The Most Important Thing

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Sockeyes boil like coffee gurgling in the glass knob of our percolator pot. It’s nearing slack water on the ebb; salmon already hitting the flood side of the gear. Fresh hits bode well for high water pick up. We’ll have to launch early to get our nets in on time.

Fifteen years ago, this was not an issue. ADF&G has no biological reason to close us with runs this strong, but fishing politics have steadily grown more rancorous ever since the outside world “discovered” the Kenai. Mandatory windows of closure are the new reality, no matter the strength of the run.

We unload and deliver our beautiful catch. A quick grub-up and a short nap before launching again. A brisk sou’wester blows fish ashore, but makes for a lumpy sea. Should be a wet ride come high water.

Donning gear at the cabin, life jacket on, I walk out into the wind. Allis, our little tractor, takes the skiff to the water’s edge. It gets battered against the trailer as Johnny lets her down in the surf. Once clear of the trailer, we position her on the pullout line.

The most important thing on a day like today: keep the bow out. Get broadside and you might as well let go, beach the skiff, and start over. No one is strong enough to pull out sideways through the surf.

The most important thing on a day like today is patience. I know, that’s two most important things. They can’t be ranked. Waves occur in series. The key: wait for the flat spot after the last big wave, shove off, haul out, and clear the breakers before the next set hits. Theoretically. You never fully clear the breakers, but you need to be in deep enough water to pull through as they crash over the bow.

And the most important thing on a day like today: Don’t let go of the line.

Clear of the surf, I shake Cook Inlet spray from my face, already soaked. John drops the outboard and cranks her into action with three pulls on the starter cord.

We motor out to the second skiff, moored on its buoy, Frank — my cousins moor up at Beans — and approach the lee side for transfer. Grabbing the inside rail of the awaiting skiff, half the crew holds them together while the rest of us hop quickly into the anchored dory.

The most important thing on a day like today is to avoid placing your hands on the gunnel between skiffs. Waves pound them together, fingers will be crushed. It’s easy to forget and end up with broken digits. It has become routine on nearing a skiff for someone to call out FINGERS. A quick reminder.

We fish the gear, starting inshore. Approaching a beach net, I watch the water while reaching for the gaff so a wave doesn’t catch me unaware and drive my face into the rail. I snag the corkline. We bring it over the bow, lock a cork with our bodies and lean toward the water. Cold spray off the hull soaks my face, shooting down my jacket as we gather web, grasp the leadline, and bring the net aboard.

The skiff pitches side to side traveling along the net. Pinched in the bow, I fight to hold the corkline steady to keep the net from seesawing across the gunnels as we remove our catch. I keep an eye on the water, warning others to hold on every time a comber barrels down on us. It’s a slower process than on the ebb when we could all pick at once. Finished, we head offshore and start picking the outer gear.

Loaded, nets still unpicked, time a ticking, we decide to pull the nets just fished, head ashore, offload, then run out to round haul the remaining gear. Round hauling (pulling nets, fish, and all) is not ideal, especially in a storm. A full net is hard to pull and it’s difficult to balance a load with mounds of tangled fish, web, and lines, but that’s our only chance of getting in on time. It won’t fit in one trip.

Laden with salmon and gear, sitting low, we run slowly back to camp, taking on water all the way. I lose sight of shore each time the trough engulfs us. Passing Cabin Set, we see it’s sunk. It’s a location that hangs up, so, full as we are, we decide to pull it before landing. When the tide turns, it may not be retrievable at all. Lifting cork and leadlines over the bow we realize it isn’t hung up. It’s loaded.

In the bow, I brace my knee on the gunnel and pull both lines and what webbing I can while Johnny heaves gaggles of fish over the rail onto the deck. Pauline works hard to yard everything toward the stern to even out the load. With every pull, our bow dips and silty Cook Inlet waters spill in. Today is probably the closest I have been to believing we could sink a skiff. Tomorrow I will find out how real a concern that is, as we hear news of a crew that went down a couple miles north. Nobody was lost tho, and we are thankful, not only for our bounty, but most importantly, for everyone’s safe return.

Landing loaded in a storm is sketchy. The skiff is too heavy to run up onshore. Johnny performs a perfect controlled swamp. Running in close, he veers sideways in the surf, lifts the outboard, and lets the waves ground us. We jump out and pull the skiff broadside as best we can as Cook Inlet fills the dory.

John deftly lands the other skiff. Working quickly, we empty nets, deliver, and ready for round two. Splitting the crew, we launch one skiff to pull the outer gear while the rest yard the beach nets ashore.

I check my watch as the last net leaves the water. About 5 minutes to spare. These closures have made work on days like this much more dangerous, but at the moment we are too exhausted to give that much thought. We still have to pick fish, deliver, and ready for the next opener.

It’s already tomorrow when I leave the beach. I’ve been working in wet clothes for hours. Fatigued, back aching, fingers throbbing, eyelids drooping, smiling ear to ear, I head for home and the comfort of my bed. I have not seen a day like this in years.

Commercial fishing is hard work; some days more than others. But loving what you do, well, that is the most important thing.

[Going through my writings, picking the better ones to present at the FisherPoets Gathering.  This one got canned due to length, but thought I’d post it here.  It was based on an amazing opener we had a few years back.  Hoping we have more days like this in our future.  With the current fishing politics, hoping we have days in our future, period.]

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