Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Color Action Photos

It wasn't a great tide for catching fish, but not bad for photos. The first is of a few of this tide's salmon, in the brailer, ready for delivery. Sadly, for the past several tides, though we've fished well and faithfully, the pile of fish has been only a few layers deep. Some are beginning to worry. In my 51 years fishing, the earliest the run has ever arrived is June 20 (that was 1999) and the latest was July 12 (that was 2006 - a difficult year for us). That's arrived. Then it goes from there. Prior to 2006, the latest was July 10 - we had despaired until then and on the 10th, we were surprised. We have had a few years when they just didn't come at all - 1972 and 1973 were the worst, and they were expected to be poor. The runs were also depressed in the late 80s (at least where we fish), and again in 1997 and 1998. So I won't despair yet. But I do reserve the right to despair at some time in the future - maybe July 13th.

This photo features David's crew in The New Boat. It came equipped with everything, including the outboard; the power roller; a Pacer pump - pumps lots of water in a short period of time; a bilge pump; the trailer it was on; lots of lines, fuel cells, totes - we were very lucky to find it. I think David saw the ad. The owner lived near my brother (who lives in Palmer) so he visited her, checked out the boat, and made the strong recommendation that we buy it. Then he hauled it down to Homer where my friend Allen said he could take it on his tender around to Naknek. Lucky us.

Some doubt whether my sister from Micronesia is really here. This photo shows her (Trina) and Erik, intrepid crew member since the disastrous year in 2006. You know something about a person when you throw one of the worst fishing experiences possible at them ... and they come back and give it another try. I suppose it's debatable exactly what you know about them, but as far as I'm concerned, it's a good thing and it contains courage, confidence, and maybe even optimism. This is Trina's first year since 1986. Her first commercial fishing experience was on our father's drift boat in 1959. She also worked on the set net sites, but at almost 12 through almost 14, I think she was our father's main crew. Her last year of indentured fishing was 1967. She came back again in 1970 and then in 1980. She may have been here a few additional years in the early 80s, but in 1986, she smashed her hand between two boats (which is why whenever my boat approaches something hard, everyone hears "fingers!"). Her hand healed and she wanted to get more involved with the fishing, but her future ended up involving the creation of an amazing eco-lodge diving resort in undiscovered Kosrae in Micronesia. I wasn't sure who would be able to come this year that I could count on, so I asked Trina to come help - and she did. That tells you something about her too, doesn't it? Again, it's debatable what it tells, I suppose but again, to me, it's a good thing and involves courage, loyalty, self-confidence, and optimism.

This is the Bathtub. Josh, the temporary gimp (and recipient of occasional bursts of power dubbed "Gimp Rage") and Jeff usually run this boat alone. Josh gets this year's award for valor. That was a pretty serious injury to his hand and he has found ways to be as valuable as ever, one-handed, left. Well, his left hand and his right elbow. He even still helps me with the zipper across the back of the dry suit - he uses his elbow for that, for example. For fishing, he puts the splint on to remind himself to be careful, wraps it up in some combination of baggies and plastic wrap. Then holds it out of the way for the entire tide, almost as if it belonged to another person and another activity. David is waiting for someone to approach him and return the high five. (Come to think of it, it seems that Josh is using his one-handedness to find out what he can do one-handed. I think that's an admirable approach to an injury - keeps the injury safe, directs away from self-pity, and turns the whole experience into an interesting learning experience, while remaining as helpful and possible.) Josh approached the net with the skiff, and Jeff leaned over to catch the corks. He pulled it up over the bow, and then "climbed" down the mesh with his hands to find the leadline, pulling that on board as well. Then the two of them pull their way toward the other buoy, removing the salmon they find in the net on the way, dropping them into the brailers in their skiff.

They were going to be the first ones done, so I asked Trina to hop into their boat so she could catch a ride in to get the rice started for dinner (which would be a grilled salmon cleaned and prepared earlier in the day - thank you, Matt, for teaching me how to do that). Jeff is the quiet one in the group. He is very smart and aware. He has picked it all up really quickly. He is willing and active. We really didn't have an opening on the crew, but I was so impressed by the letter he wrote that we made room for him. I'm really glad we did; he is an excellent addition to the crew. Here they are again.

Josh did the town run today, taking in some kings to freeze, check the mail, buy bread. He took the opportunity to stop by the clinic to have them look at it. They were concerned about a) how swollen it is and b) the amount of dried blood that hadn't been cleaned off. So he reported that they scrubbed away at it using an instrument with a sponge on one side... and some device with plastic hooks on the other. He was watching that one carefully... and passed out during the process. I think it probably hurt quite a bit. I'm not sure how it all fit in, but there was mention of a wire brush for cleaning the wound.

Here are Bob and Chris, half of the Ambi crew. Jake volunteered to be the one to face the chaos of the cabin - chaos which had been somewhat ordered earlier by Trina. But still, when I asked for volunteers to leave the rainy and cold tide to tame the cabin, only one person volunteered - it was Jake. Which is only part of why I feel really lucky to have him in my boat. Chris is proving to be a very quick and willing learner. And I love his deadpan sense of humor. There is a lot to pay attention to - the web getting caught on any number of things; the floaters, rollers, and hangers outside the boat (one of those, we definitely do NOT want to come into the boat, and the other two we are afraid of losing); roller backlash; his mates. He does a great job - and some things he is really the only one big and tall enough to do. He jumps in with competence, enthusiasm, and good humor. And he has beautiful eyelashes, which I confess to envying.

And of course, Bob has been enormously helpful to us - the water system, fixing... well, just about everything from the hydraulics on the boom truck to the ends of all the ropes he gets his hands on. He was another who expressed an interest in being on the crew after we were all crewed up, but how could I resist the initiative and the skill? So I didn't. And I'm really glad he's here.

This is another shot of the Bathtub crew - this time, they are picking up the net at the end of the tide. It gets stacked into the boat until the next opening time, which has been every tide for the past several days. Marcia Dale who does a meticulous job of hanging our nets (under the business name of Watzituya, which tells you something about Marcia) told me that for the last few years, she has dug into our nets in mid February, pulling out the corkline full of red corks (possibly the only one of those in Bristol Bay), on Valentine's Day.

This photo just shows some of the mystery and beauty of using red corks, well, in combination with dramatic evening light and hulking drift boats.

I suppose every place gets shafts of light like this - but I can't seem to resist. I had my camera handy and not many fish to distract from my photography impulses, so I asked Bob to back up, no, no - forward just a little bit. OK, I want to try to get both skiffs (the Bathtub and the New Boat) along with the drifter, all backlit by that shaft of light coming through the break in the clouds. He was patient with me. I had the feeling that he's been asked to rearrange the furniture or re-hang a picture on different walls a time or two.

Most of these photos were taken around high water. They all show an almost complete absence of wind (never good for fishing, but not bad for photos). Here, the Bathtub is approaching the Jill Anne I to deliver the salmon extracted from the net on one of our sites. The Jill Anne I is a purse seiner out of Kodiak - tendering in Bristol Bay is their summer gig. We're so happy to have them - it's run by Nate, Jake, and Tony. They are friendly, attentive, helpful, and cheerful (and don't tell them I said so, but they are also adorable!) Nate has seen the little orange bag in which we keep the permits, and where we clip it onto the rail. We were all busy with something and instead of asking us to stop what we were doing, he just leaned over the boat, unclipped the bag and fished out the permit he needed to complete the delivery. I so appreciate that stepping-forward kind of help.

The next photo shows our neighbors in the process of delivering. The skiff ties up to the tender, fish already in a brailer bag. (That's part of our power roller in the foreground.)

The tender crew sends over a "pelican" - a device to which we attach the brailer (that's what Chris is doing in this photo).
Sometimes the crew hands us the pelican and after we have the brailer attached, Tony uses the crane to send the scale over with the hook to which we attach the pelican holding the bag. If the weather is calm enough to reasonably ensure that the scale won't hit someone in the head, they send pelican, scale, and all at the end of the crane (easier because it's held up in the air). Once it's all attached (crane to scale, scale to pelican, pelican to brailer), Tony lifts it over to their ship. They have big refrigerated fish holds - they probably hold something like 50K lbs.
Jake makes sure the tag line is on, he gets and calls out the weight, and once the bag is positioned over the hold, he pulls the release on the pelican so that it opens its beak, releasing the handles of the brailer. The tag line, which is attached to the outside bottom of the bag is then all that is holding the bag so that the bag is now open and upsidedown in their holds, emptying the fish into the hold with very little handling. It's a big improvement from the days of stabbing the fish with peughs to lift them individually into trucks or tenders, or later, pitching them by hand, one at a time.

Fishing Around the Clock or We Can Sleep When We're Dead

Day 7 of Josh's recovery. And Jake said his thumb is getting better too.

