I worked on a pretty awesome boat. We had a 10,000 watt sound system, a hot tub, video games, a projector to set up on deck in good weather, good food, and were allowed to drink as long as there was no work to be done. The crew and captain were awesome, of course I still got sick of them from time to time. Being stuck with the same people for three months where the farthest away you could get was a hundred feet can be trying. Whenever they got on my nerves I would bite my tongue and sneak away, usually to the hot tub, the lower bow(front of the boat), or my rack(bed).
Salmon tendering is a great way to make money. The hardest part about tendering is being stuck on a boat with the same people. When its time to work you do have to work pretty hard, and it’s physical. The other times when the fishing is open you pretty much sit around, there was a saying that was repeated throughout the season, “Hurry up and wait.” We would fill this time with movies, video games, sport fishing, sleeping, beach combing, cribbage was a popular game, and whatever else we could do to pass the time. In Bristol Bay we bought only sockeye from the gill-netters. This was pretty straight forward, we would crane the bags of fish off the boats weigh them and dump them into our fish hold. Boats would have one to eighteen bags of fish, 500-800lbs each, depending on the particular boat design, and how well their fishing opener went. On any given day we would unload around 40 boats and carry as much as 150 tons of salmon. After we finished buying fish we would hang out with our friends from the fishing boats, as many as eight gill-netters would tie to us at once and we would have cookouts and cut loose. Enjoying a couple of drinks, a soak in the hot tub, talking to people other than the ones you are surrounded by 24 hours a day. Eventually we would have to head to town to deliver the fish so we couldn’t get out of hand. The timing depended heavily on the dock schedule at the cannery, and the tides. The Naknek river has the highest volume of water moving during the tide changes, which meant our delivery windows were short.
The other days that we weren’t buying fish we would be the service tender. Giving fresh water, selling fuel, and collecting trash from the gill-netters. They were unable to go to town because they would likely miss a opener. These days though longer were more fun, boats would come after they delivered fish to the buying tender. It was a slower work pace and we didn’t have to worry about moving the boat. Cook outs would last longer and we were allowed to have a little more fun. Its hard to say how late the cook outs would last. It was usually light outside and the days start and end at the mercy of the Alaska State Troopers. There wasn’t a standard time to fish. The openers could start and end at anytime of the day. The worst days were at the end of the season when it would be open for 24 hours. With this the fishermen would come deliver any time then decided to quit fishing. Though the boats would have only a couple of bags of fish the days were longer. Work here and then not enough time in between to really do anything.
July 3rd we had a big party the fishery was closed that day. Eight gill-netters tied to our boat with 30-40 fishermen/women just enjoying the sunny day. We had a massive cookout with obviously some salmon, steaks, burgers, sausage, and pretty much anything you could want. Also there was plenty of drinks flowing around. Loud music, hot tub, food, fun, what more do you need. You would see a few fireworks spread out throughout the midnight sun, but mostly other types of explosives. There were seal bombs, which a small explosive resembling a small stick of dynamite. They are used order to frighten seals away from fishing nets. Many other boats shot red emergency flares into the sky. So if you are going to sink a boat, don’t do it on a major holiday. A flare would have been worthless for a sinking boat in Bristol Bay that night. And our crew got paid a flat daily wage everyday, we were paid to party. The fishermen however get a percent of the catch. So a closed fishery means unpaid day off. They do make more money so I didn’t feel bad, it just wasn’t something we brought up. Our crew were hoping it would be closed on the 4th too but it wasn’t.
Southeast Alaska was a lot different, we had to sort the fish there… there are five species of salmon in Alaska: King, Sockeye or Reds, Coho or Silvers, Pink or Humpies, and Chum or Dogs. We would pump the fish out of their hold with what is essentially a giant wet-vac with a 12 inch hose. They would be pumped onto the sorting table as we would hand sort them. Our crew as well as the crew of the fishing boat would sort the fish. There were many jellyfish that would be caught with the salmon, many people sorting wore gloves as I did a couple times. Though I found it much easier to grab the fish bare handed. Without gloves I could easily shove my thumb into the gills and fling them to the proper weigh boxes. My hands quickly stopped getting bothered by the jellyfish. Sorting was important because all species paid out different amounts. We would buy fish off of Purse Seiners usually doing three or four a night. In southeast it was 2 days open, 2 days closed and only fishing during the day. We were on a four day rotation of going to Ketchikan to deliver and usually to Craig to buy. We had some pretty nice secluded coves that we would buy in meaning a great place to beach comb or camp. We would have bonfires and put up a projector and screen on the deck and play eighteen rounds of golf. Spend time relaxing in the hot tub, playing loud music, or sport fishing.
I was the only member of the boat to spend a night on the beach. Though leaving Bellingham I was promised camping on the beach. It was our first day off in Southeast Alaska and I was getting our outboard motor in working condition for the skiff. This involved doing hot laps close to the boat. Eventually the engine would die from moisture in the carburetor and then flood while trying to restart it. This happened several time, I would have to paddle the skiff back to the boat and start over. Eventually the engine was running well enough to start the first time I pulled the cord. It would still die every now and then but it would easily crank back up. I decided to take the skiff to the beach, no one joined me for fear of having to paddle back. So I grab my backpack with all the essential gear to survive a few days should I not be able to make it back. I leave the boat with every intention of camping on the beach. I cruise up and down the coast, beaching in a few spots to explore. Once I came across a nice sandy stretch I stick around. The Captain radioed me warning me that the tide is going out and not to beach the skiff because he didn’t want me dragging it. I already new that the tide could leave me stranded for the night. I thought that would be a good excuse, so I told him his warning came too late. He wasn’t exactly happy about it but its not like there was work to be done. He told me that this is a hard learning lesson and now I know why its important to take supplies, I didn’t tell him that Mother Nature makes a good excuse. I spent the night eating freeze dried spaghetti dancing and singing around a bonfire. I was happy to have some much needed space away from the crew. I slept under the stars on a beautifully clear night. I had brought my sleeping bag and an inflatable backpacking sleeping pad. The morning high tide was very low one, the captain said I wouldn’t be able to float until the next evening. This was not according to my plan at all, I didn’t bring enough rolling tobacco. I woke up early with the sun, rolled and smoked my last cigarette, then I packed my backpack and was going to make the tide. I sat there starring at the skiff for at least an hour with the water slowly rising. Just before high tide the skiff starts to rock back and forth. I had just enough water to get it moving without being damaged from the rocks it sat on. I then arrived back on the boat at 7am, everyone else still asleep.
One day we bought fish from only one boat. Having such a light load the cannery had us pump the fish out of our hold onto another tender. This was nice because it meant we had no need to go to town and could enjoy ourselves a little more. The down side was I had to jump down in the fish hold to move the hose around and suck up the fish. It was late and we were all exhausted. I could have waited longer to jump down but I was ready for the day to be over. The cannery works had to do this part when we delivered, they would put on chest waders to do this. I had rain gear and boots. The best I could do was rubber-band my rain gear around my boots to prevent as much 33 degree water, salmon slime and blood from leaking in. This helped very little, it just made the liquids fill my boots and rain gear slower. I was Balls Deep in the salmon/blood/slime/near freezing water. I was in my own Dirty Jobs episode. I did get first dibs on the shower that day.
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