Queen Charlotte sound aboard the commercial fishing vessel Wild Thing; early evening, net out, dinner eaten, dishes washed and stored.
There’s an opening, we have 24 hours from 6 pm to 6pm, it’s mid-July, we’ll be fishing all night. The weather channel predicts storm force winds rising to gale force by morning. The tide change begins in an hour. The wind is picking up, buffeting and rocking our floating home.
Phosphorescence, fire in the water, outlining each mesh and bobbing white cork in eerie blue green opalescence. Pale green web sixty meshes deep suspended from floating cork line swirls and billows down into the cold dark water where the lead line wavers below. The gillnet stretches out behind the boat for 1200 fathoms, a bright orange buoys tied to each net end, while we jog through waves and wind, idling along side it.
Across the water bobbing lights, other boats, a little floating city stretched over several miles of ocean. White mast lights, port red and starboard green lights twinkling, shifting, swaying with the waves and the wind, reflected in the restless waves. The deep dark cold ocean is not so lonely with other humans around.
Radio phones, many, all tuned to different channels – weather channel, coast guard channel, fishing buddies’ private channels, fisheries channel, commercial shipping channel. Every now and then, a partial conversation in southern Georgia good ole boy accents speaking unintelligible words comes beaming in on sound waves bounced from somewhere in the ether.
“Fiska! Fiska!” excited Icelandic voices catch our attention amid the jumble of radio phone chatter. Ah, they are catching fish. Thor and Hoss quickly switch to another radio channel, whispering location, latitude and longitude, marks on the chart. Another word for fish catches our attention “Reba! Reba!” in Croation, and now several channels have gone silent as fishing partners and buddies and cliques switch to their private channels for secrecy. Don’t want to alert the whole fleet, or they all be crowding in and corking you (setting their net in front of you and catching all “your” fish!).
Corks bobbing, floating, shifting, drifting across the sea, anchored by the web and the lead line, the whole heavy mass being shoved and moved by tide and wind. Suddenly we see several dragging corks along the drifting cork line, 5 – 6 corks in a row sinking in several spots along the net, there and there and there! The fish are hitting, gilling, it’s tide change. Time to work the gear.
Don the rain gear. First the green rubber pants, pull the suspenders over your shoulders. Next, the rain coat, snap it closed, turn up the collar. Slide your feet into your gum rubber boots, rain pants covering the tops. The life vest next. And now, the long bright yellow apron over the head; tie it up behind. Finally the sou’wester over your head; tie it securely under the chin. Rubber gloves on and you’re ready!
Slide the cabin door open, clamber and stumble up the steps to the deck. The wind hits you in the face, the only exposed part, with driving, battering, horizontal rain pellets mingled with salt spray. The boat is pitching and yawing like a circus ride; your feet are braced wide apart for balance. You hanging on to the guy wires as you fight your way astern, face tucked in, turned away from the punishing wind, waves breaking and smashing and spraying up the side of the hull.
Jump down into the stern and shelter in behind the net drum, the five foot diameter steel-core giant spool used to wind aboard or set out the net, corks and lines. Untie the end of the net from the side cleat, tie it to the rope wrapping the drum; engage hydraulics and step on the drum peddle, watching as the net comes through the stern and side rollers, pushing and guiding it evenly on the drum with your hands and your hip.
Ah a silvery bright coho caught by its gills in the gillnet web. Still alive, it flops aboard entangled in mesh; up, slowly up over the stern roller landing at your feet flapping, sliding, spinning, fighting, winding itself tighter in the nylon web. Take your foot off the wooden drum peddle to stop the drum winding the net aboard. You grasp handfuls of mesh near the fish and haul it closer. Now grab the mesh strands on either side of its gills, lift 1o pounds of fish and web, and then, with a sharp snap of the wrists that jerks the fish from the mesh, that beauty flops onto the stern deck. It slithers and swims away across the wet deck but you catch it between your boots, bend, grasp it by gills or tail and heave it into the side locker.
You bend over the stern roller, survey along the net bobbing out astern. Yes! Many more salmon jerking dancing, caught in the net; lots of sinking corks, and the beautiful, eerie silvery bright shadows of salmon strung down through the net at five, ten, twenty foot intervals. A good set and a great start to the opening, if we can keep fishing during this blow.
Might have to anchor up at Cape Caution if it gets too nasty. Recall that weather forecast, taken from readings of barometric pressure, wind direction and speed, wave heights and other data reported by coastal light houses, staffed with real people keeping the sea folk safe, or at least informed about dangers.
The tide change and the wind’s push are shaping the cork line into zigzags across the sea; a dim white light at the far end of the net winks and bobs through the sea spume; the wind is shredding and cascading water off the wave tops in misty feathers. The wind is howling, the waves are restless, bashing and spewing up the side and over the deck. The scuppers can’t quite keep up, feet awash in 4 or 5 inches of sea water from the soaking wind-tossed waves and the dripping net.
Drum up some more web and now 3, 4, 5 salmon in a bundle come slapping and splashing over the stern roller. Quickly, quickly, hurry. Snap them out, skin the choking tangled web away with the fish pick, cut a strand of mesh to release another, grab and toss them into the side locker. More drumming, more fish, more picking, more silvery flapping dollars aboard. Another large cluster bails over the stern, twisting and spinning and tangling; fish everywhere, bashing you in the shins, flapping across your boots, swimming half submerged in the deck wash. What a set! We have 60 fish aboard already and many more fathoms of oncoming net to pick.
A strange dance of peddle, brace, lift, snap, slither, wrestle, grasp, toss, and repeat amid the howling bite of the wind, the slapping boom of the waves and the tossing, gyrating, plunge of deck, it’s a symphony of salmon and sea.
Suddenly, astern you see a monster salmon, probably about an 18 pound spring salmon, hanging precariously by one mesh. Gaff hook! Lean far over the side, gently and slowly drum the net; stab it, jab it anywhere, preferably in the head! Safely hooked through the gills, you heave that beauty aboard. You’ve seen other large fish break the mesh and swim off or sink but this one is securely on board, at least $100 worth of fish.
Smiling and laughing, our season is made, our bills are paid, now we are in the black. We still have a few hours of this opening to catch more yet, if we can ride out this storm.
With all the hours, days and years of time spent fishing, there are more stories to be told. I’d love to hear yours! e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org