We set the nets this morning at 3 AM, an hour after the drifters opened. Our opening goes until noon, but we'll run out of water before then. We'll probably pull our gear by 9:30 or so.

It was a fast incoming tide this morning which always gives me the willies when we're out there on foot in it. We came in after the set. When there's not much activity in the net, we might as well come in, warm up for a couple of hours, wait for it to get light out if possible and then head back out. David walked in a little bit ahead of me and I try to bring up the rear, just to be sure no one is left stranded on the mud flats. I noticed Erik standing there, gazing ahead. He said he was enjoying watching Dave's footprints in the mud fill with the incoming tide. As if the tide was chasing him. It was sort of mesmerizing to watch. And I counted. 13 seconds elapsed between when one footprint filled and when the tide rose enough to fill the next one. I think that's a pretty fast moving tide.

I've always discouraged the crew from walking out to meet the low tide. I can see where it would be interesting to do - sort of like climbing a mountain. And even when it's moving fast, it doesn't move faster than we can walk. The problem is that there is no margin of error. If you get tired, you can stop to rest, but not for very long. If you twist an ankle, you have to just keep walking on a twisted ankle. Because - and here's the thing that's hard to grasp given the lives most of us live now - the ocean is indifferent to us. We can out-walk it or not. We can have a twisted ankle or not. We can have equipment stuck in the mud or not. The tide is coming in and it's just not negotiable. It will not wait or give us a break. It'll come in right over the top of us, no problem. Or if we're out of the way of it, that's no problem either. It's not personal and we're not special. So my advice to the crew is not to ask for trouble by getting themselves into a situation where the way out is a pretty thin trail.

Now it's nearly time to head back out at 5:30 AM. I'll try to rest for 20 minutes first.

Back in by about 7 AM - we had about 600 lbs in the four sites. I don't think it's possible to go through a fishing season without hearing or saying, "We can sleep when we're dead." Some people say, "We can sleep in the winter." We all recognize that if it sounds like a ridiculous work/ sleep schedule, it's only because it is. It's easier to survive the sleep deprivation with the wind in your face and the salmon in your hands but sometimes, after days of exhaustion and little sleep, we start having little visual dots while picking, little REM episodes while pulling the nets, and other little disconnections from what we're doing while we're doing it. These, especially the last two, are not good in this industry and so we have to call a time out ourselves. It's hard to do, though, in a fishery where the fish are passing through and you don't know whether they've just started or are about to end. The idea is to fish while the fish are here so that in the winter, we don't have to regret the fishing we didn't do when we had the chance. Hence, we can sleep all winter or when we're dead. Sleep is not the priority during the fishing season.

We pulled a salmon from this morning's catch for breakfast before we go out to finish the tide at 9 AM. I cleaned it in the tide and am grilling it now between paragraphs. I just had some - I don't know how salmon can be any better than that. Mmmmm. I think David will return home with a couple of coolers of salmon in the second week of July. I do hope the run will have peaked by then - I'm counting on his help during the heavy part of the season. It's great to have people I can count on. I already knew that David and Josh just don't stop going. Erik doesn't stop either, even when he has nothing left. I think Jake, Chris, and Jeff will find that in themselves as the season progresses - they certainly stayed with it, and cheerfully!, when we had that big tide. And of course, Trina learned long ago how to outlast the tide and we already know that Bob never stops. It's a really crackerjack crew. I do miss Sarah.

Got in at about 10:45 AM. Not so many fish - 961 lbs, for a total of 45,696 lbs. We go again at 4 PM. It's tempting to break into two crews, but the fish are coming and we just don't know when, so I think we keep everyone going out. Maybe we'll start dropping out one person per tide so they can get a full period of sleep once every nine tides. It's also possible that ADFG may decide to close us down for a while. So we will all fish while we can.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Is it AM or PM?

When we're fishing around the clock, it gets confusing. We got in from fishing at about 8 PM, having started at 3 PM. It was a tiny little tide, with very little water movement - from a 5.4 hold up to a 15.2 high tide and then out to a 1.2 at about midnight. We go again at 3 AM, so we get 4 hours of sleep in a row. David was confused about AM vs. PM (it's especially an issue because for so many hours of the day, it's light. And when it's overcast (like it has been), who knows where the sun is?)

For me, I can't figure out when it's time to floss. That's not something I want to overdo. And I can't figure out when it's a nap, meaning I stay in my clothes and when it's bed time, meaning I change into different clothes for sleeping. Probably, they're all naps - at least for the next week or so.

We had about 4000 lbs on this afternoon/evening tide - it was sort of slow. So I thought it would be a good day to mend nets. They get torn up and the loose ends get caught on the rubber of the roller and create a backlash, winding the mesh on the roller backwards and ripping even bigger holes in the net. So it's good to keep them mended - plus they might fish better, though there is the credible school of thought that goes: "holes catch fish." Sometimes we'll see a ring of salmon around a big hole. Probably, a few got through. Would that section have caught any if the leaders hadn't gone through the hole? Hard to say.

So while we were waiting for it to be time to go through the net again, we pulled up to some of the big holes and got to mending. Not easy in those conditions, but it's kind of fun to figure out the hole and find a good approach for a mend. And just when it's looking impossible and I'm beginning to fear that in my trimming, I've cut away too much, I can see how it all comes together and then it's just a mop up job. But it does take time.

In the middle of a big mend, the tender came to accept our fish. We didn't want to abandon the mend and throw off, but we did have fish to deliver. So we got the Grayling and put it under the net and I transferred to it so that Jake and Chris could go deliver out of the Ambi. Josh and I completed the mend and then we became the Old Lady and the One-Armed Guy crew. We were fast and Josh was amazing. This is still recovery day 6 for him. He is meticulous about keeping his injured hand out of trouble, but he does everything one-handed, including picking, handling the outboard (including pulling it up and using his foot to swing down the lever to hold it), pulling the net and everything else. Picking is probably 80% seeing how the fish is caught. I heard Josh advise a new crew member to follow the mesh; it'll always tell you where to loosen the mesh. So when the fish comes on board, one-armed Josh watches it to see which side of the net it should be on, whether the fish should shimmy through the mesh head first (with our help), or back out (with our help), or some combination. The he finds the right leverage point on the net to give the mesh a jerk and the fish and web jump up in that direction, but with a slightly different leverage point now, so before it lands on the deck, he makes the next grab and jerks it up again, loosening it a bit more so that the third grab and jerk will probably have it dropping to the deck. He is still fast. It was a beautiful thing to watch. Together, we were fast on that net.

Bob fixed everything!!! The heater in my cabin now works (no more stinging cold feet), the four-wheeler works (the shifter had somehow been pressed against the frame so it couldn't shift - he figured it out and fixed it). And he tackled the boom truck - that one I wasn't sure about the problem - David said it was slower than last year, which is surprised because Eddie, a gifted and careful mechanic, worked on it over the winter. I'm worried that Eddie gave me directions for how to use the new and improved boom truck... and I didn't pay close enough attention to pass it on to David. And while we were wrapping up the tide, Bob was carefully going through the lines, finishing their ends, and piling them in separate baskets. He said that he wanted to be sure the lines were ready for us when we needed them. It's exactly what I dream of in help - someone with the experience to know that if you get ready now, you'll be rewarded later when you need the line and don't have time to get it ready.

Everyone is sort of scratching their heads about that one big tide we had - maybe it was the storm... I remain confident that many more fish are coming else ADFG wouldn't keep us fishing. Today's report said that 247,000 sockeye have gone up the Naknek and 3,630 have made it up the Kvichak, with another 50,000 or so milling around in the river.

I'm a little concerned that the allocation ruling will shut down the setnetters soon. Allocation was a political decision forced on an unwilling fishing fleet maybe about 15 years ago. At least no one in Naknek seemed to want it. Some of us have been fighting it since, really, to no avail. The Board of Fish selected a group of years - say the 80s (I'm not sure) and computed the "true and correct" catch distribution between set nets and drifters based on those years. So that became the fixed number. The problem is that the drift fleet can move around the five districts in Bristol Bay and set netters stay put - there are a fixed number of sites, and an even smaller number of desirable sites, so we stay where we've always fished. The years that were chosen as the index years happened to be big years for the Kvichak, so a very large percentage of the drift fleet (roughly 40%-50% or 700 to 900 boats) was in the Naknek/Kvichak district, competing with the same 250-300 set netters for those big runs. They caught a percentage of the harvest commensurate with their effort. In the past 10 or so years, however, the Naknek/Kvichak has not been as productive and much of the fleet has concentrated its effort in other districts. So that 84% that was caught handily by 40%-50% the drift fleet in the 80s (when they had about 84% of the gear in the water) is not as easily caught by less than one-fourth of the fleet now. But the number of set netters has stayed the same. To me, this system of allocation is missing the crucial element of fleet effort, or in mathematical terms, consideration of the denominator.

