Commercial Fishing in Alaska Part 2
by Michael R Dougherty
Alaska Purse Seine Fishing Boat
At the ripe old age of 16, my father got me a job on a commercial fishing boat out of Cordova, Alaska on Prince William Sound.
The boat was a Purse Seiner, which is one of the hardest and most dangerous commercial fishing jobs.
It was certainly the hardest and most dangerous work I have ever done in my entire life. And after being out at sea for only a short time, I learned two things.
First, my skipper was crazy, and under pressure he was ready to fight - even me.
Second, I knew my first job on a commercial fishing boat in Alaska or anywhere else, would be my last.
In Part 1 of my story, you learned that I had a couple of jobs on the boat that were assigned to me.
I was to let out the lead line when the net was going out into the water, and I was to man the "plunger pole" by plunging the 9 foot wooden pole with the metal plunger cup into the water which pushed air bubbles between the two ends of the net to keep the salmon from swimming out of the net.
Both of these jobs were dangerous -
While letting out the lead line, the friction was so great that the line would zip right through my cotton work gloves. And, if my glove got snagged in the line, I would be pulled overboard and under water. To man the "plunger pole" I had to stand next to a small bit of side railing and try not to fall overboard.
At the end of the day, we would put into a bay where a "tender scow" boat was waiting for us to unload our day's catch into their holding tanks.
We would come up alongside the tender scow, tie off our boat, and then "toss" our salmon into their holding tanks.
This was done by using a 6 foot long wooden pole with a small metal crook on one end. You would push the crook through the salmon's gills, lift the salmon up and then toss the salmon up and over into the waiting holding tanks.
As you did, the man on the tender scow clicked a metal counter. If you tossed one salmon, it was one click. If you tossed two at a time it was two clicks.
The first time the skipper sent me down to flip up the salmon into the tender scow, I was not very good at hooking fish on the pole. But in time, I not only improved, but I became the best ever by nearly always pitching three salmon at a time. And I was very fast.
And because I was so fast, the man on the tender scow would sometimes get confused and give us additional clicks. The skipper loved it, so he kept me flipping up fish until I was exhausted. He'd let me rest a few, then he'd send me back.
One day as we cruised in our boat, looking for schools of salmon, the skipper saw a large school and told us to set out the net. But we ended up getting our net snagged on a reef.
Even though it was the skipper's fault, he flew into a rage and since I was standing in front of him, he reached out and grabbed my shirt, pulled me closer to him and then started to punch me in my face.
I quickly pulled back my fist to defend myself. There I was, out to sea with no where to go and about to get beaten up by my crazy skipper.
We stood there with our fists ready to start pounding each other, when suddenly the skipper let go of me and walked away.
A week later when I was back home for a few days, my dad told me that he ran into my skipper, who had told him that we nearly went to blows while on the fishing boat. As it tuned out, my skipper told my dad that because I was in great shape, he wasn't sure he would win the fight. For the record, my dad was happy that I had defended myself.
Some days later, we were back out at sea and pulling in our net after a catch. It was raining and cold and miserable and suddenly my face felt like it was on fire.
When you're commercial fishing you get all kinds of things caught in the net and I had gotten my gloves on a jelly fish and when I had wiped rain off my face, I had smeared jelly fish on my kisser. Talk about pain.
The skipper's reaction was to say "keep on working."
Later that evening, the skipper told me to go below and start peeling spuds for dinner.
I got below and started peeling. The next thing I knew, the skipper was standing in front of me waving his hand and chuckling.
Seems that I was so exhausted, I had fallen asleep with my eyes open and with my knife half way through a potato peal. Now that's bone tired.
When the commercial fishing season was over, I was glad, but I also knew that I had learned a lot and I had grown up some. I was only 16 but I had spent the season working my tail off on a dangerous Alaska fishing boat and survived.
A lot of people tell me they would like to commercial fish in Alaska for a season. To that I say, do it, but make sure you're ready to work harder than you've ever worked in your life.
And make sure you remember this -
"I left port." Port is left, and starboard is right.
Oh, and try not to fall overboard.
Check out Part 1 of this story, Commercial Fishing in Alaska Part 1
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