Sunday, November 18, 2012

Alone on the Fish - Part 1

Don Lee and Dean Pugh are close friends of mine. Their dad, also named Don, whom we called “Senior,” even though Don Lee wasn’t “Junior,” started fishing Cook Inlet in the 50’s, and brought his boys up to Alaska as deckhands when they were teens. Don started running his own boat for Kenai Packers at 17, Dean at 15. I met the two of them on one of my very first days of running my own boat in 1980, almost a decade later. In the winters senior was a school principal in Bellevue, and their mom Betty was an elementary schoolteacher. She deckhanded for senior as long as they fished together. To my good fortune, both Dean and Don had their parents’ Norwegian blood as fishermen and teachers, and  they took me under wing during my first two years as a skipper. They taught me how to work on boats, mend gear, how to read tides and how to fish. Sitting here thirty years later, I wonder if there was much they didn’t teach me about how to be a fisherman. In the process we became lifelong friends.
I’m writing this on Nov. 14, 2012, three days after Betty passed away. When Don called me with the news I asked him if he wanted some company – that I would come up and spend the night. “You know, I think I’d like that,” he answered. I drove to his house in Snohomish that morning, and spent the past two days with he and Dean and Dean’s wife Michelle and son Chris. We talked, drank whiskey and beer, laughed, cried, cleaned Betty’s apartment, and talked more. These are my friends. They say you can’t pick your family. Maybe not, but you can sometimes pick the one you’d like to be part of. Theirs is the one I picked. Here’s just one story about them, starting with Don Lee:

Don Pugh "Senior" runs his boat, the Sumac, out of 
the Kenai River just behind his son, Don Lee, on the Marauder.

This is how I like to remember fishing: 1983, fishing the Skookum down south on the west side at the end of the day. My deckhand, Dan Rediske, a former student of mine fresh out of high school, is weary after picking 600 fish on our first set of the day and 300 on the second. We move west of the fleet in a building sea, trying to avoid a large, scattered kelp rip, and make what I am already thinking is the last set of the day. The radio reports of fish are few, and the boats that aren’t already heading back to the river aren’t catching much. I see one boat, a speck on the horizon north and east of me a couple of miles - the only vessel in sight. The water is clear of sticks and kelp as we set to the west. A bunch hits the net in a flurry of foam, but it’s quickly lost among all the whitecaps. We are setting the gear while running in the trough, and on the bridge I am hanging on to the wheel as the boat rolls underneath me. It’s hard enough to keep track of my direction with the compass, let alone look back at the net while setting. Dan has his head down, helping the gear peel off the net with his hands. There’s a freshening wind blowing and he’s keeping a close eye on the wind-whipped web so he can pull the brake on the reel if it hangs up on a cork or a snag. Neither of us can really tell if we’re getting any fish or not.
 We finally get the gear out and both of us head to the cabin. The wind is steady and cold, with spits of needle-like raindrops mixed in, and the cabin is warm and dry. Dan asks if I mind if he takes a nap for 10 or 15 minutes. I nod, put my army jacket on over my oilskin bibs, pull on a pair of gloves and a sock cap, and head topside to watch the gear. Even after three years on this boat and two more deckhanding for Jim, I still can get queasy in the cabin on a rocky day, so I figure I stand a better chance of staying on the grounds and finishing out the period if I’m in the fresh air. I go out on deck and put the boat in reverse so I can get some slack in the tow line. I pull it around to the port side and tie it off on the midship cleat so I can tow into the waves. I climb the ladder to the bridge and swivel the seat to face the stern, bracing myself on the life raft rack with my legs. I hang on to the side of the bridge with one hand and steer the boat with the other. I tow the net, trying to keep the gear from “flagging out,” or stretching in the direction of the wind and current, where it won’t catch as many fish. I watch the net as it stretches off to the east into grey, angry waves. I can only clearly see the first shackle, (the first third of the net), and I can barely see our orange buoy bobbing every now and then, tiny in the distance, 300 yards away at the end of the net. I light up a smoke with a good deal of twisting and turning against the wind to shield the lighter, suck on it and watch the net. About halfway down the first shackle the corks bob and disappear. Suddenly the water is lit up with splashes. A good-sized bunch there. A few seconds pass. Another, right behind the boat. And another kicking up foam toward the other end of the gear. The bunches light up for just a second as the fish struggle against the web, then stop. The fish we're catching can’t fight long because of the tension created by the waves and the boat towing so hard, so I’m pretty sure I’m not seeing at least as many hits as I am seeing. This is getting good, and after a particularly large hit, I let out a whoop and scramble back down the ladder to make a fish call.
  There are eight boats in our group, and we communicate well to each other about the numbers and species of the fish we catch, our location and how long the gear has been in the water. We also let each other know when we are on fish and getting activity in the gear, something I know from experience that other groups find difficult.  I spent a couple of years fishing in a group of 22 boats. Not only do some of those guys not talk much, they go out of their way to conceal information from their own group so they can catch more fish. The day I decide to leave the group is when one guy catches 900 fish on one set and doesn’t call anyone in the group until it’s all over and he’s done picking. Afterward, he claims he didn’t see them hit. No one else in the group believes him, but nobody says anything. I start looking for a new group to fish with the next day.
  I key the microphone on our scrambled sideband. “Yeah, I’m getting quite a few hits here in the last few minutes, in case anyone is interested.” I look out the window at the gear while I’m talking, and a bunch slams into the net about fifty corks out. I love when that happens while I’m on the radio, because then I get to say, “Yeah, there’s another good one right now!” Don, on the Marauder answers, “What are your numbers, Pat?” I tell him my latitude/longitude, and he pauses a second before replying, “Do you see a boat a couple of miles north and east of you? Are you off west by yourself?”
“Yep,” I answer. “That’s me. Is that you up there?” All I can see is a gray dot bobbing up and down near the horizon in the direction of the river.
        “Yeah," he says, "We’re clearing out a raft of kelp that hit our gear on the last set. I had to roll it on just to get out of there, and moved west. We’re setting it out again and clearing it as we go. I don’t know if I want to move over now.”
  “Uh, Don,” I say. “This is looking really good here, and they’re charging north. Trust me. You want to move over and get in line with me. I’m still getting nailed here.” I feel a sense of urgency trying to convince him that this little shot is worth the effort. The day is almost over. I know the feeling of being tired and frustrated dealing with sticks or kelp in the gear. But, I think, it’s rare to be out here all by ourselves on a school of fish. I see another hit, and key the mike again. “Yeah, there’s been a couple more since we stopped talking,” I say. “And there’s another one, right behind the boat.”
   A long pause, and then he comes on. “Ok. We still have a shackle to clear. Let me know if it dies off.”

