One, two, three, four, five, six…
Six wraps. Through the eye hole, then again through the loop. Wet the 100-pound test mono with your spit. Pull just right. Clinch knot. One down and I-don’t-know-how-many to go…
The thrum of 225-horse Yamahas roars in my ear. I am wedged in the stern between a wooden rack set atop a giant blue tote full of saltwater slush and the transom, tying rigs as fast as I can. Happy the Alaska rain has let up. For now. Back to it.
Heavy main line attaches to a rubber snubber, a bungie cord-looking thing with a clasp on one end. An easy Palomar knot does this. Line runs to a flasher, a twisted, rectangular piece of luminous plastic that spins and flashes in the water when dragged. To the flasher runs 100-pound monofilament, four fathoms’ worth, and to this either a spoon of some sort, or a hoochie, which is a hook masquerading as a rubber octopus.
I needed to have 20 of these rigs done before my friend Tyson, who owned both the boat we were on and the commercial permit we needed to hand troll, cut the engines. The sound of the captain throttling down motivates me more than any alarm clock: Throttle down means it’s time to fish, time to set gear. So you’d better be ready.
I wasn’t. I only had 17 done by the time Tyson put the Raindancer into neutral. It had been a powerful long time since I’d tied so many rigs, and even longer since I’d done it with 100- and 120-pound test line, which is practically cable, and aboard a boat running out to the fishing grounds. If you’re not used to it, the act of looking down, concentrating on a small spot, while on a pitching boat, can make you seasick in short order.
I am used to it. In fact, nowhere do I feel better than when I am aboard a fishing boat: private, charter or commercial.
While I’d never fished exactly like this before, this was not the first time I’d been a deckhand. A few years back I’d had the chance to help out on a Copper River bowpicker, a kind of gillnetting boat. And long before that, I’d been a sometimes deckhand aboard party boats on Long Island.
Being a deckhand isn’t the easiest work in the world, but there is something about it that never gets old. This is true for a lot of reasons, but the easiest for an outsider to understand is that fishing stokes the inner gambler in all of us. What is on the end of that line? Will today be Boom? Or Bust? This is why a show like “The Deadliest Catch” can remain popular for so long — a certain set of people, myself among them, never grow tired of wondering what’s in that pot, what’s on the end of the line?
We’d soon find out.
A hand trolling set-up is just like running downriggers, only the gear is sturdier, and, well, you have to run the gear by hand. No hydraulics, no electric winches. I like the throwback nature of this. It’s a clean way to fish in terms of bycatch, and my gut says the only true future of commercial fishing lies in this sort of “down gearing,” purposely using more primitive or smaller gear than we are capable of, much the way we do in hunting. We need to check ourselves, and down-gearing is a good way to go about it.
The trolling gear consists of an upside down, “L”-shaped boom with a hand-cranked winch on it. Stout cable runs through the winch, through the boom and down to a cannonball. Literally. Tyson uses 25-pound lead balls to get his gear deep. “Whatever you do, don’t let those balls get out of the water,” he cautioned. Think wrecking ball on fiberglass hulls. No bueno.
On the main cable are tied small knots of thinner cable paired up every fathom, which is six feet. The rigs I’d been so furiously tying clip in between those paired knots, which prevents it from sliding up and down the main line. One person cranks the line out, the other attaches the gear to the line.
You need to let the cable out slowly, but that cannonball wants to plummet to the bottom, so you use your hand to steady the descent. (This is what I am doing in the top picture) Gloves are required if you don’t want all the skin ripped off your hand.
One fathom, two. Clip the gear. Repeat until 10 rigs are in the water. Three or four more fathoms, lock the gear. Do the other side. Now we’re fishing.
After that, it’s just trolling. I’ve written about the zen of trolling before, and it is indeed a state of mind. Hand trolling’s big difference is that you don’t haul gear with just one fish on the line. You wait until it loads up. How do you know? You watch for subtle tugs on the main line. Oooh, that was a big fish! Another hit! I think we’re loading up...
Of course sometimes you’re wrong. Sometimes that big fish was just a rockfish on the bottom hook. Sometimes you get nothing. Sometimes you get micro chinook.
