The Most Important Thing

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Sockeyes boil like coffee gurgling in the glass knob of our percolator pot.  Nearing slack water on the ebb, salmon are already hitting the flood side of the gear.  Fresh hits bode well for high water pick up.

We deliver our catch.  A quick grub up and a short nap before launching again.  A brisk sou’wester pushes salmon toward shore, but makes for a lumpy sea.

Donning gear, life jacket on, I walk out into the wind.  We trailer the skiff to the water’s edge where she gets battered by the surf as we position her on the pullout line.

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

And the most important thing on a day like today is patience.  Waves occur in a series.  The key: wait for the flat spot after the last big wave, shove off, and pull as hard as you can before the next set of big ones.

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 lowers the outboard and cranks her into action.  We motor to the other skiff moored on its buoy, Frank (my cousins tie up at Beans) and come along side for the transfer.

The most important thing on a day like today is to avoid placing your hands on the gunnel between two skiffs.  As they crash together, fingers will be crushed.  It’s easy to be careless and end up with broken digits.  So easy to forget that it has become our mantra on nearing a skiff to call out FINGERS, a quick reminder.

Half of us hop in the awaiting skiff, then we run out to the gear.  Approaching a beach net, I keep my head up as I reach for the gaff so a wave doesn’t catch me off guard and drive my face into the rail.  Grabbing 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 and shoots down my jacket as we gather web, grasp the leadline, and bring it all aboard.

The skiff is constantly pitched side to side.  Pinched in the bow, I struggle to steady the corkline, preventing it from seesawing back and forth across the gunnels as we harvest our catch.  Finished, we head for the offshore gear.

Loaded down, gear still unpicked, we decide to pull a few nets, offload, then run back to roundhaul what remains.  Pulling nets fish and all is not ideal, especially in a storm.  A full net is difficult to pull aboard and it’s hard to balance a load of tangled fish and web and lines, but that’s our only chance of getting gear in on time.  It won’t fit in one trip.

Laden down, skiff sitting low, it’s a slow run back to camp, taking on water all the way.  I lose sight of shore each time the trough engulfs us.  Nearing Cabin Set, we notice it’s sunk.  This location hangs up, so, full as we are, Johnny and I decide to pull it before landing.  Once the tide starts ripping, we may not retrieve it at all.  Lifting lines over the bow we realize the net isn’t hung up.  It is loaded.

Johnny and I position ourselves in the bow.  I pull in cork and leadlines and what webbing I can while he heaves gaggles of fish on deck and Pauline struggles to haul it all toward the stern.  With every pull, our bow dips and Cook Inlet spills in.  Today is the closest I’ve come to believing we could sink.  Tomorrow I will find out how real a concern that is as we hear 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.  I guess everything you love has the power to hurt you in some way, but with fishing, it is in the most literal sense.

Landing loaded in a storm is tricky.  Too heavy to run up on the beach, Johnny does a beautiful job at a controlled swamp, running in as close as he dares, then veering sideways while lifting the outboard and letting the waves ground us.  We jump out and pull the skiff broadside as best we can as breakers fill the dory.

Working quickly, we empty nets, deliver our catch, and get ready for round two.  Splitting the crew, one skiff launches to pick up the remaining offshore gear as the rest yard beach nets ashore.

I check my watch as the last net leaves the water.  About 5 minutes to spare.  We still have to pick nets, deliver, and get set for the next opener, but we are legal

It is already tomorrow when I leave the beach.  I’ve been working in wet clothes for hours.  Fatigued, back aching, fingers throbbing, eyelids drooping, and 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’s the most important thing.

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