A speck of a boat a few miles away, Cook Inlet, 1977.
  “Will do.” I hang up the microphone, plug in the external speaker and head back topside. Fish are hanging in the gear as far back as I can see. We’re going to have to pick up soon, or we’ll never make it before the end of the period. I look at my watch. It’s just before 5:00 pm. We have a little over an hour to go. I watch as Don moves to the west. I figure I’ll wake Dan in five minutes, start picking in ten. Excited, I light another cigarette. The wind whistles around me until I jump down from the bridge and swing into the cabin. “C’mon Dan,” I yell. “We’ve loaded up again! It’s time to pick some fish!” As he sleepily rubs his eyes and pulls on his boots, I call Don and tell him I’m going to start picking.
  “How’s it goin’ up there?” I ask.            
  “Not bad,” he says. There’s definitely some fish here. We’ve had a couple nice bunches already, and we just got it all out. We’ll wait 10-15 more minutes and pick up then.”
        “Roger that,” I’ll be on the back deck.” Dan and I put on our gloves and raingear while I take off the tow and let the net flag. Picking while using the net as a sea anchor makes for a more stable deck, and it’s impossible to get the fish out of the gear when you’re towing. We bunji the door open and hurry to the back deck. I estimate we have at least 600 fish as we pull the end of the first shackle on board 20 minutes later.  5:30. We’re not going to get it all out of the water by the period’s end. If we get caught by Fish and Game with gear out, the entire catch will be confiscated by the state, and we'll get fined $3,000 to boot. Though the odds are low of getting caught way out here by ourselves, with all these fish I don’t even want to risk it.
   “Let’s pick as much as we can until 10 of,” I say to Dan as we bring on another bunch. “Then we’ll roundhaul the rest.” He nods and grunts as he bends down to pick a fish. Dan doesn’t say much, but he’s a hard worker and good fish picker. We both step it up a notch, feeling the urgency. We barely notice the white-crested waves slapping the stern unless one actually sprays us with ice-cold water. The boat is full and heavy, and rolls lazily even in a crazy sea. It makes for an easier working environment, but she’s significantly lower in the water. I notice the waves are starting to push the sea into the scuppers, holes reserved for water to drain out as we bring the soaked net on board. I have tapered wooden plugs tied to the stern cleats. “Get a hammer,” I tell Dan. “Let’s put the plugs in.” He stops picking and scoots to the cabin as fast as he can. I unlash the scupper plug on my side of the boat, get down on my knees and lean over the gunwale to guide it into place. I reach behind my back and Dan puts the hammer in my hand. A few solid whacks, including one as we roll to the side which puts the plug under water, causing me to splash and soak my own face, and the plug is in. We repeat the process for the starboard side, toss the hammer up by the door to the cabin and start picking again. I am wet and cold and tired, but I still feel great. We are on our best set of the season, and no one has come close to reporting this many fish all day. This is the kind of day I dream about each spring. It's 5:45. We pick furiously, swearing when a fish is bagged in the net or is stubborn and won’t come out fast. I watch the corks behind the boat as Dan finishes clearing a fish out of the gear, only to see another bunch hit!            
“We’re still getting fish!” I shake my head. “Shit. Why couldn’t it be noon right now?”
“Because we’d sink!” Dan smiles. “We can’t hold much more!” I realize he’s right.
“Okay. Let’s get outta here. Clear the deck.” We pitch all the fish at our feet over the reel into the open fish hold. I then press my foot on the treadle that powers the hydraulic motor that turns the reel and roll the net, fish and all on board. We have a powerful hydraulic motor, and even though the fish and gear weigh a tremendous amount we wrap a little over a shackle and some 250 more fish onto the reel. 6:05. We’re out of the water. I figure we have more than 1,600 six-to-seven-pound salmon on board.
 The boat rolls in the trough, so I put her in gear, turn her north, stern into the sea, and race to the bridge where I clean gurry off  my glasses and head toward Don, who is still picking up. Dan starts pulling the net off the reel by hand, and picking the fish off the reel. Don is just bringing on the buoy as we come alongside, and he’s grinning. “That was a great shot to end the day!” He shouts over the wind. “Thanks for that. We must’ve had 400 on that one!”

