Back to excerpts from my fishing memoir, "The Cards Do the Talking," though I'm pretty sure the title will change. I'm not sure the conceit of permit cards drive the story forward enough. And I'm always open to suggestions, so suggest away! I'm pretty sure the 'Comments' button on here is functioning now. Sorry about that to all who tried using it. Anyway, this bit comes from my early days - the first year I fished as a skipper was 1980.
The tender Chisik Island, waiting for boats to deliver in Tuxedni Bay.
I’m standing on the tender Chisik Island after a long day fishing in 1984, waiting in line and delivering. It’s in the early morning hours, yet there’s still a glow on the horizon where the Alaskan summer sun set a couple of hours ago. I am bathed in the yellow arc lights illuminating the deck, wearing my scaly cannery jacket and pulling on a cigarette that reminds me of how much I need to brush my teeth. It’s been an ordinary day fishing, if there is such a thing. I’m tired of talking about it and just want to get to the dock and go home. I wasn’t a highliner this day, but I didn’t break down, didn’t get my gear in the wheel or get sticks in the gear. I caught more fish than some guys, less than others. I’m learning. This morning I’m weary. Veronica fishes with me, and she’s hosing down the hold as I step into the tender’s wheelhouse with Louie, the skipper, who seems to be the only person on deck who isn’t sleepy. He’s cracking jokes and slugging down coffee, and like usual, he cheers me up.
My wallet is in my pants for the first time since I got on the boat almost 24 hours ago, and I pull it out to get my permit card. Dark green this year. I hand it to Louie and watch as he lays it down on the card stamper, a machine similar to the old manual credit card machines that stores used to use before computers. The letters and numbers on the card are raised like they are asking to be stamped, and Louie obliges, putting the hole in the card over a stubby stainless post, and placing a fish ticket with my catch numbers written on it on top of the card. He pulls down on the arm of the machine, impressing my information: “ R Skookum Too, PATRICK S. DIXON S03H62160A 25829” on the paper. He lifts the handle and hands the card and my pink receipt back to me. Unlike cards, receipts don’t change color each year. Spacey, I stare at the card a moment before slipping it back into my wallet, wondering if a piece of plastic can remember the times and circumstances under which it was stamped.
Louis Gebenini, skipper of the Chisik Island, 1993.
Learning the Hard Way
It was only three short years ago I started fishing my own boat with my own permit - I remember that year's card was used twelve times. At least eight of those were by Harold, skipper of the Beaver, the tender that rescued us when we broke down, yes, eight times that season.
Michael fishes with me this year, and it’s the roughest season any of the old-timers can remember. I’m taking a leak off the side of the boat as we run south along the east side in a 6-8-foot sea, when we start going in circles. What the hell? I wonder. Michael is steering, and when I finish and zip up, I turn back toward the cabin to see him standing in the door holding the wheel in his hands. “When you asked me to take the wheel,” he deadpans, “I don’t think this is what you meant.” Our rudder controls have snapped, and without controls it has slammed hard over, and won’t come back. I squeeze into the stern compartment – the lazarette – to fix the problem, and discover that the wooden block the hydraulic ram that pushes the rudder when we turn the wheel, is splintered and floating in pieces in the bilge. The ram hangs useless in the air above, held only by the bolt attaching it to the rudder. I climb out as the boat rolls in the trough, trudge into the cabin and call Harold on the VHF. He is heading out of the Kenai River in case anyone in the CWF fleet needs a hand. I tell him our problem and location. “On my way,” he says. “I’ll be there in an hour, hour-and-a-half tops. Throw the anchor out if you start drifting too near shore.”
We close the cabin door, shut the engine down and wait, sloshing around under a grey sky and freshening wind. After running for an hour-and-a-half with the roar of an un-muffled Caterpillar diesel literally inches beneath your feet, when that engine noise and vibration suddenly stops, you immediately notice that your body keeps vibrating. Your arms and legs hum internally, as if every part of you has been tuned to the pitch of the engine, and can’t stop. The noise is quickly replaced by the clatter of cups and dishes in the sink shifting with each passing wave, the roll of buoys on the roof of the cabin, and slap of waves smacking the side of the boat, the groan of hull as she rolls from side to side, the steady whine of the wind in the rigging. We watch the boats go past us on their way to the fishing grounds. They get smaller in the distance, disappear over the horizon. It’s an ominous, uncertain and unfriendly feeling. We’re about two hours in when I decide to give Harold a call. As I reach for the microphone, I suddenly start sweating profusely and my mouth waters. I know this feeling, I think, and without a word to Michael, I jump off my seat and run out on deck. I was doing so well, I say to myself as I heave over the side. Shit!
The feeling after getting seasick is one of weakness and relief. For a few long, raw moments your stomach actually feels better. I spit and blow my nose over the side, then head back to the cabin and grab an Oreo to kill the taste. I figure I need get this radio call out of the way while I can still think straight - before the sickness returns.
Harold, skipper of the Beaver, c. 1981.
“Hey Harold,” I rasp into the microphone. “How you doin’ up there?” Someone else’s voice comes back. “Hi Pat. This is Corey.” Corey is Harold’s green deckhand, a red-haired kid from Pennsylvania or someplace back east. He’s a hard worker with a good attitude, but you get the feeling that he isn’t really paying attention most of the time. “Harold’s in the bunk. I was just about to call ya. I’m almost even with the east Forelands, right here by the tank farm, and I don’t see any boats up here at all. Where are ya?”
I take a long breath before answering. Several possible replies fly through my mind before I finally clench my jaw and utter, “ Um, Corey, we are south of the river, down by Humpy Point, not north of it. You’ve been steaming the wrong direction since you left.”
Another, longer pause. I can imagine what the kid is thinking. Finally, after a good two minutes of silence, the radio barks, “Yeah Pat, this is Harold. Sorry about that. I thought Corey knew what he was doing. We’re headin’ the right direction now. Probably take us a couple of hours to get there yet.” This is one of 1981’s good days.