The reason all this is an issue right now is because we received an announcement that the Naknek setnetters have harvested 20% of the catch in the Naknek/Kvichak district, and the Kvichak setnetters have harvested 11% (there are more Naknek setnetters than Kvichak setnetters - and that river system has not lived up to its potential in the past decade or two so the Kvichak setnetters don't catch half the setnet allocation as the regulations say they should). But at 69% of the catch, the Naknek/Kvichak drift fleet, with 75% of the gear in the water, is lagging well behind its target of 84%. In early season, most setnetters and some drifters fish. Drifters are usually slower to get their nets in the water because of the expense of doing so and because they often have kinks in their equipment to work out before they "splash." So even those in the district aren't necessarily fishing.

I'm afraid Naknek setnetters (that's us) will be closed because we're doing too well, putting us in the perverse position of fearing that we're catching too many fish. We used to try to catch lots of fish; now we're punished for it.

But that hasn't happened yet this season (other seasons, yes). And ADFG understands about the effect of drift fleet effort, but I'm not sure how much latitude they have. It has occurred to me to wonder whether Naknek setnetters could shut the whole fishery down by just not fishing - if we don't catch our allocation, does that mean that no one else gets to fish until we catch up? And if we don't catch up, does that mean that the resource isn't harvested this year? I don't think I'm bitter, just frustrated by a regulation that hurts me, this fishery I love, this community and other Alaskan communities that rely on fishing - and I haven't been able to discover what the Board of Fish wants to accomplish with allocation. It definitely hasn't made the fishery more fair. I believe that the polarization of perspectives testifies to that - if one user group argues strongly for a regulation that's intended to make it more fair, and another argues strongly against it, that indicates to me that it advantages one group at the expense of the other. If the target is fairness, the regulation missed the target.

Another consideration regarding allocation is that the state constitution calls for the use of any Alaskan resource for the maximum benefit of Alaskans. Slightly less than half of the drift fleet is Alaskan, compared with about three-fourths of the set net fleet. Regulations that pull set nets out of the water in favor of drift nets use an Alaskan resources for the maximum benefit of non Alaskans. It doesn't seem that that could be justified for long.

But for now, I'll floss my teeth and take a little nap before heading out to try not to catch too many fish.

The run is taking a break

Day 6 of Josh's recovery. He's been sleeping out the night tides, reaching for the healing powers of sleep. I told him yesterday that I would be pushing him, except that I know him and I know he pushes himself just plenty, thank you very much.

We set our nets this morning at 2:30 AM - it was dark. We were able to do a walking set (except David had just the right amount of water to set the net out of the net shoot on the New Boat under power, while Trina held the inside buoy in place on foot). The current was very fast and it was going to be dark for a few hours and we didn't see much activity in the net, so Captain Liz decided we should go in and wait the hour and a half for light, which would put us on the nets about an hour before high water, which is just enough time to run through them before high slack water (unless we have more than 1500 lbs per site). That's the gamble of taking the focus off the fishing nets. We've come back before to find them plugged and us in trouble with not enough of the ebb left to get the fish picked or at least roundhauled before the water is gone and their lying in the mud. (Roundhauling is the process of piling the whole net in the boat, fish, flounders, flotsam, floaters, and all. Then we go through the process of unpiling that tangled mess, salvaging the good parts.)

Because of the way we fish, tying down our leadlines, we catch everything that drifts, swims, rolls, or tumbles by. And because of the way we bring it on to the boat (opposite the way it wants to come on the boat) - sometimes called "cross pick" or "reverse pick," we keep all the flotsam that has accumulated during the tide. The reason we do this is because we can pick up maybe 20% more fish - sometimes fish we would have lost but they are caught in the bag, or fish that have fallen out of other nets and tumbled down current into ours. The price for this increased catchiness is that we get and must handle everything that visits our nets. We get the good salmon - that's good. And we get all the flounders (which we release gently), the floaters (salmon and flounders who have died and have begun to decompose - we have strict rules about those - if they smell awful, the person running the roller must do whatever it takes to prevent them from coming on board. If that means hanging so far out of the boat that they're just hanging on by their toes, well, I'll hold their feet. And I am often the floater removal squad as well. A floater coming onboard is an equal opportunity crisis - sadly, perhaps favoring the more experienced crew members.) We also scoop up garbage, tundra, sticks, and occasional jetsam from boats. The other price is that we must clear the nets before the turn of the tide else those fish that are held in the bag will be released when the bag is turned inside out when the tide turns. To me, it seems irresponsible to set the nets up in a way to catch the fish that tumble in, and then not do our part to complete the process. So I insist that we fish both the flood and the ebb of a tide. That has important advantages: we usually get more fish going through the nets more often; we lose fewer fish - they don't have as much opportunity to get out and away; the fish we sell are better because they haven't been in the net for as long.

So far this tide - we're in the middle of it now - we went out at 2:30 AM, finished setting and came back in at 3:15 AM, went back out the clear the nets before the turn and after it got light at 4:45 AM, and came back in at about 7 to warm up and give the ebb an hour or so to produce some fish so that when we go back out at 8 if there still aren't many fish, we'll pull all the nets in and get some sleep in preparation for the afternoon tide. We've delivered about 1600 lbs on the flood. We were the only ones out this morning - we're the only ones that tie down the leadlines so we're the only ones that need to clear the nets on the flood. Everyone else can sleep through.

I didn't want to want to know how big a tide we missed by sleeping out the night tide after the big day tide. I wanted to have made the decision based on wisdom, and not be overly influenced by fish greed, a condition with which I am afflicted. So I thought it would advance my image of wisdom if I could maintain an apparent lack of curiosity about what we missed on the tide we slept out. I tried - I really did. I passed by many opportunities to ask (but didn't miss noticing the opportunities) and finally I caved and asked this morning. The answer: not much. A really slow tide so that everyone was asking, "Where'd the fish go?" OK, ok, I was relieved. So much for the image.

And now I'm heading into town to try to retrieve the white truck that Josh left when he drove in to get the New Boat. Meanwhile Bob fixed my heater (hooray! it was cold without it. It's a little nippy with it, but this is so much better. It was so cold it stung.)

Bob is also going to look at the four-wheeler. I forgot about the breadth of his expertise when I discovered the four-wheeler not working well, so it took me a few days to ask him to get to it. I'm optimistic, but possibly without good reason.

Monday, June 28, 2010

My hands smell like feet

Day 5 of Josh's recovery - it still looks pretty gross but the not-so-deep parts are looking pretty healed. He's been coming out fishing on the day tides, and he's been a model patient - wrapping his hand in Saran Wrap and not using it. He's still a fast picker... one handed... left.

He just left my cabin with a warm sock over his hand. He said that he was having trouble finding a good way to sleep. His hand no longer provides it's own heat from healing so when he leaves it out of the covers, it's getting cold. A glove would be too tight. I offered him my cozy pink blankie, but when I stipulated that he wasn't to bleed on it, we went to the sock idea. I may have to sacrifice my blankie - we'll see.

I wear these miraculous polypropylene glove liners under my rubber gloves with the long sleeves (we call them "dinner gloves"). They keep my hands warm, even when they're wet. They aren't quite as effective when it's as cold as the inside of a refrigerator, but since I've been using them, my Reynaud's Syndrome fingers don't bother me when I'm fishing. Everything is wet by the end of the tide, either from sweat or from holes in the gloves. Especially if sweat is the main source of moisture, when I peel my gloves off at the end of the tide, my hands smell like feet. I think maybe feet wouldn't smell like feet were it not for the sweat in confinement.

The other sweat-induced challenge has to do with the dry suit. As a friend pointed out, they weren't designed to be worn for 12 hours at a time. He calls it my sausage casing. Quite a bit of sweating takes place inside that too, resulting in... uh... (wanting to keep the G rating) the equivalent of diaper rash. Ow, ow, ow! I described it to the crew and Jake, without any hesitation, declared, "Gold Bond!" I had forgotten that Gold Bond powder was his answer to just about everything last year too. I think I need to get some.

The next photo shows Jake keeping the Ambi-Fisher floating. He is a really good skiff pilot, so he pilots the skiff. (I think I'm about a C- skiff driver - and I'm a calamity when I try pull up to another skiff or to the tender for delivery. So I have someone who's good at it do it.) David is also an amazingly skilled skiff driver. His skill always amazes me - he could probably sneak up on me in a skiff and I wouldn't even hear him - and I certainly wouldn't feel him jar my boat with his. (When it's me trying to pull up alongside him, his crew thinks they've been rammed. Well, actually they have, but only out of lack of driving grace, not with any ill intent.) Once I was describing David's skill and seemingly innate knowledge of how to pilot a skiff. Knowing it didn't come from me passing down my knowledge - other than the basics of the outboard. I heard myself say, "It's almost like he was born to it." And then I remembered that our first year with a skiff was 1982, which was the year I was pregnant with him while we were fishing. Um, he was born to it.