Don Lee Pugh picks fish from a gill net, c 1983.

“Great! See you in the river!” I yell back. And we both go into our respective cabins and throttle up, heading northeast.  I steer and put TV dinners in the oven as Dan clears the fish off the reel and rolls the net back on. The Marauder is faster than the Skookum, and a better sea boat with more hull above the waterline than we have. He passes us and slowly pulls away as we run home. There are still a few other boats out here, but with the weather turning nasty at the period’s end and the bulk of the fleet headed in early, I’m glad Don’s with us. The lonely feeling that haunts me periodically over all the years I fish, the one that comes over me when I realize how small a boat I am - a tiny black speck on a great big ocean - feels less powerful when I’m running near somebody I know. I never have liked being out here by myself, even with a boatload of fish.
I’m even more grateful for Don’s presence nearby when the engine quits about an hour out of the river. I’m asleep in the bunk when the drone of the engine goes quiet. “Hey, Pat,” Dan calls, but I’m already wide-awake and getting up. It’s almost 9:00 pm under gray skies, and the light is dim outside. “What happened?” I ask as I look out the windows. The boat is coasting with the last of its forward momentum, and swinging into the trough of the waves. The wind down south hasn’t turned the waves into whitecaps yet, but we’re riding a sea swell forecasting the coming storm. I think Danny shut her down for some reason.“I don’t know,” he replies. “Everything was running fine when she just quit.” He slides out of the skipper’s seat and I climb in.  I turn the key. The engine cranks but doesn’t start. We click on the cabin lights over the table and the sink. “Let’s unbutton her and take a look.” I have no idea what I’m looking for, but I’m hoping something will be obvious. While Dan rolls back the rug and lifts the floorboards in the cabin to allow access to the engine, I call Don. “Hey Marauder, Skookum Too. I have a problem here, Don.”

to be continued...

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