The title of this post says it all. While breakdowns and wild conditions at sea were something I expected, the steadily declining hauls we are taking in are not. That first week really set a high standard for the season, but each week since we’ve been pulling in less and less. What we caught that first week in an hour we have to grind for a whole day to catch now. There’s a lot of other salmon species getting into the mix as well, which is definitely not desirable. Reds fetch the most at 2.00 a pound, while dogs and humpies (chum and pink salmon) fetch much less. I think we only get only a quarter a pound for humpies, so seeing a bunch of those in the net isn’t great. We’ve been catching some nice silvers, I think they go for more but not as much as sockeye. It’s strange to be judging fish based on their monetary value. There’s so many fish we catch that I’d be overjoyed to catch on rod and reel, but in commercial fishing I have to look at the overall catch. I’ve got to see at least 100 fish come into the boat each trip to feel like it was a worthwhile day.
Probably the thing that gets me most excited is when we catch king salmon because they are so rare. Sportfisherman can’t keep them, but commercial fishermen can. We’ve only caught a couple in the net so far. One was on the small side, but the other was MASSIVE! I’m reeling the net up on the drum when this enormous thing rolls in over the transom. I thought it was a big log at first, but was shocked to see it was a huge king! It looked as big as the 40 lb. white sea bass I caught a few years back in the Monterey Bay. It was enormous compared to the usual size of salmon we usually catch. It was a beautiful fish, I have to say out of all the salmon the kings are the best looking. I really enjoy the shiny chrome on the silvers, but the kings are my favorite. When we got back to the dock the crew there were really excited about it. They weighed it for us. Turns out it was only 33 pounds, but it still was the biggest salmon I’ve ever seen in person. It was the biggest one Thor had caught in 5-6 years, so it’s not common at all. Catching that fish definitely made my week, that’s for sure!
The Cheryl Lynn has been having some issues lately. Everything seemed to work more or less fine at the beginning of the season, but starting with the overheating situation I talked about in the last post things have been going downhill. The engine keeps chewing up impellers, we’ve gone through 3 so far this season. The impeller is what failed initially and caused the engine to overheat, and for some reason it keeps happening. The last one Thor put in seems to be working the way it was supposed to, maybe it’ll last until the end of the season. We also had the hydraulics for the reel blow and get hydraulic fluid everywhere, and most seriously, we’ve had ongoing problems with the transmission. For whatever reason it’ll refuse to go into gear at times. One awful day we had all 3 things go wrong, that was fun.
The overheating and hydraulic issues seem to be fixed, but the transmission issue still is plaguing us. There’s something that Thor does to repressurize the lines that gets it to work, but it takes a few minutes. Out at sea in reasonable conditions this isn’t a problem, but it’s gone out on us twice now while waiting to get unloaded at the dock. The boat was at the mercy of the river’s current and we drifted helplessly into people’s boats. Both times Thor was screaming at me to get a line around any cleat on any passing boat I could, while the boat’s owners are screaming at me because we slammed into their boat. Not a good time at all. It’d be very easy for me to get crushed between boats or get knocked into the river when these kind of things happen. I’ve managed to keep the boat safe so far, but it really takes a lot out of me to do it. Now I approach dock landings with dread, as that’s when the shit usually hits the fan. There’s nothing like being exhausted after 12+ hours at sea and looking forward to having the day done, when you’re suddenly thrust into a dangerous scenario that you’ve got to be quick and precise to get out of. You can never let your guard down out here, especially not in port it seems!
To top off everything else, the weather has been giving us issues. Thor says we’ve gotten more wind than usual this season. The wind can kick up any time of day and can whip the inlet into a froth. There’s been times where it was just too much to go out in, so the fleet stayed at port. We had one day where things really got intense. Thor and I had been letting a net soak for 2-3 hours and we knew it was going to be a nice set from all the fish splashing we had seen. The waves at the time were only around 2-4 feet, no big deal. We did know that there would be a small craft advisory later on in the afternoon, but we figured we’d get our fish and get back before the swells and wind kicked in. We started hauling in the net well before the winds were to start blowing, and sure enough, it was loaded. As we got to the end of the first shackle, suddenly the wind started blowing strong out of nowhere. The swells tripled in height, and it was all we could do to stay on our feet. When you’re picking fish you don’t have anything to hold on to, so we were getting tossed around all over the place. It soon became a dangerous situation, it was the salmon version of Deadliest Catch. It just kept getting worse and worse and we didn’t bother picking the last 20 feet of net. We just left it on the deck with the fish still in it and scrambled for the cabin. I said to Thor “get us out of here Scotty,” and we made a beeline for the dock.
