A Fish Story

Photo by James Brooks.
Photo by James Brooks.


My story begins in the newsroom of a large New England newspaper nearly 30 years ago and ends in the fish hold of an Alaskan fishing vessel. The newsroom is expansive with glass cubicles and clusters of desks. There are solid brick accent walls because traditional construction materials that last for hundreds of years is the hallmark of New England architecture. I inform my editor that I am moving to Alaska and providing a month’s notice. There are no historic old brick buildings in Alaska. What there is no shortage of in Alaska are natural resources. Lots of oil. Lots of fish. Lots of wilderness. It’s a time machine to the past. It’s the last frontier; a romantic throw-back in time where almost anything seems possible.

What’s left unsaid to my editor is that I have also hatched an innovative, two-part pre-parenting plan. First, I’m headed to Alaska with a bucket-list of adventures (climbing mountains, rafting river, working in hunting camps and on commercial fishing vessels) all to be chronicled as freelance writer and photographer. And, second, along the way I hope to find an equally adventurous partner who shares a passion for love and a lifetime commitment to raise children together. I am 30 years old. I’d been in love a couple of times but not with someone I thought my unborn children deserved as their father. So I am a double-barreled romantic; dangerously armed and heading to the last frontier with nothing but a portable Smith Corona typewriter and a used Nikon camera with excellent lenses. So the search is on. And the stakes are high.

After one year in Alaska, I’m making excellent progress through the list; Rafting rivers; check. Climbing mountains; check. Working in hunting camps; check. Working for a bush newspaper; check. Freelanced articles published; check. Finding the father of my children; NO check. I actually enjoyed a pretty interesting relationship with a fellow who worked on the oil pipeline. He was building a world class sailboat and wanted me to sail around the world with him. But he didn’t seem to warm to the idea of children. Maybe, he might consider it. Wait and see. That sort of thing. That was no longer good enough for me. The difference between the pre-Alaskan Donna and the search-for-the-father-of-my-children Donna is that I now I terminated a relationship with a guy I actually liked because he was standing between me and my unborn children. Outta the way, buddy! So, again, after one year in Alaska; finding the father of my children? NO check.

I’d been on a fishing boat briefly to write an article for Alaska Magazine about the wild 48-hour halibut openers. Back in those days, they were like the gold rushes of a hundred years ago. Anybody with a boat, some ground line, buoys and lots of hooks went out to catch these giant and very valuable fish. In those days there were over 4,000 participants that raced out of every coastal town in the Gulf of Alaska twice a year to catch the fish. It was like the Oklahoma Land Grab when everybody let loose in their covered wagons to lay claim to their slice of land. It was so fast paced that, in order to prevent an overharvest of halibut, the National Marine Fisheries Service limited the fishery to two 48-hour openings a year.

It was a crazy, exhilarating fishery that began at noon sharp with all the crew gathered near the stern of boat. When the captain pushed forward on the throttle and hollered “Anchor Over!” out flew the first buoy and behind it cascaded thousands of hooks spaced about two fathoms apart and attached to miles of ground line. At the end of the ground line another anchor and buoy identified the end of the “string” of hooks. Another and another of these strings would be set so that in just a matter of hours the fleet had laid out thousands of miles of hook and line gear strung in zigzag patterns all along the shelf break .

No one slept for more than four of the forty-eight hours during these openers. When you started hauling back gear, the crew howled with whoops of glee if the ground line brought to the surface the gleaming white belly of the largest flatfish in the world, sometimes as big as barn door. It was like panning for gold and finding a nickel-sized nugget. When a halibut broke the surface of the water, the person at the rail would reach toward the water with a long gaff hook and catch the fish in the jaw. With a practiced motion, he would swing the fish onboard into the checker, a wooden corral on deck where the halibut are held before cleaning. All muscle, that fish would flap its full body around with enough power to break your bones. That’s why the crew was armed with baseball bats. First you knock them out with the bat then haul them onto the cutting table. And here’s the art part. Five swift and perfect cuts would allow a fisherman worth his or her salt to remove all the gills, guts and gonads and toss it over the side in a single motion. There’s a lot of pride in being a good cutter. Some times in the groggy dawn hours, you’d make those ninja cuts and throw the fish instead of the guts over the side. But with each fish cleaned, slid into hold and packed in ice, you were just one step closer to a big pay day. A crew member on a good boat could reasonably expect to make $10,000 for a two day halibut opener!