The reason Jake is standing there keeping the Ambi floating is because we were delivering our fish to the beach at the last possible moment on a quickly outgoing tide (without pushing the boat in or otherwise getting the fish through the mud - still clean). The picture shows the Gehl giant forklift that has just picked that bag of fish out of our boat and now Brad is taking it over to that deuce and a half with six insulated totes, each holding about 1000 lbs of fish and slush ice. These fish are excellent quality. When they fill the truck, Tony will drive the fish back to the processing plant where our fish are turned into their #1 quality fillets. The very short time between coming out of the net and getting on ice, and the very short time that the salmon languish in the net, plus our careful fishing practices makes our salmon... well... great.

I was too tired to remember one of the thrilling events of yesterday's tide. Roy, my favorite port engineer in the whole world, called to let me know that he had had a carburetor epiphany, which was successful. So yesterday, we cut Josh loose to run into town to bring back the New Boat. I was surprised Mike at AGS was willing to put him in the water, but I understand they didn't have the wind in town that we had on the beach. It was soooo good to get that boat back.

And although the Bathtub's power roller didn't work yesterday, it worked today. That's good. The four-wheeler, however, seems quite ill - and did I already mention that my cabin's heater isn't working? That inspires either sleeping or cooking. The four-wheeler won't shift - Roy thinks it may be fatal. Maybe something can be sprayed in there to loosen it up, but, it is kind of old.

We have an opening 2:30 am-noon June 29 and then a few hours later from 3 PM to 10 PM. Both are set net and drift. The wind has not only calmed down, it has stopped. I'd love to have a nice little 15 MPH breeze. It really helps the fishing (and discourages the mosquitoes). Today's catch was 6590 lbs - down quite a bit from yesterday's. I didn't ask anyone if we missed much on the morning tide - I didn't want to want to know.

Time to nap for a few hours before heading out again. The salmon are beautiful. We've always had the Naknek vs. the Kvichak river salmon difference. The Naknek salmon are giants - 6-9 lbs average, probably. And some are up to 12 lbs. Those are some big salmon. The Kvichak salmon probably average about 5 lbs. They have pointy little heads, and some good meat on them. But there seems to be a new strain. I don't think they're jacks (immature salmon returning early). They just don't look that small. They just look like miniature salmon. Maybe 3 1/2 lbs. I wonder if they're the salmon heading to the Alagnak River. I've noticed more of them in the past 5-6 years. They seem to come at a different time and there must be a lot of them if any are caught in our nets, which unless they're really trying not to, they could just swim right through.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The run has arrived

Our catch on the afternoon tide was 21,075 lbs bringing the total to 32,073. We got in about 30 minutes ago - at about 1 am. The first time I was out of that dry suit in more than 12 hours. We go again tonight at 2, but I had a moment of wisdom. This morning it occurred to me that the three horsemen of getting our butts kicked out there are: too much water or too fast, too dark, too much wind. Well, we had all three. My thought this morning was that if the opportunity comes again for us to take a risk with all three of those horsemen waiting for us, perhaps I will decline. So, the opportunity came right away - today. And I brought up the possibility of declining - no one objected! I feel like I should feel worse about it, but I don't.

For a while there, each day we doubled the overall total. It's tough to pick, pitch, and deliver that many fish, with the tide running out from under us and the mud too soft for the cannery's equipment. We have to find a way to get it from our sites at the end of the tide to the beach where the cannery's equipment can safely tread. The power roller in both skiffs was out of commission for most of the tide. Finally I noticed that someone had turned off the fuel supply. Don't think we'll be making that mistake again. Chris and Jake probably pulled in about 6000 lbs of salmon... without using a power roller.

We did have trouble delivering. The trucks fill up quickly, though they'll usually offload our bags so we don't have to go back out onto the mud flats full. On a tide like today, bags of our fish just litter the beach - four up on the propane truck, 2 on the beach while they were waiting for the next truck to arrive and at the end of the tide, boatload after boatload shifted into the Bathtub because it slides so easily across the mud and pulled in by the ranger. The purse seiners that receive our fish out on the water just didn't appear like we were told they would. So that was difficult - such a big tide and really, no way to deliver. That makes it really hard at the end.

We figure we'll be giving up between 5000 and 15000 lbs tonight, but no one really minded - me included. We were all pretty empty. Though I think they would have gone if I'd asked them to, and that, I appreciate enormously.

The storm remains with us, but it has calmed down a bit. Up until the tide turned and I heard and felt it pick back up again. That was when I started contemplating the wisdom of fishing last night. We have another opening on the afternoon tide - we'll fish that and hope for another 20,000 and more ease of delivery.

Cumulative escapement into the Naknek by 6 AM on Sunday June 27 was about 50,000 sockeye and into the Kvichak, 1400.

Note that we deliver salmon by the pound; ADFG counts them by the fish. The numbers can get confusing.

June 27 - a storm!

Day 4 of Josh's recovery and day 1 of Jake's smashed (but not permanently injured) thumb. I think he did lose some skin on that one.

It's darned cold. Really biting bitter darned cold. David just told me that it's 40 degrees outside, not counting wind, which is blowing hard.

It's only 7:30 in the morning and we've already had a full day that beat us without mercy. Well, there was some mercy: no one was severely hurt (though I think Jake's thumb would disagree), and the equipment loss was relatively low. The wind was so strong and the tide so fast, we barely made it to the skiffs while it was shallow enough to walk to them.

It's stormy - mostly wind (they say 25+ MPH - that's a lot for a small skiff) and a ripping tide (from a -1.5 to a 24.5 in 6 hours). Oh, and it was dark. We ended up having to do a deep water set. We tried the tamest way - where one boat holds the buoy for the other boat and the other boat runs from the outside buoy, dropping the net out behind us toward the boat holding the buoy. The reason to have the boat hold the buoy is because 1) on its own, the buoy always goes the way of the tide, away from where it needs to be, and 2) a boat is a much bigger target.

So we decided that my boat would set out #4 and David's boat would hold the buoy. It went OK except that the net got caught going out of the boat, interfering with the graceful arc we had planned to bring us right to the Bathtub from which we'd be able to pull back the excess line and ta daaaa, be set. So we ended up with a giant belly in #4, but it was set.

Then Erik was going to set #3 from the Grayling and again, David was going to hold the buoy. But that 25 hp outboard was no match for the wind and so the wind just laughed at him and blew him down toward Pedersen Point, flagging the net parallel to the beach. We decided not to try to fix that then; instead we wanted to get the remaining site set. (We had left the inside site out, figuring it would be safe and not in the water early. None of us counted on the effect of all that wind.) So David was setting up to set #1 and my crew got the buoy (and I donned a life jacket to unwrap the tag line from around the prop. Sigh) and planned how to hand it off to them when they got here. Remember - wailing wind and pitch black (the midnight sun doesn't help if it's all overcast). We got the signal - they were ready! We got into position and tried to hold it, against the wind and the current. And hold it. And hold it. And recover it and hold it some more. Hmmm, this is taking a long time - wonder what's wrong? So we reluctantly let go of the buoy and went to check on them. Somehow, the buoys and buoy light had just disconnected themselves from the anchorline - no one knows how, but I'm beginning to suspect the hardware.

So we decided to pass on setting the last net - I figured the nets we had out might be doing pretty well, if there were any fish. The plan became to use the Grayling as the buoy at the first site - otherwise, we might not be able to find the anchor cables without a big red buoy at the end. So we went in the Ambi to get it and found they were dead in the water - the cord on the 25 didn't retract. (David later fixed it - the 25 must be in neutral to retract the cord and once it's hanging out, you can sort of pump the shift lever and crank it back in.) So we rafted them up to the Ambi and pushed forward so Jeff could pull the anchor and then pushed them along with us over to the first site. In the pitch black, knowing there were flagging nets in the water just waiting to foul the prop on the Ambi (one of the last mishaps a person would want on a night like last night because it turns the stern to the wind - and the stern is not designed to take the stormy seas well).

After dropping off the Grayling, we went to pick up the flagging net - it was too miserable to try to continue. If there were a lot of fish, we might consider trying to fix the set at high water - at least then we wouldn't have the ripping current (just the wind). But that net didn't have many, so we just roundhauled. That was our second roundhauled net in two tides - the first one was at the end of the previous tide - the tide that the power roller on the Bathtub gave up. Sigh.

