again. “Don’t lose him, don’t lose him.” That eas­ily could have hap­pened — if you don’t hit a large king, even a 20-pounder, per­fectly with the back of a gaff, the fish digs wildly for es­cape and breaks the monofil­a­ment leader. And this was no 20-pounder.

The most beau­ti­ful sound I’ve ever heard was when I smashed that king over the head with the back of my gaff, which made a hol­low thunk, like rap­ping on a wa­ter­melon with a wood mal­let. I gaffed him clean and swung

the fish over the rail dur­ing his death quiver. He slammed on the deck, and I per­ceived the Eld­ing to list just a bit more. Maybe that was be­cause Mark had jumped on my back as both of us hollered, “What a fish!”

Later that day, Mark told me to pull the gear. We were the small­est boat in the fleet, and we were plugged, mean­ing we couldn’t have se­cured the hatch cover if we’d killed an­other king. By this time there were 250 of them in the hold. They av­er­aged 25 pounds.

We ran dan­ger­ously low in the wa­ter and care­fully south, around Cape Om­maney and then north up Chatham Straight to Kuiu Island and Ged­ney Har­bor. Along the way all the big boats passed us, likely won­der­ing why we sat so low in the wa­ter. When we fi­nally pulled up to the buy­ing scow, the high­lin­ers massed. One of those Nor­we­gians said, “Mark, whatcha got in dere?”

As I lifted the hatch, sil­ver shined so brightly you wanted to cover your eyes. And when I hoisted our prized fish, which weighed 65 pounds af­ter be­ing gilled, bled and gut­ted, I felt all of my de­spair melt away. I’d proven The Bear wrong. I hadn’t quit. And Mark and I — the lit­tle guys — were the envy of the fleet. At the end of the sea­son, Mark said, “You’ve got a job with me for as long as you want to fish.”

Green Butt Skunk

I talked to Chris sev­eral times dur­ing the win­ter, and he put the steel­head bug in me. He told me that they flooded into lo­cal streams in March and April, and that on the good days you could hook 10 or more. He said you bush­whack into wild coun­try where no­body is willing to go, and you have them all to your­self. All wild. No hatch­ery fish. Per­fectly bright and in­cred­i­ble fight­ers. Could I af­ford, I won­dered, to skip my spring se­mes­ter at the Univer­sity of Mon­tana and in­stead work in Alaska and fish for steel­head as of­ten as pos­si­ble?

I came to the de­press­ing con­clu­sion that I could not and then booked a flight to Alaska, any­way. The day I landed, I went to work for my sis­ter, grad­ing her­ring roe, chop­ping the heads off black cod with an au­to­matic guil­lo­tine and su­per­vis­ing a cold-stor­age op­er­a­tion

at a cannery. Some days I’d climb high into crow’s nests and paint the masts that skip­pers wanted noth­ing to do with. They loved me for it and paid well. But when an op­por­tu­nity to work the night shift ar­rived, I jumped at the chance. Work­ing the night shift meant I could spend parts of each day fish­ing steel­head with Chris, then rarely sleep and of­ten walk around in a zom­bie-like state.

Most days we caught one or two. Some days we caught none. When I got time off from the cannery and we could speed away in Chris’ 18-foot Lund, and spend the night along a river and fish from dawn till dusk, we ab­so­lutely hammered them. In south­east Alaska, most steel­head range be­tween 6 and 10 pounds. A 15-pounder is a gi­ant. But they do get larger than that, as Chris and I dis­cov­ered one day.

We were fish­ing a stream where we’d hooked 30-some steel­head in eight hours just a few days prior. Now those fish had moved up­stream, and noth­ing, it seemed, had moved in to re­place them. Above one of the best pools, Chris and I sat in the rain and took a break. From our el­e­vated po­si­tion we thought we saw a fish flash in the chop be­low a rapid. Chris said, “Go ahead and find out.”

I said, “No, I don’t want to blow it. You go ahead.”

Chris said, “For­get it. I get to do this all the time. You take it.”

I picked my way down a steep bank and started swing­ing a Green Butt Skunk. On the sec­ond cast, a fish took. I could tell right away this steel­head was unique, and I knew it for sure af­ter cross­ing the stream three times in pur­suit. Each time was a leap of faith as I stepped off a ledge and into the tan­nin-col­ored flow, hop­ing my wad­ing boots hit bot­tom. A cou­ple of days ear­lier, Chris had at­tempted the same trick, and all that had been left of him was a hat float­ing on the sur­face.

Thank­fully, each step found pur­chase, and even­tu­ally I brought this great fish to the bank. Chris and I stretched a tape to it: 42 inches. Its back an­gled up into high shoul­ders and then slowly an­gled down to the snout. This buck, I guessed, weighed 25 pounds or more. At that time we were shoot­ing SLR cam­eras with film. One shot of that steel­head turned out on that dark day, but we didn’t know it un­til weeks later, af­ter Chris sent the film to Seat­tle and the slides fi­nally got back. Pho­tog­ra­phers to­day, my­self in­cluded, have it good.

A lot has changed since I fell in love with Alaska in my teens and 20s. The Bear died alone on a tread­mill in Sag­i­naw Bay. Mark bought a 42-foot wooden troller that he and I ran from the West Wall in Seat­tle all the way to the South­east. The Eld­ing sank un­der a new owner. Chris moved out of Alaska, and I now spend most of my time tak­ing care of two daugh­ters and coach­ing six­th­grade girls’ bas­ket­ball in Mon­tana.

When I look back at that stint in Alaska, I see a short time, cen­tered on fish, that set a course for my life. To this day, I plan my year around swing­ing flies for wild steel­head, deep in the North­west’s rain­forests. And de­spite how over­bur­dened and out­landishly busy we’ve all be­come, I know the worst feel­ing in the world is not be­ing over­worked but, in­stead, to wan­der around with ab­so­lutely noth­ing to do.

Greg Thomas’ work has ap­peared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Jour­nal, Sports Afield, Field & Stream, Forbes and many other ti­tles. He has au­thored five books on fly-fish­ing.

Fa­mil­iar sight in Alaska: a com­mer­cial salmon boat.

The young deck­hand worked on a salmon troller run by a gruff cap­tain dur­ing his first sum­mer in Alaska. It was the first time he’d been on the ocean.

The work was hard, but the down­time al­lowed the writer to fish for steel­head and kings on the fly.

“I didn’t want to head for the ocean with an­other per­son I didn’t know, but I had to.”

“And when I hoisted our prized fish, which weighed 65 pounds af­ter be­ing gilled, bled and gut­ted, I felt all of my de­spair melt away.”

When the writer looks back on his stint in Alaska, he sees a short time, cen­tered on fish, that set a course for his life.

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