Alaska closed the season on chinook salmon, so of course we couldn’t keep them off the gear. Typical. But these were the smallest kings I’d ever seen. Not one was larger than about five pounds, and most were closer to a pound. Weird. Fortunately, hauling gear frequently keeps the fish alive so you can toss them back.
I got good at watching for that tell-tale purple sheen and detecting that particular chinook smell — kings smell different from other salmon for some reason. When they’d come up, I’d position the crook of my gaff around the shank of the hook in the fish’s mouth. With a flip, the chinook is free and in the water, without me touching it. Salmon have loose scales so you don’t want to handle them too roughly if you’re releasing them.
But in short order, coho salmon — silvers — started coming over the rail in ones and twos, with a few rockfish mixed in. A pink salmon found its way onto the line.
Fighting a fish on hand trolling gear is pure. Primal. No rod. No reel. You clip the rubber snubber to the rack so you won’t lose the gear, then you haul in the fish hand over hand. Small fish are no problem. But big fish display power on a hand line that you cannot experience with a rod and reel.
When you get a silver or pink salmon to the boat, you need to hold the line with one hand, gaff in the other. Lean deep over the transom, bring the fish to the boat and whack it cleanly with the back of the gaff. Flip the gaff around, slip it under the gill plate and haul the fish aboard.
I was just getting the hang of this when we trolled along a long rock wall, the submerged side of a mountain dropping deep into the waters south of Juneau. The gear started shaking violently as fish after fish hit. “We better haul or we’ll miss opportunity,” Tyson said. A trolling spread with no free hooks is no longer fishing.
Tyson began cranking up the line. A silver! Small chinook. Silver, silver! Rockfish. Silver. Fish after fish hit the deck. It was mayhem.
Grab each fish, pop the gills to bleed it, dunk it into a tub of seawater to bleed out. Reset the gear. Gut the fish. Slide them into the tote full of seawater slush, which keeps the fish pristine. Empty the bloody tub and refill it with fresh seawater. Splash more saltwater on deck to rinse blood and gore from the decks.
Haul the gear. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Hour after hour.
This was work. Exhilarating work. A bruise here. A nick there. Shoulders aching. None of it mattered. I wanted to see what was on the end of that line. What’s next? Bring it on, man. Bring it on.
A huge tug on the starboard side gear. That’s a serious fish. Tyson thought it might be a full-sized chinook, so we decided to haul the gear early just in case. Nothing, nothing, nothing. There’s the fish — a silver. A mammoth silver.
Game on. I clicked the snubber to the rack and started pulling line in hand over hand. The fish wasn’t having it, and yanked it all back in one run. Nothing you can do but let him run. I started again. This time the silver leaped completely out of the water. Holy shit! It was as big as a good-sized chinook, but with that distinctive green back and hooked mouth of a big buck coho.
Again I started hand-lining. Undaunted, the silver ran across the stern. Sonofa... I quickly unclipped the snubber, dashed around to the port side and reclipped it just in time for the fish to take back every inch of line I’d gained.
The hand-to-fin struggle started one last time. Finally I gained line. There was the flasher! I grabbed it with one hand, gaff in the other. Closer, closer… just one more foot… I swung the gaff — and missed! The fish went wild. All I could do was watch line whip away, past the flasher. But the fish was tired now. So was I. I hauled it back to the side of the boat, and this time slipped the gaff right into its gills. A flip into the boat, and the fight was over.
Good God was this a fish! Every bit of 20 pounds, this silver was bigger than any chinook I’d caught in California thus far this year (I just caught a 22-pounder last week). It dwarfed the 14-pound coho we’d caught in the morning.
And it was a fitting end to our day. It wasn’t just Tyson and me on the boat. His wife Holly, his twin nine-year-olds Riley and Nate, and Holly’s father Larry were all aboard. And alas, they aren’t afflicted with the fisherman’s sickness they way we are. One more set, one more hour… the tide will change and it’ll be on! With no supervision, Tyson and I would have slept on the boat amongst the fish, eager to wake up and catch more the next day.
We hauled the gear one last time. Another silver, nothing special. It was over.
Tyson turned the boat for home. I wrapped the rigs, stowed gear, gutted the last fish, scrubbed the decks. I wedged myself back into my spot on the stern as we ran back to the dock, staring at the stark shores of the Southeast Alaska coastline, all spruce and stone. Soft rain began falling.
I could live this life.