The pick up of the third net went pretty well. We conferenced and decided that it was just too miserable to stay out fishing - so unless we had a pretty good number of fish in the inside site and the fourth site, we'd just pull everything in and call it a night. David went to the fourth site (the one with the biiiggg belly) and we went to the inside site.

Imagine my dismay when Chris shouted out "there's a corkline flagging in the water!" One thought was "oh good, it's not just us!" And then reality broke through the denial as I was realizing that really, it couldn't be anyone else's. Dang it! Indeed, the running line, nets and all were flagging cheerfully (and stealthily - waiting to become intimately entwined with someone's prop). We didn't want that so Jake was a careful pilot. We finally got the line - all 600' of it. That's a lot of line to pull into the boat. But it was really a little more complicated than that - it was attached to the net, so it all had to come in together. But it was a little more complicated than that, because there were quite a few fish in the net. Oh my! And it was a little more complicated than that, because our power roller went down too - not sure why. So we had to pull 50 fathom of net with probably 1500 lbs of salmon against the wind and current into the boat with Jake driving us into it. Truly, I think Chris supplied most of the power for that operation. At the end of the running line, we heard a clunk. I found a metal ring that had given up - it had been part of the running line, holding two parts of the line together. It was just stretched open. What a night.

And we did get the net in. The fish were double-wrapped and rolled in the mesh and the line. Oy.

Finally, we got them all picked and then delivered 2135 hard-won pounds, for a total of 10,998 lbs for the season so far.

We go again at one in the afternoon, so I need to sleep for a little bit. We need to replace the missing buoys, and reinstall the running line. In addition, it looks like it's time to examine shackles, rings, and other potential disaster-makers. So we'll be out there at 11:30. Again in the bitter cold and wind, but, I'm happy to say, not in the dark. (The advantage of the dark is that if anyone is watching, they might not see the comedy of errors taking place before them. But then it's harder to prevent the comedy of errors too.)

Good night - Liz

Hey, it's still morning. Up at 11 am to get ready for the next tide - we needed to give some extra time to replace buoys and running lines, and look for other rings, knots, shackles and other hardware that might be ready to go. David returned from SeaMar Naknek with a fist full of the things we'll need. The wind is still blowing, but at least the grass is not lying flat anymore.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

June 26: Day of David's arrival

This is Day 4 of Josh's recovery. But who's counting? Oops - apparently not me; it's day 3 today. Dang!

We had an opener from noon to 8. It's like we have day jobs. With three boats operational, we were able to set all three outside sites at once.

When the Bathtub crew prepared to go through their net, they noticed something floating toward the net. They moved to intercept it and found that it was a dead seal. Rather than allow it to get caught in the net, they brought it on board and hauled it out to the channel. It's too bad. The seals can be frustrating - when we're only getting a handful of fish, it's hard to watch the seal snatch half of them (that is, half of each one) out of the net and swim away, laughing at us. That happened yesterday. But as David has noted so many times, we catch many thousands of salmon - how much of a dent will a dozen seals make, really? Funny how easy it is to develop a sense of ownership when it comes to what's in our nets.

These photos are my crew in today's very dramatic lighting. We had a bit of a squall come through. Jeff on the left, Chris next to him and Bob on the other side of the net, looking serious.

We're mid tide right now. We had a little mending to do on one of the nets, but otherwise, we're just waiting for about an hour before high water, so we can clear the nets before the tide turns.

I asked Trina to get some photos of the dry suit - she's a good photographer (you should see her underwater photography at her website at So this first one is me at the wheel.

We are in from the tide now. Fishing has started in earnest. We got about 4500 lbs this tide, bringing our total to almost 10,000 (well, at least we've done better than 1997). The seine boats that tender for us can't stay after high water, but we've been getting quite a few on the ebb, so we keep our nets out and need to deliver the fish. This tide, we had about 1000 lbs of salmon in to deliver on the beach at the end of the tide. Hence, the ranger. It will climb through the mud and pull the Bathtub with it's very flat bottom. The Bathtub got high-centered on something on the way in so everyone had to jump out and we spun the boat and pushed and wiggled it to get it off and in. It's always a relief to get within easy towing distance of the beach.

We have another opener tonight - from 1:30 am to 10:30 am (it's a set net only and we have a pretty blustery wind, so if there are fish, we should see them) and then another from 1 pm to 9 pm. This will be three tides, back-to-back. Probably not much sleep. And probably some pretty skimpy posts for the next... uhhh - couple of weeks.

Friday, June 25, 2010

June 25: So many updates, so little time

Day 2 of Josh's recovery.

Update 1: Josh joined us for the first part of the tide - he found that he can operate the skiff and pick fish left-handed. But he went in at high water, thinking it was time for some healing rest. Yes, it was. Day 2 of the 10 day convalescence down.

Update 2: my beloved Ambi-Fisher is back in service. Yippee!! Bob spent half of today's tide replacing the throttle cable (and actually, it was the shifting cable that needed the replacement, so that's what he actually replaced.) The poor man - he had to put up with me grilling him to be sure that the other cable didn't have to be replaced as well - did they work as a team? Why did Bayside Marine send two? Was he sure it would be OK only to replace one? I'm so glad he's patient. So - yay! The Ambi is working again.

And it's still early - our total catch yesterday was 1424 lbs and today it was 1189 lbs, bringing our total so far to 4149 lbs. The good thing about having had some disastrous seasons in the past is that it isn't long before we can say "well, at least it's better than in 1972 (when we caught something like 400 fish, roughly 2000 lbs." Soon I think we'll be able to say, "At least it's better than 1997" (8705 lbs - it was HOT all season long and NEVER rained). One friend said he measured the temperature of the water under his boat down and Pedersen Point in 1997 and got a reading of 70 degrees. Darned hot.

The fish just haven't arrived in big numbers yet, though the numbers are building. The ADFG website tells us that 28,000 salmon have passed the tower in the Naknek, 150 have passed the Kvichak tower, and 36 have passed the tower in the Alagnak. They must know the fish are coming, or they wouldn't let us keep fishing on the few that are here. They told us that the total catch estimate for June 24 was 3000 sockeye. If the average is 5.3 lbs and we got 1424 lbs yesterday, then we produced almost 10% (actually, 8.96%)of yesterday's catch. Hmmm, I'm estimating that we have about 0.3% of the gear in the water - I wonder if someone made a mistake somewhere. Either that, or we are darned good.

We all got carded today. It's good to get that over with. We had licenses for everyone except for Trina who hadn't had the chance to get her license yet, so she was on observer status. Before long, though, we got her four-wheeler certified and sent her in for her license. She hasn't forgotten how to pick and just needs to get in the rhythm of fishing from a skiff. She is a very quick study and is better than most at reading my mind, a skill that is really beneficial when working with me in this context when stress and urgency tend to render me not anomic but worse, misnomic when I say the wrong thing and expect crew to do the different right thing. That's asking a lot, but they're getting it.

Lucky news today. It's like running out of gas uphill from the gas station. Erik, Jeff, and Jake had more fish in the nets they were pulling out of the water than I expected. After we pulled in our second net at the end of the tide, Chris took in our catch while Trina and I cruised by the Graying skiff to drop off a crate to use for their final fish, and to check on whether they needed anything (which they didn't), so we just anchored the Ambi and came in. The Grayling crew finally made it in, carrying a heavy crate. I went to check in on them and found that they had to leave some fish in the boat - and they were irritated that Trina and I came in from our boat empty-handed without coming over to offer to help them. So I decided that instead of asking them to knock themselves out by going to get the other fish on foot, we would do the inevitable and take the ranger out on its first trip, even if only for a few fish. I was feeling a little pressure because the beach gang was waiting for us and in the past, it's been hard on them to do that. They may not be feeling that now, but I imagine it so I rush. That's a photo of The Friendly Ranger, not the killer ranger, Christine, that tried to eat Josh and years ago tried to kill my brother. Twice.

As I drove the ranger into the mud, it immediately started to die - too high a gear. A little worried, I shifted down and it bucked its way through - almost like a horse trying to keep its head above water crossing a river. We struggled the 1300' out to the skiff, loaded up the remaining salmon and headed back in. The photo is taken from where we need to deliver the fish. Note the thickness of the mud that we walk through, carry stuff (including fish) through, and when needed, drive the ranger through. The ranger gets to pick its path because we steer it by pulling the left or right brakes to turn it right or left, respectively. But when I pull on the brakes in this thick mud, or even run it without the brakes at high speed, it starts to lug. In this mud, whether on foot or on ranger, it's best not to stop or even slow down. So as much as possible, I let the ranger pick its path until we get on harder ground and then I start to steer. To make it in at all through the thickest mud, I had to lean as far forward over the engine as I could reach, to try to balance out the weight of the fish and Erik in the tote. You can see the path it went out - follow the orange line. And the green line shows part of the path on the way back. (I couldn't get the whole return path in the photo.)

