Most of us, at some point in our lives, catch glimpses of paths unchosen: A conversation with someone at a bar, or in an airport. A sporting event, or a visit from an old friend. An unexpected experience, far from home.
There was a time where I seriously considered becoming a commercial fisherman. I grew up near the Atlantic, and spent as much time as I could on the ocean. My parents, uncle and later my brother all ran sailboats, and as a toddler I used to sleep in a bunk in the bow of the boat, letting it rock me to sleep. Even so, I have no love for bedsheet boats. As long as I can remember, I’ve stared longingly at the gillnetters, the trawlers, the longliners and lobster boats moored over in the working part of the harbors we’d sail into.
I’ve served as a deckhand here and there since my youth, but long ago I convinced myself that my life is better served on land, that the siren song of the sea would lead me to no good end. So I stopped listening. Until last week.
It was a leaden morning, notable mostly because the rain in Cordova, Alaska had slackened for the first time in more than a month. I found myself on the gillnetter Controller Bay, a guest of Capt. Brian Rutzer and the Copper River Marketing Association: The group had brought me, Holly, my friend Dan Klein and a few other food writers up to Cordova to see the vaunted Copper River salmon runs firsthand.
They told us all that we’d need rubber boots and Grundens, which they could provide. I told them I’d bring my own. I still have an old pair of Grundens – the rubber overalls all fishermen wear – from when I served as a mate on a party boat for a time. I’ve worn them since then, but only for sportfishing trips. This would be the first time I’d get to wear them as a working fisherman for many, many years.
Standing on the deck, it felt good to be wearing them again. I’d never been aboard a gillnetter before, and Capt. Brian walked Dan, Holly and me through the drill as we steamed out to a part of Prince William Sound called the Flats. A gillnet is a long floating net that peels off either the bow or stern of the boat. You attach a buoy to one end of the net and play it out until you get to the allotted 900 feet; the other end is bolted to a giant spool on deck. The bottom of the net is weighed down with lead, the top floats on the surface. When you reel it in, you stand next to the net as it coils back on the spool and pick the fish from its webbing.
The Copper River fleet does a few things with its salmon that most other salmon fishermen do not: They bleed each fish immediately after they come on board – this cools the meat and leaves it cleaner and firmer – and then they pack the salmon in a hold filled with a mixture of saltwater and ice, a slush that can drop down close to 33 degrees. The result is a fish of superior quality.
I told Brian I’d had a little experience on a commercial boat, so I immediately stepped into the role of deckhand. It surprised me how easily it all came back. Watch the captain. Listen and interpret what he needs, hopefully before he even needs to say anything. Remember what he tells you, so he doesn’t have to tell you twice. Shuffle your feet on deck when the boat is pitching. Be careful about lines on deck. Never get them wrapped around your leg. Watch knives like they’re the enemy. Tie the correct knot. Pop the gills. Stow the fish in the hold. Move quickly.
Our first set was near a large sandbar; we were approaching low tide, which Brian had said is the best time to fish for salmon. We let the line pay out and shut off the engine… and the world went quiet. No more engine drone or whine of the winch. All we heard were surf and gulls. It was a surprising moment of serenity in what can otherwise be a noisy, smelly business.
Brian said he typically lets the net set for an hour before hauling the net. During that time, all he really needs to do is adjust the position of the boat to keep the net where he wants it, and watch for seals. Seals and sharks are a salmon fisherman’s nemesis. Seals (and sea lions) are smart enough to know what a set net means, and they will swim up and down its length, watching for a spot where they can snatch a stuck salmon without getting snagged themselves.
Each sockeye salmon they eat costs Brian $10, and if the seals are too fierce, he hauls his nets early. Better to haul more often than to pull up a net full of salmon heads.
Salmon sharks can be worse. They pack up like wolves and make slashing runs after the salmon schools, and if the sharks get caught in the net, they can make a mess of things in a hurry. And even though salmon shark makes for some of the finest eating fish in the ocean, the fishermen are not allowed to keep them on board.