Though my trip out for that opener was as a journalist, it gave me a taste for commercial fishing. The sea, the salt air, the broad horizon, the camaraderie amongst the crew, the excitement of a gold rush was just too romantic a package to be passed up. Nonetheless, I flip a coin with a friend to determine my fate; stay onshore responsibly working for the Kodiak Daily Mirror or … go fishing. I call “heads.” My friend looks down at the back of his hand as he slowly lifts the other with drama and then, a grin. “You’re going fishing,” he says.

There are pretty much only two ways to get a job commercial fishing:

  1. know somebody in the business, or
  2. walk the docks, stopping at each boat to make an inquiry.

Being a woman pretty much assured neither approach would land me a job. Woman were considered bad luck and ill suited for the grueling work in those days. My plan is to work my way onboard by landing a job as cook and then … onto the deck. So I walk the docks looking for a job as a cook which I’d done successfully in Alaskan hunting camps.

Did I tell you it’s June? Kodiak is lovely in June. It’s a lush emerald green and the wild flowers are blooming even on the bare, treeless mountains. It’s is a small coastal community on a large Island off the coast of the Alaskan Peninsula. The year around population (not counting the Coast Guard base) is about 5,000. That’s about a one-to-one ratio of bears to people. Kodiak is also one of the top five fishing ports in the country. Its two harbors are filled with hundreds of fishing vessels of all sizes and geared up for all kinds of fishing from salmon to crab to groundfish like cod and pollock which is used to make your fish sandwich at McDonalds. Clearly, I am going to have a long walk down these many docks as I implement my plan to find a job fishing.

The harbor is a bustle with seine boats gearing up for salmon fishing. Rock and roll music blasts from radios on deck, mixed with the buzz of saws and hum of hydraulic equipment. Folks are dressed in tee shirts and Grunden all-weather bib coveralls and brim caps smeared with fish gurry and diesel fuel. Lots of smiling faces but no job for me. “Sorry, no.” Nope. Nope. Nada.

Finally, after three days of pounding the docks in the harbor, I move to the vessels tied up at the fishing plants. It’s low tide so the vessels are riding well below the docks. I look down onto the back deck of a large vessel, about a hundred feet long with long line gear stacked in tubs at the stern. There’s a handsome fellow working on the gear. He looks up at me on the dock when I holler down, “Need a cook?”

“Maybe,” he says with a smile.

“Skipper on Board?”

“Yea, in the galley,” and he nods toward the open door. I go inside and make my case. I’ve got the job! I didn’t know it then but this turn of events would change my life and almost get me killed.

Any experienced fisherman would not have sought to go to sea on this boat. It was a wide Gulf shrimper with little draft, ill-suited suited for the seas of the North Pacific. The galley, engine and deck were not ship-shape, generally a poor reflection on how the boat is run. The captain and engineer were from Canada and so not familiar with the grounds. Most of the nine-member crew were green except the salty old first mate who later taught me how to apply the rules of gravity when cooking in a rolling ship, the engineer who would not leave port without cases of beer stacked in the engine room and the captain who seemingly had a bottomless stash of whiskey somewhere. During this month long trip, all three of them asked me to either marry or run off with them even though two of them were already married and the old salt had been married five times. Throughout the trip, he affectionately referred to me as #6.

But there were life threatening hazards as well; a large electrical fire in the engine room during which a life raft was inflated inside the wheelhouse. We also lost two anchors; one broke and the other disappeared into the sea when the anchor was dropped but nobody had secured the chain to the vessel. Nonetheless, we managed to catch a few fish in a late summer opener on the Albatross Banks just south of the Aleutian Islands. But it was cut short when we lost the anchor so we made our way to Dutch Harbor, the nation’s largest fishing port, to buy another anchor. That’s when I found the skipper passed- out on the chart table, his toupee floating in a pool of whiskey and cigarette butts. Clearly, this is not a real fishing boat. I start walking the docks again. But, with no luck, I stop to watch a softball game. It’s the Fourth of July and people are celebrating and relaxing. I wander over to the Elbow Room for a beer.