I always heave a sigh of relief when we're headed back in, thinking that at least if something goes wrong (and the list of possibilities seems infinite to me, though it's probably just short and deadly) and we have to tow it in from here, it'll be pointed in the right direction. And I began to wonder about the gas supply - we haven't really used it yet - it couldn't be low, could it? I wish I'd thought to check it before running it way out here... Maybe we could rob gas out of the boats. At least we're pointed in the right direction. [A little farther along] At least we're in range of the inside site - if we have to carry gas out here, it won't be so bad... It was hard to get through the mud even with that little bit of fish, but after taking the zig-zag route (the only route it was willing to take) we made it to the truck to deliver. Then, about 150' into driving it back the 400' to the stairs to wash it down, it died... out of gas. Oh my! Usually, a person doesn't feel lucky when running out of gas. But if we'd run out of gas, say 1000' earlier? Major huge bummer. I was so glad it held out running out of gas until we had finished with all that mud and were onto the hard sand, that I considered it yet another stroke of good luck. This way we could just hop onto the the four-wheeler with a gas can and drive it over to the ranger.

And just to make everyone envious, I wanted to mention that our fast food here is... grilled king salmon. Our grocery store is the nets - we usually get at least one 7 lb king and since Bob sharpened our splitting knives and made a pump work to bring water 600' from the pond behind the cabin (the one where the pair of swans visits) to the cliff, it's an easy matter to fillet them. Then I just pop them on the grill and... well, we can still go through about 10 lbs of salmon a day. That's filleted. Yum. King salmon: Alaskan fast food.

Next, I know I'll have to wait till the end of the season to give the definitive word on this, but I know many women... of a certain age... have noticed that it's harder to lose weight because of changes in metabolism, as in "I just can't eat as much anymore." But so far, each season my metabolism gets a shock and thinks it's running a 25 year old's body (who else would be fool enough to do this?) and it remembers how to burn fuel. I think I eat like the guys - and you should see how high they can pile their plates. So I'll tell you at the end of the season whether unrelenting physical activity shocks a 55 year old metabolism out of its expected sluggishness. For years, people have said we should abandon fishing and run this place as a fat camp.

Finally, David is coming in tomorrow!!! I think some John Philip Sousa music is in order.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

June 24: In the Emergency Order Period

Day 1 of Josh's recovery period.

Our opening today was from 10 AM to 5:30 PM. Josh sat out - good choice. I thought it would be a running set, but we were able to push the boat ahead of us from the outside buoy to the inside buoy with the net bobbing out behind us. Those are the easiest, least exciting, strongly preferred sets.

We finished ahead of the period closure because the water runs off the nets before we're due to close. That means we don't have to watch the clock to pull our nets; we just have to watch the tide.

The fishing was OK today - there was plenty of time to do things like experiment with different sets (we split the 50 fathom on the inside site so that half of it was pretty high up the beach and the other half was fishing deep. Neither one of them did much - most of the fish were on the outside sites), clean the fish to freeze, clean the boats, and check on Josh (he's doing better).

We did get two small and three larger (maybe 18-20 lbs) kings.

Trina arrived today!! And she brought the throttle cable! I think Bob will be able to put it in tomorrow and we might have the Ambi back for part of tomorrow's opening. Yippee!!

And Brad from AGS brought the giant fork lift over, lifted up the pallet for me to drive the ranger onto from the back of the flat bed so he could lower it down. It seemed a little tippy, but it all went fine.

I still love the dry suit, even though it gets pretty darned hot on a day like today. I think it even helped me not to sink into the mud.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

June 23: An injury

We went to town today with the plan of getting the little ranger running and asking the beach gang to fork lift it (or "fork" it) onto the back our flatbed to bring it down the beach, exchanging the hydraulic oil on the new boat for food grade hydraulic oil (a brilliant invention) and refilling its two-cycle oil reservoir, and taking care of paperwork in King Salmon and the post office.

I had called Roy in the morning (reception is better! At the telephone co-op, they told me that they tuned up the antenna) to ask him to check again for the battery - and there he saw it and got it charging.

I dropped the crew off at AGS and they set to work on the various tasks while I attended to the paperwork.

I was so glad Bob came in with us. When I returned from my errands, I found him and Josh taking care of the New Boat's various fluid needs. Then when I returned from the search for stainless steel rings for the ends of the v-lines and groceries for the summer salmon salad, I found them hunkered over the ranger that wintered in the container van. Josh remarked that Bob is teaching him some of what he knows about getting things working. We were almost done and ready to go home.

I wandered off to begin to get ready for the next step when Jake found me and said Josh had been hurt! Oh no! We ran up the hill and found him lying in a puddle of gas in front of the ranger, still in the container van, holding his hand close to his chest, blood on his sweatshirt. The big trailer they use for moving the drift boats around was still blocking the door of the van. Guy on the beach gang moved the truck and trailer, I brought our truck in and we helped Josh into the cab and headed for the Camai Clinic.

He smelled like gas.

I got out first to be sure the clinic was open and came back for Josh. He was walking ahead and it was as if he was running down hill and his legs couldn't keep up. I couldn't get to him in time and down he went. It was terrible to watch him crumble in front of me. He said it was like the low blood pressure effect when you stand up too fast. I ran into the clinic - leaving Josh lying on the ground outside the clinic - to get help and they brought out a wheelchair. That little clinic is great - the people are personable, helpful, interactive, competent humans. Their focus is on healing. Josh has been a frequent customer (ahem) - and they have always started attending to the medical need before they roll out the financial process. I really appreciate their capacity, their ability, and their priorities. I don't know all that much about clinics in remote locations, but I think our little Camai clinic is hard to beat.

3 hours, multiple shots from two syringes of lidocaine, and 18 stitches later (he had a severe gash across the palm of his right hand, from the base of his little finger over to the space between his thumb and index finger), we returned to AGS to complete the process with the ranger.

A five gallon gas can had been balanced on one of the fenders of the ranger. Josh tried back the ranger up slightly to make sure it would go, and in the process, the gas can tipped over. He stepped on the clutch to stop the machine and reached over to right the gas can. In doing so, he slightly released the clutch and the vehicle lurched backwards, pitching him forwards off the ranger. He tried to roll with the fall and his hand went to the backward-moving track which tried to pull it further inward and cutting it. Bob was there but could not reach the off switch. I'm so glad he was there. The ranger was still trying to move backwards and Bob knew to kill the engine by pulling off the wire to the coil. I don't know anyone else in the group that would have known what to do.

Josh will be out of commission for 10 days (meaning no gripping or extending with that hand or he could pop it open again). 10 days from now is July 3. The traditional peak of the season is July 4. Gulp. Josh's bright side comment is that this will force him to strengthen his left side, important for his dancing practice. Trina is coming in tomorrow, so she'll be able to cover for him in picking. David will be in on Saturday. I started the season thinking we were over-crewed. Maybe not.

When we returned to AGS after the stitches were completed and medications dispensed, Brad said he could still help us get the ranger up onto the flatbed. I believe that it is more dangerous for men than for women to drive the ranger without a seat (which the tote on the back precludes) because men have that higher center of gravity so they are more likely to pitch over when the ground under them moves than are women with a lower center of gravity.

So I drove it onto a pallet and Brad lifted the pallet up to the level of the flatbed and I drove it off the pallet onto the flatbed. We tied it down well and headed down the beach. It skidded around a little, but stayed put well enough. That's Bob there in front of the flatbed.

We'll have to reconfigure the crews for tomorrow - depending on whether Josh feels up to joining us in the skiffs for the running set.

June 23: And now we wait

Fishing was closed this morning at 9 AM - the end of the free fishing period. We had a decent showing about an hour before high water - at about midnight, but we rarely get any fish in the dark. We watched for strikes behind us as we cleared the net, and saw none. We also didn't see any way to deliver our salmon. The truck drivers told us they would be out at about 4:30 am. It can be a very long time between 12:30 am and 4:30 am. We reached the Jacqueline W and they were willing to run down and take our fish. So we decided to run through the nets one more time and then pull them. We picked up three more salmon in this process. Pulling was surprisingly uneventful. When the water is slack - changing from flood to ebb (like it was when we decided to pull) it's the easiest. Just detach one end, walk it around the boat to the roller and pull till you think you can't pull any more. And then pull some more, piling the nets at your feet in the process.

Now starts the "emergency order" period. From now until about July 17 or so, the fishing openings will be controlled by Fish and Game (ADFG) on a tide by tide basis. They have people stationed in counting towers in the rivers who count the number of salmon passing by into the spawning grounds (as in one, two, three, four...). Once the salmon spawn, they die. ADFG tries to ensure that the rivers get as many salmon as they need to ensure a healthy future, and not many more as the state's economic welfare relies partially on harvesting the salmon.

