A visit to the Fishsite

Way back in May when I was in Alaska, Devin, Mom and I took a trip to Kenai to visit the fishsite.  We took a lovely walk on the beach, found a few agates, reminisced old times, planned for next summer (did I mention that Devin and I are partnering up to commercial fish half of the fishsite every summer starting 2010?)  Yup, Alaska here we come, every summer!  Anyway, back to the topic, so we had a great day, and I just wanted to post this one last Alaska picture.  This is Devin climbing back up the sea wall.

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I can’t wait to go back next summer!

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24 Hour Fishing

Knock knock.

“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.

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Fishing on Friday: How to Fish part III

Picking Fish on the Beach

Picking on the beach is a necessary evil.   It’s only to be endured when the sea is too rough to launch a skiff, or when the fish period is over and the nets need to come out of the water anyway.  Even then (at the end of a fish day) if it’s possible, we’ll pick an hour before closing so the net is nearly empty when we pull it in.

Because the net is usually longer than the amount of beach available, the tractor has to make several “pulls” before the entire length of net is on the beach.

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Once the net, still full of floppy, slimy fish, is on the beach, everyone picks the fish (almost always hunched over in an awkward position.)

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In the boat it’s often possible to use the weight of the fish to help shake it out of the net.  On the beach, however this is much harder to do.  Also,  I think everyone who has ever picked fish on the beach has gotten an eyeful or mouthful of sand thanks to a flopping fish, or the net sliding off a fish and spraying sand everywhere.  That’s just part of picking on the beach.

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The picked fish are tossed into piles.  (Watch out for flying fish!) When about half the net is picked, a couple workers fill a wheeled tub with sea water and start washing off the fish.  (On a side note, here’s a little trick for carrying fish from the piles to the wash trailer:  You slip a finger through the gills and carry the fish tail down.  Adam and Robert were so good they could carry a fish on each finger of each hand for a grand total of eight salmon in one trip.  The most I could carry was six – maybe seven.)

One or two people wash the sand off the fish and toss them into a tote.  This is a particularly delightful job.  The water gets really gross (bloody, slimy), and sometimes other workers delivering fish accidentally splash that gross water into the washer’s face when they dump them into the trailer. Yuck!

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When the net is picked clean, the tractor comes along and the two people in back pick up the net and pile it in the tractor box.

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It is then taken to the net rack and unloaded until the next fish period.

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Next week:  24 hour fishing

Fishing on Friday: How to Fish part II

Picking in the boat

“Picking fish,” is getting the fish out of the net and into the totes for transportation to the Cannery or Processor that buy our fish.  Most of the time we leave the nets in the water and pick fish in a skiff.  The process is quite simple:

Motor out to one end of the net and lift it over the bow

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slide the net back onto the rollers, pull a section of net into the boat

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and let the picking begin….

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Some fish are easy to pick.  They are just caught in the “bag” of the net and fall out as soon as the net is turned into the boat.

Others are caught by the gills and it is a simple task of placing your fingers just right, giving the fish a little jerk, and it slips right out.

Other fish though, like to make things difficult.  They twirl like a ballerina,ballerina-fish or wedge themselves through the net all the way to their bellies.

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After a fish is picked, it is thrown into a large plastic container or “tote” in the back of the boat.

If the tote is full,  fish are kept on the bottom of the boat.

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When the stretch of net across the boat is picked, the process repeats.  Turn on the roller, pull in a bunch of fish, and pick.

The boat moves along the net until all the fish are picked.

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When we’re finished picking, we drop the net off the bow,

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motor back to the beach.

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toss any extra fish in an additional tote,

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lift the tote out of the boat with the tractor,

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load the totes on the back of a truck,  and they are off to the processor.

Next week: Picking on the beach

Fishing on Friday: How to Fish

Part 1

Setting the Nets

6:55 AM: The nets lays neatly coiled on a tarp between the spreader bars, and we wait…
6:58: We partially untie the rope holding the spreader bars together.
6:59:  Looking down the beach to Dad on the tractor, I wait for his wave.
7:00: Dad waves; the tractor moves.  Instantly, the rope jumps from our hands, and the net zips out into the water.   Our fish day has begun.

My family runs a “set-net” site just north of where the Kenai River empties into Cook Inlet.  Salmon returning to spawn after years in the open ocean swim near the shore, searching for the mouth of the river they were born in.  Our nets stretch across their path, catching tens of thousands of the glistening silver fish.

The nets are 210 feet long and made of strong line that is virtually invisible in the murky water.  A heavy rope on the top of the net (the “cork line”) is strung with plastic floats to keep that edge near the surface.  The “lead line” on the other side is weighted to keep the 20-foot net vertical against the moving tides.  The lead line and cork line are tied to heavy iron “spreader bars” at each end.  The top end of each spreader bar is marked with a large orange buoy.

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The salmon prefer shallow water, so the nets need to stay close to shore. That’s not easy in Cook Inlet, where the difference between high and low tide is as much as 20 vertical feet.  Sometimes the waves crash right against the base of the bluff; 12 hours later, the water has receded nearly a quarter mile.
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To solve this problem, my grandpa devised an elaborate pulley system, illustrated below.