Some other crew members from the boat are there including a Midwestern fellow from Wisconsin. He is the same deckhand I’d first met when seeking the job. He’s a few years younger than me and a greenhorn so I’d not paid much attention to him even though he’s handsome and looks every bit the part a Midwesterner of Norwegian decent, which he is. I learn two things about him that day: he is straightforward like a perfectly square block of Wisconsin cheese and he seems to like me a lot. What makes this block of cheese interesting to me is that it isn’t in Wisconsin, it is here, in Alaska. I wanted to find out why. He stands in clear contrast to the engineer who’s a few years older than me and the sort of arrogant rogue that might normally catch my eye simply because he’s used to getting his way. He doesn’t seem to shave much and he’s not that good looking. But neither is Russell Crowe.

So there’s a tension here. There’s a tension between these two men who both seem to want my attention. And there is an unwelcomed tension inside of me about the two of them.

Now that the Midwesterner and I had made a connection while in Dutch Harbor, we begin to nurture it back on the boat. Our preferred meeting place is in the wheelhouse while assigned nightly wheel-watch duty. A wheel watch is an important task on any vessel. It’s driving the boat at night while the skipper sleeps. The ocean is big and a ship generally travels in a straight line, so wheel-watch duty is not rocket science. But you do have to know basic navigation skills. In those days, you navigated using Loran readings which you apply to the large marine charts to be sure you are staying on course. Generally, there’s only one person on wheel watch but this crew is so large and so green, there are always two of us assigned to rotating, four-hour wheel watches. The wheelhouse is a wonderful place. Its lights are low, so you can see the dark waves in the dark sea against the dark horizon. But because no other lights are out there, save a distant boat, the sky is lit up with an explosion of stars. And, stretched out on the table, under a small lamp, are the charts which detail not only where the sea meets the land, but more importantly, the changing ocean depth and curvature. So sure, these charts help you avoid hitting rocks but, if you know what you’re doing, they also guide you to fish. The Midwesterner and I knew how to stay on course but nothing about how to find fish. But we love to speculate. Can you imagine this picture I’ve painted for you? Two people holding the ship on course as it moves through the sea embraced by a universe of stars while speculating how to make it in this new world? Now that’s a recipe for romance. So, yes, something was in the air.

After the electrical fire in the engine room, it was clear that the boat could no longer fish. Thankfully, it was time to head back to Kodiak. We’d even caught a few more halibut so, when we pulled into Kodiak harbor, we tied up to a fish plant to deliver the catch. The lines were thrown and the vessel tied securely to the dock. There are several ways to unload fish from a vessel but because halibut are cleaned on the vessel, they are packed in crushed ice in the hold. To retrieve them, a few deckhands climb down into the bowels of the fish hold dressed in protective all-weather gear and boots. A large net, called a brailler is hydraulically lowered into the hold from the dock. The crew working in the hold retrieve the individual fish and slide them into the brailler. When it’s full, with about 1,000 pounds of fish, a crew member signals to the operator to lift the net out of the hold and onto the dock where the fish are transferred to iced totes and moved into the plant for further cleaning and processing. Generally, it takes several hours to unload a full boat.

On this day, the Midwesterner and another crew member are down in the hold loading fish into the brailler. Others of us are cleaning the back deck and stacking gear, eager to get the vessel “ship-shape” so we can get off the boat for good. I stop to lean on the rail enjoying the warmth of the sun. After a month at sea, we’ll make very little if any money. But at least we ate well. I’m a pretty good cook. The engineer saddles up beside me on the rail. He wants me to leave with him the next day and fly off with him to a warm beach in Mexico for a few weeks. I shake my head and chuckle. He shrugs, walks over to the hold and looks down where all the action is going on. Only so many people can work in the hold efficiently but he decides he’s going down and show those greenhorns how to do it right. And that’s when all the commotion begins. Everyone on the back deck rushes to look down into the hold. The Midwesterner has slugged the engineer in the jaw and is now diving to tackle him in the ice. They both slip and slug each other among the fish. I guess that the Midwesterner has had just about enough guff from the arrogant engineer. It’s over in pretty short order. The engineer retreats to the ladder, climbs out of the hold and leaves the boat without saying a word. The Midwesterner goes back to loading halibut into the brailer.

Once the fish are unloaded, and the rest of us have cleaned and stored the gear, the Wisconsin Midwesterner and I grab our duffle bags and head off the boat to a local bar where we know we can also do our laundry. We order a couple of beers. It feels good to be off the boat. I smile and ask, “So what was the brawl in the hold about?” He smiles and says, “You. We fought over you. And I won.”

So that’s my fish tale. My husband wanted to be here tonight but he’s fishing. However, one of our sons, Nick–a fisherman like his Dad–is here. We’re all Green Bay Packer fans.

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