Fish and Game staff have an idea of how many salmon to expect this season, and they have methods of knowing how many are in the district and how many are about ready to show up. Their first responsibility is to protect the resource by making sure there is sufficient escapement, from the different strains represented by age group, time of return, and who knows what else for future returns. At the same time, they want to avoid over-escapement. I've heard two reasons for this: 1) a desire not to waste one of the state's economic resource; and 2) over-escapement is harmful to the resource. I'm not so sure about this second reason - I always think that before so many people fished off these stocks, there must have been what we'd now consider over-escapement and somehow, the runs continued without being managed. Maybe someone who knows more will help me understand this. Fish and Game has also been tasked with what I think is the unnecessary and cumbersome practice of controlling the proportion of catch between the gear types (drift and set net) such that non-residents in the Naknek/Kvichak area have more opportunities to fish than do the people who live here year round. I don't believe that was the intention of the regulation, but it has become its impact and I don't believe that the regulatory strategies to correct that impact have been successful.

So Fish and Game has adopted the strategy of counting the fish as they go up the river and when a certain percentage go up, they give us a fishing opening. If I look at the fishing fleet as one of Fish and Game's tools for managing the resources - the tool that prevents over-escapement - it's easier for me to understand the openings. Since they know roughly what to expect, but they don't know exactly when to expect it, the fishing fleet remains in alert stand-by mode. Usually we get about 12 hour's notice of an upcoming opening, but sometimes, usually in the heat of the season, it's much shorter. It's possible to miss one. It's really tricky for the drift fleet - if they let their boat go dry and then get a short notice opening, they won't be able to go fishing until the water has come up enough for them to float. That could be well into the opening.

As of this morning's tide, our total catch so far is 1536 lbs. Between openings is when we try to do everything else - sleep, shower, laundry, get the boats repaired, make sure we're ready for the next opening. I've found that a sure way to get a short-notice opening is to start a batch of bread.

Well, that didn't take long - I just heard that we'll have an announcement at noon. Of course, we don't know yet what it'll say.

Set nets in the Naknek/Kvichak district will be allowed to fish for 7.5 hours from 10 AM Thurs, June 24 to 5:30 PM, June 24. The drift fleet will be allowed to fish in the Naknek section only for 6.5 hours, starting at 11 am.

This season, the total Bristol Bay forecasted return is almost 40 million. Of that, about 8 million are targeted for escapement, leaving about 32 million for harvest, 31 million of that in Bristol Bay.

In our Naknek/Kvichak area, they are expecting a return of 3.8 million to the Kvichak system, with an escapement goal of 2 million; a return of 1.8 million to the Alagnak, with an escapement goal of 1 million; and a return of 7.4 million to the Naknek, with an escapement goal of 1.1 million.

Historically, the returns to the Kvichak and Alagnak systems have been huge. Old timers (the people I grew up with) talked of fishing with a shovel - just shoveling the fish out of the crowded waters into the back of a waiting pick up truck. Fifteen years ago, I attended a Board of Fish meeting and heard one resident testify that now, they have to decide whether to use the salmon to feed the dogs or the elders. Things had changed. I believe that Fish and Game is struggling mightily to manage the fisheries to rebuild the runs in the systems where they have failed. At the same time, the runs in some systems, like the Naknek, the nearest neighbor of the Kvichak, are as dependable as sunrise. I don't know if experts know or agree on what has happened to the Kvichak run, but it is getting stronger. Since 1986, Naknek/Kvichak district fishermen have had to fish within the mouth of the Naknek river for at least part of many seasons to reduce interception of Kvichak salmon, trigger the Egegik district to adopt a smaller boundary (the fish pass by the Egegik district and some believe that it is not a coincidence that Egegik started experiencing amazingly boon years simultaneous with the Kvichak's shockingly disappointing returns. The key to this suspicion is that shift in salmon catch pattern happened at the same time that the boundaries of the Egegik district were moved out, perhaps into the path of salmon returning to the Kvichak river.)

We were unable to retrieve our small ranger yesterday because its battery had been removed (I'm trying to do a better job of tucking things away in the fall), but could not be found -- until this morning. It's now being charged and we will head into town to bring it down in preparation for tomorrow's opener.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

June 22: Fish are starting to show

First, Happy Birthday, Sarah! We really miss you. I'll make a chocolate chip orange cake in your honor. But probably not today. We'll sing for you before we eat it.

We got about 100 lbs on last night's tide (Josh, Erik, Jake, and Chris went through the nets from about 1 am to 4 am) and about 500 lbs on today's tide (Josh, Bob, Jeff, and I went through the nets from about 1 pm to 3:30 pm). Josh remembered that in his first year, the first day (June 19) we got 500 lbs; the next day? 5000. The climb is usually steep once we get to the bottom of the fish hill.

We got a small king last night, so we had grilled king for breakfast. It was soooo good! I learned from Matt, a former crew member and fisheries major, how to grill salmon. Make a fillet, cover with a little olive oil. Grind on a little salt and some lemon pepper. Flop onto a very hot grill (ours sounds like a blow torch now), flesh side down for a while (depending on the thickness, how much charring of the flesh you like, and how distracted you became after putting it on the grill - maybe 4-8 minutes), then flip it over. Press with your finger to see if it has firmed up. If it has, it's done. Remember, it'll cook a little more after you take it off. It was heavenly.

Going through the nets this morning, we had four kings in addition to the 500 lbs of red. These fish are so beautiful. When we went through the nets for the first time this tide, nearly all the fish were still alive. Yesterday, the tender operator noted that often, our fish are still flopping when they receive them and get them chilled.

I don't like the killing part of this work, but the thought that the magnificence of these salmon will be transformed into a human's health and welfare comforts me greatly. Our crew learns to be very respectful of what these salmon represent - I think that further increases the value of our fish.

We save all our kings. The processors don't pay much for them - there aren't enough king salmon for processors to set up to handle them - and we love to eat them, so we keep them. The kings in this photo are on a 3' cooler. The big one is probably about 25 lbs. I think we'll clean today's kings, vacuum seal them, and then freeze them in AGS's big walk in freezer.

So we made a trip into town with the one-ton propane flatbed boom truck, empties (gas and water), and a cooler with kings. We planned to have our small tread ranger (a tracked vehicle that will crawl through the mud... with fish in the back) forked onto the back of the truck to be our back up ranger on the beach. We did get the kings cleaned, vacuum sealed and into the walk in freezer. Gas and water are full. But the small ranger is still in the container van we use for storage (we'd I leave the battery?) Things always take longer than I expect.

Another glorious sunset to close the day before we start the next one fishing at midnight. We need to pull the nets on this tide and then wait for the announcement that we're allowed to fish.

Monday, June 21, 2010

In the season - June 21

We all survived the running sets today. Josh was not happy with how the anchor set worked out - I think it may need some refinement. The method of stringing a line between the two buoys and dropping the net out one end of the boat while pulling the line out of the water into the other end was the least exciting - a good thing. In our boat, we did a running line set - the running line was already in place between the buoy and the anchor on the beach. We just threaded the running line between the fairleads and ran along it, dropping the net out the stern. When we came to the end of the net, we tied it off using a net knot (or as the actual nautical people know it, a running clove hitch). On the other site, we attached a very long tag line to the bottom of the net, ran against the current until about 75% of the net was out of the boat and then curved back to the buoy, running the line out behind us. When we got to the buoy, we pulled it into the boat and pinched it down and began to haul on the tag line to bring us back to the end of the net. The net had swung too much by then and we had to do a bit of line swapping to avoid having 150' of trailing line. But we did it.

No fish yet though. Maybe on the ebb (probably not).

We did see a pod of beluga - and Paul and Jeff mentioned that when they went into town yesterday, they thought they saw a wolf prowling the tundra on the way. Paul described it as a big, wolf-like looking canine that seemed to be on its own.

It's getting late and I have yet to achieve the goal of reading the manual to learn how to use the newfangled outhouse. But it's sort of an intimidating structure (see the photo) and it's the kind of mistake I don't want to make. I can't find a time of day that I want to make any of the possible array of mistakes available with this toilet.

I've planted the ends of nine green onions with garden ambitions.

Weather report: It is now 11:15 pm and the sun is shining low through the window. I love the solstice.

It is about time to go check the nets - the tide is almost high. I went to the crew cabin and couldn't resist this shot - in the foreground is the crew cabin. The Space Hut is in the background in the middle and over on the left is the bunkhouse. And the solstice evening light is the chorus that brings it all together.
(Does this light remind anybody else of a Maxfield Parrish painting?)