When the waves struck, we were in the middle of the inlet. Thor said that it should get better the closer we got to land, but it stayed the same all the way back to the river! It was an intense, white-knuckled trip back. A couple of times I got the sick feeling that the boat was about to roll, but the Cheryl Lynn is a beast and handled everything the sea threw at her. Thor designed her well. He claimed that he’d been in worse and it hadn’t rolled then. Fortunately everything worked when we needed it to, but if we would have broken down out in that slop, things might have gotten pretty dire. When we made it back to the river it was as wild as I’ve ever seen it before. It was a nerve-wracking affair getting docked, off-loaded and back to our anchor buoy. I was so high on adrenaline by the time it was all over and done with, it took all evening to mellow back out. Thor was as shell-shocked as I was, and to celebrate a good day’s catch in such rough conditions we went and had dinner at a really nice restaurant in town. All we could do is talk about what we had just made it through. One minute we were in a tempest at sea and the next we were in a nice comfortable restaurant surrounded by people who had no idea what was going on out there on the inlet. It was two different worlds existing right next to one another.
It was the most intense conditions I’ve ever been in out at sea by far. Thor said he thought we were in 12 foot seas. We caught a few waves that broke over the bridge, and I was looking out at waves higher than the windows a lot of the time. It wasn’t that much fun to be in the middle of something like that, but it was an exhilarating experience to survive nonetheless. The fact that we caught 300 fish despite the poor conditions made getting out of that situation even sweeter. Thor really complimented me on my deckhanding skills that day. It was a real trial-by-fire I guess, and I passed the test with flying colors. Here’s a video I took on our way back, sorry for the vertical filming! I wasn’t really thinking straight at the time.
The wind blew strong for the next day, keeping the fleet from going out. That night the wind died down and we were able to return to fishing the next day. It was as still as a lake out there with calm conditions. It was such a huge change, it was hard to believe that 48 hours before it had been a real washing machine out there!
So as of today (August 2nd) the season is looking like it’s pretty much over. The past few days we’ve just been out there struggling for fish. We’ll leave out the net 3 hours at a time for 20-30 fish. The season is technically open to the 15th, but I don’t see it going on for much longer. Supposedly, the Department of Fish and Game announced that they had counts of 150 fish on their indexes when they were out testing a couple days ago, but for some reason the fleet can’t seem to tap into that biomass. People are already starting to make appointments to get their boats out of the water. There definitely is a vibe in the air that the season is pretty much a done deal. If you can’t catch enough to make it worth your while, then it’s not worth going out.
I’m pretty stressed because I have made far less than I had anticipated this season. At this point I fear I’ve barely broke even on this whole thing. Of course, I didn’t expect to make what I did last year at the lodge, but not this much less! I definitely have made some good connections and gotten a lot of experience in the process however, that was my main goal for this season. It’s definitely been an adventure! Still, I can’t help but to think that this fishery is on its last legs. All the young guys are fishing over in Bristol Bay making big money. I heard they had a record breaking season over there. The run there this year was 69.7 million sockeye! It is the Super Bowl of sockeye fishing. Hopefully with the experience I have from this season I can get a spot on a boat there next year. It’s a tough fishery though, I’ve heard conditions can get pretty nasty over there during the season. I also hear about a lot of horror stories about bad things happening to fishermen over there. Thor’s son had a 47 year old deckhand on his boat suffer a heart attack this year and had to be medevaced out. I also heard a story about a boat that had its reel break off and squash a deckhand against the transom. I heard he lived, but he broke several bones (including his back) and ruptured some internal organs. I’ve never looked at a reel the same way after hearing that story!
Since I was counting on having a lot more money at the end of the season, I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do next. I’m totally overwhelmed with debt, don’t have a place to live, no job lined up yet, and my truck is thousands of miles away. I’ve got some ideas on what to do next but none of them are good options. I’m waiting to see how things turn out and talk to some people before I make a solid plan to proceed. I’m not really looking forward to what lies ahead of me, I feel like I’m in between a rock and a hard place for sure. The best thing is that I’m somewhere where I want to be, now I’ve just got to figure out a plan to stay up here. With winter right around the corner I don’t have much time to get things squared away one way or another. I’m hoping things work out for the best. I’m doing all I can at the moment to make that as likely as possible. Well, I’ll be seeing what the future has in store for me very soon I suppose.