Bycatch is a constant. As we hauled that first set of the day, up came a conga line of spiny dogfish, little sharks with eerie green eyes and odd white flesh that looks precooked. There is no market for them, but there could be; the Atlantic dogfish supports a thriving fishery in New England, where they are mostly used for fish and chips. And I can attest that shark-based fish and chips are spectacular.
Most of the “off” fish caught in the net – dogfish, starry flounder, rock cod, halibut – are safely returned to the ocean. Of the 100 or so fish that went back over the side that day, I saw only one shark go belly up.
Brian was not here to catch dogfish, so we moved on. Our second set was right up on the beach of a sandbar: Salmon sometimes run close to shore on their way to fresh water. Sure enough, minutes after we set the net, Holly spotted a rippling in the water about 100 yards down the net. A fish! Soon there were more. When a hungry seal showed up and began picking at one of them, Brian decided to haul early.
Up came a sockeye, a chrome bullet. In the ocean, all species of salmon look more or less alike; it takes a practiced eye to tell them apart. Sockeye’s heads are a little pointier than silvers, the salmon closest to them in size. And while king salmon have black mouths and silvers gray mouths, sockeye have white mouths. Silvers also tend to have lots of little black spots on their backs. Brian pointed this out as another sockeye came over, then another. Then a silver.
We hauled 10 salmon in that set. Not a bonanza, but exciting nonetheless. We reset the net. Staring at it, the gillnet became our slot machine, and every time we pulled the lever, everyone aboard was hoping it would come up Sevens. Brian told us of sets that brought in more than 200 salmon at once – and at about $10 a fish, that’s a jackpot that beats any one-armed bandit in Vegas.
Less than 20 minutes later we had to haul again because of the seals. But seals only hang near the net when there are fish in it. More salmon came over the rail. Brian would extract them from the net, and I would toss any bycatch overboard. If it was a salmon, I’d pop the gills and drop them into the icy hold. As I worked, although my brain recognized that I wasn’t actually getting paid for doing this, that feeling of fish as money ran electric through my blood. It was intoxicating. My heart quickens just writing about it.
We were not out there working a full day, however. This was merely a demonstration for us writers about how the gillnetting fishery operates. Brian called the other boat out with us, the Paradigm Shift, run by Capt. Bill Webber: He was already headed back to port. All of us knew we needed to go; we had other things they wanted to show us that day.
Brian looked at us. We looked at him. No words were spoken. We reset the gear.
Dan made smoked sockeye sandwiches while we watched salmon hit the net minutes after we set it. Everyone ate with hungry smiles on our faces. All eyes were on the net, which was dancing along its length by the time we finished our lunch.
“I suppose we should haul the net and head back,” Brian said. His voice had that ring of someone who would rather keep fishing all day and into the night. But we hauled the gear out of duty. Salmon came pouring over the rail. We’d had the gear set for only about 15 minutes, and 20 salmon were in the boat – our biggest haul yet.
Reluctantly, we stowed the gear and turned for home. None of us wanted to go. On our way back, we talked about heading out the next day. Doing so would have thrown a wrench into the trip’s itinerary, and we all knew it was unrealistic, but we still talked about the idea of hauling one more day as if we really could. One by one we fell into silence, thinking of salmon and seals and the vast gray expanse of shallow water we were roaring through.
One last turn, one last point of land, and Cordova came into view. Soon we’d be leaving. I’d have to put my Grundens away, possibly for good. I couldn’t stop looking at the net, at the hold full of salmon. Brian must have noticed. Now I don’t know whether it was just to make me feel better, or whether he really meant it, but he knew exactly what to say to cap a perfect day: “Hank, if you ever want to come up fishing again, I’d be happy to have you on my deck any time.”
He could have handed me $1000 in cash and I wouldn’t have felt better. I was beaming. I still am, really.
It’s been a week since I stepped off the deck of the Controller Bay. But ever since then, late at night, if I listen closely, I can hear singing. It’s coming from the West. From the sea.