My Alaska Commercial Fishing Adventure -
by Michael R Dougherty
It was the hardest and most dangerous work I have ever done in my life.
When I was 16 years old our family moved to the small town of Cordova, Alaska on Prince William Sound. My dad was working on a road construction job and we would live in Cordova for about a year.
That summer my dad came home one evening and said "Mike, I got you a job on a commercial fishing boat, a purse seiner." I had no idea what a purse seiner was, but I was about to find out.
A few days later, I was down at the docks ready to go out to sea.
As I stepped from the dock onto the deck of the boat, the skipper greeted me by telling me to unfasten my hip waders (those fishing boots that go all the way to the top of your legs) from my belt. Then he asked if I had them fastened on the inside around the calves of my legs. I did, and the skipper said, "unfasten them right now and push your hip waders down to just below your knees."
The skipper went on to tell me that if I were to fall overboard with my hip waders fastened to my belt and around my legs, my hip waders would act like a boat anchor and pull me to the bottom of the sea.
I didn't need to hear any more. I quickly unsnapped my hip waders and pushed them down to just below my knees. Now if I fell overboard I would be able to kick off my boots and get back to the surface - I hoped.
Just before we cast off, the skipper told me to take the wheel. Then he shouted "hard a port." Well, I'd heard the words "port" and "starboard" before, but I had no idea what direction they were.
So rather sheepishly I asked "which way is "port."
The skipper snarled back, "always remember this, "I left port", so port is left and starboard is right." From the skipper's tone, I could tell that I had better remember it next time.
And by the way, I used the word "sheepishly" when I described how I addressed the skipper. You should know that no one on a commercial fishing boat should ever do anything "sheepishly." On an Alaskan commercial fishing boat, you'd better man up, even if you're only 16.
As we took off across the bay, I used a pair of binoculars to look out to sea in the direction our boat was heading. But my eyes got as wide as half dollars when I saw huge, rough ocean waves in our path.
I quickly put down the binoculars and asked the skipper "are we going out there?" Much to my relief the skipper said "no, we're putting into a small bay."
That night after dinner, I discovered that my bunk was a bottom bunk with just enough room that the way I crawled into bed was the way I was going to sleep. There was not enough room to even roll over.
Plus, the cabin floor consisted of nothing but a bunch of two by fours with standing water between them. That meant I had to sit on the very edge of my bunk, slide out of my boots, and then slide into my sleeping bag.
But as I would soon learn, I would be so bone tired at night that I didn't care where or how I slept, as long as I got in some shut eye before it was time to get back on deck.
The next morning, I woke up to the smell of coffee that was so strong you could have painted your house with it. There was no brushing your teeth, or taking a bath or shower. I had to sleep with my clothes on, slide out of my bunk and into my hip waders, grab whatever I could eat on the run and get to work.
Most purse seiners have a mast and a power winch to pull in the net, but I was on a much smaller boat and we had to do everything by hand.
First, the skipper and his first mate would look for salmon jumping in the water. That meant there was a school of salmon below the surface. Then the first mate would hop into his small boat and pull one end of the net around the school of salmon. He would literally circle the fish and end up back at the skipper's boat.
Then we started hauling in the net and our catch.
Early on my first morning at sea, I had seen a large case of cotton work gloves. I asked the skipper "why so many gloves?" His answer was "you'll find out."
When the net was circled around the salmon, the bottom of the net has what's known as the "lead line." As the net went from the skipper's boat into the water, I had to hold the lead line in my hands while it flew across my palms at a very high rate of speed.
If I held the lead line too tight, it would snag my gloves and pull me overboard. And while the lead line was going out across the palms of my hands, the friction began tearing my gloves apart. That's how I found out why we had a case of cotton work gloves on the boat.
My next job was "the plunger pole"
On board was a wooden pole about 9 feet long with a metal cup like a toilet bowl plunger on one end. I was to stand against a thin bit of ship railing and push air bubbles between the two ends of the net. The metal cup would send air bubbles into the water, keeping the salmon from swimming out of the net.
The skipper said he wanted me to plunge fast enough to "set the water on fire" by pushing the plunger pole into the water as far down as I could, then pulling it back up until the metal cup filled with air, then pushing it right back down again, and again and again.
There were two rules. Don't let go of the plunger pole 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 up 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.
the end of every day, I knew what being tired to the bone felt like.
I usually wolfed down some dinner, then I would just cram myself into my bunk.
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, pushed me backward and walked away.
A week later when I was back on shore and home for a few days, my dad told me that he had ran into my skipper, who 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 and longer 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.
While we were living in Cordova, an entire city block burned to the ground, including the apartment where our family lived above a bar.