“Wake up, it’s time,” my dad shouts through the bunkhouse door.
“Okay, We’re up,” I yell back as I roll over and squint at the clock. 2:30AM. It must be high tide, and time to pick fish.
One nice thing about Alaska in the summer is that it doesn’t really start getting dark at night until August, and then only for a few hours. That makes 24 hour fishing a little easier. Just a little. It is still exhausting, smelly, hard work. The smelly, hard work part is just what fishing is all about. Start doing it around the clock for a few days, and then it gets exhausting. Fast.
We divide the crew into shifts, two people on day, and two on night, moving the nets in or out according to the tide. Every 6 hours when the tide changes, everyone gets up and goes out into the boats to pick fish. It takes anywhere from one to two hours to pick, so after a 12-hour shift moving nets, I’d collapse into bed only to be awakened in a few hours to pick fish. Again.
I stumble out of my top bunk and start putting on clothes – well, I slept in most of my clothes, so really it’s just sweatshirts that I layer under my rain gear so that I don’t freeze. It gets cold at 2:30 in the morning. I start with my old blue-and-white Alaska sweatshirt, then a nondescript green one, and last my pink “I don’t do mornings” sweatshirt. It has a picture of a very grumpy cat on the front. How fitting. All of my sweatshirts have the arms cut off at the elbow to help them stay dry while I am working.
Hip boots are next, followed by rain pants and my raincoat. I always wear a baseball cap designated as my fish-picking hat to catch all the scales, mud, dirt, slime, blood… that would otherwise end up in my hair.
Finally, I put on my fish-picking gloves. These are cloth, and they never really dry out when we’re 24 hour fishing. It’s not fun to stick a clean, warm hand into a cold, wet, stinky fish-picking glove. When I got older, we discovered a luxury: wearing a pair of latex rubber gloves under the cloth ones.
Now I just need to finish waking up!
The Department of Fish and Game decide when we fish. Usually, fishing is only allowed on the scheduled days: Monday and Friday. They closely monitor the number of salmon entering the Kenai River, and compare that to their quotas. If the minimum escapement hasn’t been met, no one gets to fish regardless of the calendar. If the number of fish up the river gets too high, we get an extra fish day. When they really want to keep the salmon from going up river, they open us up for 24-hour fishing. Some years, the fish have been so plentiful that we’ve fished around the clock for two weeks straight. That’s when you snatch every five minutes of sleep you can get. This sometimes leads to rather awkward nap locations.