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The pulley on shore is secured to a wooden piling, tied to a large concrete block beneath the sand for reinforcement.  The underwater pulleys are secured to car-sized concrete blocks on the ocean floor weighing several thousand pounds each.  Marker buoys on short ropes show their location only at the lowest low tide. Prior to the first day of fishing, the running line is threaded through pulleys as illustrated and the marker buoys on the offshore blocks are removed for the season.

Legally the nets cannot be in the water before the fish day’s 7 AM start, so, early in the morning on the first day of fishing, the net is carefully coiled and tied onto the spreader bars.  Dad hooks the tractor onto “Anchor B”, and waits.   At exactly seven, Dad waves his arm and drives the tractor down the beach, which lifts the anchor out of the sand, and drags the net into the water.

The net needs to be moved in or out with the tide every half hour or so throughout the day. This is accomplished with the tractor at one end; a crew member at the other end easing that anchor out of the sand just enough for the tractor to drag it, and the net moves in or out depending on which end the tractor is pulling from.  When the tide is coming in, the tractor pulls on “Anchor A” to keep the net from getting too far out.  When the tide is going out, the tractor pulls on “Anchor B”, keeping the net in the water.  Fish are removed, or “picked,” from the net every time the tide changes–about every six hours.

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At precisely 7 p.m. the fishing day closes and all nets must be out of the water.  The tractor drags the net onto the beach,

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we tie the spreader bars together,

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pick the fish, pick up the net and “flake” it onto the net rack where it sits until the next fish day when the whole process is repeated.

Next week: Picking Fish

Fishing on Friday: Visiting the Fishsite as a Kid

(mid 70’s to early 80’s)

Four-and-a-half hours crammed in a little Volkswagen Rabbit is a long time for a nine year old. But at the time, it was the only way to get to the fishsite. My mom, three younger siblings and I never spent the night there, either, so it was another four-and-a-half hour drive home later that evening.

Was it worth it?  You better believe it!  The fishsite was my second most favorite place on earth.

Fun snacks, silly songs, and frequent stops made the trip bearable and even fun.  The poor kid smashed in the middle of the back seat even got some breathing room, since we took turns sitting in front. (This was long before the days of air bags and kids being required to sit in car seats ‘till they’re ten.)

The road stopped at the edge of the bluff. I could taste the tangy, salty sea air as soon as I stepped from the car confirming “We made it! We’re almost at the fishsite!”  Before I could really consider myself at the fishsite though, I had to get down the seawall; the steep, sandy cliff that separated the road at the top of the bluff from the collection of boats, nets, and other fishing gear on the beach.

Walking toward the edge of bluff I’d try and guess how high or low the tide was. Sometimes it would be all the way out, and calm as glass.  Other times the waves would be breaking right at the base of the seawall and we’d have to wait for the water to retreat enough for us to get down.

High above the ocean, I’d scout out my route.  We always climbed down a gully of sorts, but it never looked quite the same from year to year. The trick was to find a route through the cliffy section of hard packed sand at the top and then run down the loose sand to the bottom.  I always thought if I’d run fast enough, and take really big steps, maybe I’d get to the beach without my shoes full of sand.  Never happened.
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After greeting my grandparents, and whatever cousins were working at the fishsite that summer, I was faced with the BIG question.  What should I do first? I had a gazillion fun choices and only a day to play.

Sometimes I toyed with the the near-freezing water, chasing a wave down the beach and then running back just out of reach of the next one coming in.  If the weather was REALLY warm (barely 70) and if I was feeling particularly daring, I’d wade in.
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The beach made a great sandbox.  I’d spend hours making roads for toy cars, attempting the perfect sand castle, and digging little troughs and watching them fill with water. I also had a lot of fun covering myself with warm, soft, loose, sand, letting it trickle slowly through my hands.

Watching the “big” people fish was interesting too.  They picked those slippery, flopping fish out of the nets and threw them into piles so fast!  I quickly learned to keep my eyes open. I had to dodge flying fish, moving ropes, busy tractors, 3-wheelers, and guys dragging anchor…  If I got in the way, I got yelled at to “MOVE!” Sometimes I tried to pick fish, but I’d just end up with stinky, slimy hands and sand in my eyes.
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The salmon were pretty though, especially after they had been rinsed off.  Some of them were blue and silver, some green and silver, and the ones almost ready to spawn were red.  I made a game of choosing my favorite fish in each tote.
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I also liked to climb up the stairs to the old cabin on stilts (used before the ramp and trailers).  That scared me a little, because it was so high and exposed.  They only had a railing on one side, and the deck didn’t have one at all!  But I loved being able to look over the beach and the water, listening to the waves crash in the distance.
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Another irresistible challenge was to climb to the top of the bluff and then jump and slide back down.  We had contests of all sorts. Who could climb the highest?  Jump off the biggest cliff?  We all did this, even when we weren’t so little anymore. The fishsite dogs liked to climb the bluff too – chasing after tennis balls.
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Time flew during those fun-filled days at the fishsite.  Tractor rides, 3-wheeler rides, walks along the beach looking for pretty rocks… Before I knew it, Mom was saying it was time to head home.  Already?

It all worked out though, because beginning the year I turned 13, my family lived and worked at the fishsite every summer.  That’s when I really learned how to fish.

Next week’s topic:  How to Fish