Sunday, June 20, 2010

My birthday, pre-season June 20, Day 21

Started this day on a great note. It was such fun dancing. And coming back we got to watch a big red moon set among the processors' lights. Can you see the Williams' buoy on the mud flats?

When we wake up, we'll have some breakfast lox (yes, I did ship salmon back from Seattle to Alaska. And if I hadn't, I wouldn't have had as much chance to eat it yet) and I think I'll make salmon cakes - similar to crab cakes but with salmon. I'd have made salmon pillows, but I couldn't find puff pastry or chevre. And probably a Moroccan chicken dish, and maybe an Israeli couscous dish that David and Sarah discovered. And Pavlova for dessert - with kiwi and blueberries. I'm big on birthday dinners.

More after I wake up to the day.

The weather was beautiful today; the crew industriously almost finished the insulation on the bunkhouse and on the crew cabin. Still have some left, so they'll finish the crew cabin and then work on the walls of the Space Hut. I think that'll improve everyone's comfort considerably.

Paul and I talked for the last two days about the possibility of him going home early, like tomorrow. He is a great crew member and I hate to see him go. He has a knack for offering to help at just the right time and meaning it. He is a quick learner, a hard worker, funny, and insightful. But he feels very strongly that this isn't the right place for him this year. Of course, he didn't know this is how it would be for him when we took him on as crew, and I think he would make himself stick it out if we really needed him, but we have quite a strong crew this year, so fishing-wise, we'll be OK without him. But we are all sad to see him go, and I'm really hoping this is the right decision for him. He'll keep in touch (and now we'll have someone in Seattle we can contact and say, "Quick! We need another throttle cable - will you go get it and send it!!??") So today was bittersweet for me.

I've attached a couple of other photos. The solstice will occur in a couple of hours. The sunset attached here is from the 20th - it was about 11:45 pm. That's our Grayling in the foreground (ground?) and the Bathtub in the background. The Ambi is out of commission with a non functioning throttle, until Trina arrives with it in hand on Thursday.

And I always like the diversity here - the moon is about 3 hours away from setting in this photo, with the tender in the background - they are heading out on this tide so they'll be in place to receive fish from the drifters on the morning's tide. If they didn't get out on this tide, they might not be in place in time, because of the height of the tide. You can see the tire tracks on the beach freeway in front of the cabin - they are a testament to the time of the season, and the four-wheeler buzzing down the beach. Those vehicles are perfect for around here - they don't get stuck. If they do, you can just about lift them out. If you can't, just wait for the tide and it will float it out. Usually.

After our dessert of pavlova, I headed back to my cabin and heard the pair of swans that live on the pond behind my cabin. Could it be any more perfect?

We'll be doing running sets in the morning. We're due to open at 9 am, in 15 feet of water. I did hear today that Norm Anderson, one of my favorite people in Naknek, took a skiff from Dillingham to Naknek and didn't see a single jumper. We might not get the fish showing everyone has been expecting quite yet. But to me, the astonishing part of that news was taking a skiff from Dillingham to Naknek? It's about 60 miles to fly between the two villages and even longer by boat. You can see the distance in the map - remembering how big Alaska is. That would be a looonnng skiff ride. Farther than from Seattle to Olympia - maybe even farther than Seattle to Anacortes. Yikes!

And while we're here looking at this map, you can see Lake Illiamna - Kokhanok is a village on that lake and the lake is the destination of the salmon that swim up the Kvichak river, the largest red salmon run in the world. Lake Illiamna is where the Northern Dynasty Mining Company is proposing mining for copper and gold. I think that most of the villages have decided to oppose the mine because they are worried about the same thing I am: the health of the salmon run. At the same time, those who support the mine do so because it promises year round employment and it is darned expensive to try to live out here. With the rising cost of everything, and the persistently low price we get for the salmon, families can't pay their fuel bill anymore (gas in town here is $4.50 per gallon and the service station owners are not getting rich) so people are leaving the villages for Anchorage, forcing schools to close (a minimum of 10 children is required to keep the school open), which leads to other people leaving. Having the mine would give people work so they could stay in their villages and have work. Possibly, though, at the expense of the salmon run. Both issues - the health of the salmon run and the ability of families to make a living and stay in their communities - are very important to all community members. But some prioritize the salmon and the security and traditions that go with them while others priorities the employment and the security that goes with that. Before very long, community members - family members even - begin to think they disagree strongly. This controversy is very hard on these small communities.

The other river that we fish from is the Naknek river. Those salmon run up to Naknek Lake which extends from just outside King Salmon to the Katmai bear preserve. It's such an adventure at the end of the season to put the skiff on a trailer, drag it the 20 or so miles to the lake where we can put it in and run to Brooks Lodge to go visit the bears. David was the adventurer who made that happen the first time. I was afraid - sure it wouldn't work and worried that we would fall off the edge of the earth. And yet, here we are.

In a final happy birthday event, Bob completed the installation of the composting toilet. Now I just need to read the directions to figure out how to use it. Joy! A bathroom all to myself! I'm already thinking about how to decorate it.


Saturday, June 19, 2010

Pre-season June 19, Day 20

Today is Bob's birthday! We'll have carrot cake tonight.

Getting things done here requires so much flexibility - it's like racing with your left wrist tied to your right ankle. It turns out that we have no GCI phone reception on the beach. With Bristol Bay cellular, at least we have some. Eddie Clark mentioned a "bag" phone. I'm not sure what that is, but he says that its reception is great. Lolly says that it must be tied to AC power, so it can't go in the boat. At this point, having a phone in the boat seems like a luxury when we have a VHF radio. I ended up canceling the GCI contract today - it really isn't very useful if it has no reception at the beach. Maybe next year.

The throttle cable for the Honda outboard worries me. So I went to the AGS parts room to see if they could order one. But they needed information that's on the cable or the throttle apparatus and that's in the boat, down the beach, out in the mud. So I tried Charlie's Sport Shop in King Salmon and they're down one person and all around swamped so no one was able to answer the phone. I tried to call again when I got back to the cabin, but it's so hard when the reception is so spotty. But eventually I understood that it would take them 2 weeks to order it for me, so that isn't a good way to go. So I tried to call Bayside Marine in Everett where be bought the outboard in the first place... and the call dropped. Tried back - each time it takes a calling card - and didn't dial fast enough so ATT ended the call. Tried an email and then decided to try again. Got them! Many repeated questions and answers later, they could find the old invoice! They knew the cable type and length! Many more repetitions later, along with despair that the call had probably dropped (it hadn't - it was just a low spot in the transmission waves, I guess), we decided to have it shipped to my house in Seattle so my sister can pick it up as she swings through from Micronesia on her way up to join the crew on Wednesday night/ Thursday morning. So we should have a new throttle cable by Thursday afternoon.

I still feel like we're almost ready, despite today's realization that one skiff is dicey because of the throttle cable, another because of the carburetor for the roller's power pack, and the third (I hope) because of a faulty fuel hose connection. That just leaves our little 16' Grayling skiff with the outboard that pretty much runs fast or not at all.

I love it here, but the only thing easy about it is the breathing. That's a lot.

The crew went to set up the nets in the boats for setting on Monday at 9 am. We'll have quite a bit of water then, so it'll be a deep water set, meaning that we won't be able to have someone standing at the inside buoy holding it as we walk the skiff toward it, trailing the net out the side as we go. It's not a sexy way to set, but it's steady, the net gets set without problems, and no one gets hurt. But on Monday at 9 am the water will be too deep for anyone to be outside the boat pushing it along; we'll need to use the outboard. The risk with that is getting web in the prop. A very bad situation. But Monday will be a good day to practice that, just in case we need to do it when the fishing is heavy. We may use an anchor - run from the outside buoy toward the inside buoy with no intention of catching it and when we run out of net, toss out an anchor. Then at slack water (when the tide is high and not pulling the net one way or the other as it prepares to start going out), we can pick up the anchor and connect the buoy to the net until Wednesday at 9 am when we are required to pick the nets up.

The report from the crew when they returned from working with the boats was that the throttle in the Ambi has given up entirely. Glad I ordered the new cable today. In the unlikely event that the fishing will be heavy before Thursday when Trina arrives, we'll be able to tow the Ambi to one net and have part of the crew just go back and forth under that net. Then the Bathtub and the Grayling will cover the three other nets. (I was able to get the Yamaha fitting for the fuel line for the Bathtub. Bob looked at the old fitting and could see why it wasn't working. He put on the new end and after the second try, it seems to work. One down.)

After carrot cake, we headed into town to go dancing at the Red Dog. Of course, it was a blast. I even washed my hair for the occasion. Makenzie, Ev and Tony met us there. Wendy Lee and Todd were in fine form. It was a wonderful night.