The Things for Which We Fish

12 Feb

<By Josh Wrigley>

I can’t feel my hands when I wake up lying in the cold gloom of a land where the sun never actually sets. My fire has gone out and the stove’s rusty metal is cold to the touch. With numb fingers, I tear up old Penthouse magazines that a crew member long ago left moldering in the corner and jam them down into the stove. I’m out of driftwood and spruce branches so I tear off my shirt and throw that in as well. As the fire warms, I lurch back to my narrow bunk reeking of fish and sweat and lie there reminding myself that the shirt is keeping me warmer on fire than it ever did on my back.

As the Talking Heads say, sometimes one finds oneself living in a shotgun shack and wondering how he has wound up there. Why am I in the great north burning my clothing to keep warm? The answer, if there is one, must lie partially in generational discontent and individual self aggrandizement that at times seems to border on sheer craziness. People come to Alaska searching for something. It’s a state of wanderers: the restless who prefer the open road to the constricted circulation of populated areas, the disaffected and the adventurous. For many, the state serves as a transformative catalyst, a magic box into which one can step and emerge as something different. Boys come here to become men. The opportunistic come to get rich. The spiritually disenchanted come to find salvation. They all seek internal change by embracing an external dream that draws its essence from an uninterrupted state of nature.

The Kasilof River drains into the upper Cook Inlet several miles south of Kenai, on the western side of the Kenai Peninsula. With the clouds perpetually hanging like tufts of steel wool in the sky, any chromatic vibrancy in the atmosphere inevitably yields itself to a grainy color scheme the hues of which seem to be dragged from an old black and white motion picture. On a clear day, you can sit on the sea wall of the Lape Fish Company looking west and see Mt. Redoubt, smoking ash in the distance. To the north, the lights of the Nikiski oil refinery glitter in the night. The Kasilof is one of several rivers that feed their silty contents into the inlet. Years ago, there was a cannery at the mouth of the river and long before that, multiple wooden fish traps jutted out into the water. All that remains now are the nubs of once mighty pilings that meekly peer out from the mud flats at low tide.

The ocean itself seems tired having relinquished so much of its bounty to the enterprising individuals of yesteryear. For a Johnny-come-lately like myself, its murky waters offer only a glimmer of hope that something still resides within them. My shack is an 8×12 plywood construction on a foundation of discarded line spools. A small, grimy window looks out over the sea and a rusty stovepipe juts haphazardly from the ceiling. The beach dwellings along the Point couldn’t be more antithetical to the mansions of the East Coast. Here, the dilapidated structures and community atmosphere eschew pretension. Line scraps, planks, and corks, litter the upper dunes while the whitening carcasses of spiny dogfish and starry flounder drift in the wash. The dead and the dying are the only sunbathers here. Some will leave with the ebb and others will arrive with the flood tide as the water comes surging back up the inlet. The beach is not a place born to leisure but instead exists as a working waterfront minus the wharves and derricks. It is here that the upper Cook Inlet set netters ply their trade during the months of June, July and August.

Commercial fishing has become a source of nightly entertainment through shows such as “Deadliest Catch” and movies like “The Perfect Storm,” causing many viewers to come away with skewed perceptions of the industry. Fishing, as it is popularly conceived, exists in a romantic, high stakes world of large ships and daring machismo. People enjoy the drama of the Bering Sea and the Grand Banks because they stir something in the imagination. Heroic, self-sacrificing fishermen are easy to idealize as is the concept of an anachronistically physical occupation. The popularity of these tropes has reduced fishing to a common point of reference causing people to continually ask, “Was it like that show- the Deadliest Catch?” I always answer “no,” and the gleam immediately fades from their eyes.

Set netting continues to live in obscurity like some abyssal, prehistoric species, waiting for discovery not by scientists, but by television producers. To one unfamiliar with its nuances, it is deceptively simple- merely a gillnetting technique employing small craft and stationary nets. Wind and tide present the greatest challenges as each one shifts the rules of the game. The set netter wonders if the tide will be slack when setting or if it will be roaring through the inlet fast enough to make the static lines seem to skip across the surface? Will it be a spring tide necessitating extensions on the lines to prevent breakage? Layers of complexity pile on as equipment considerations, laws, and procedures come into the picture. In order to function properly, the entire operation relies on flawless preparation while continuously accommodating itself to both the environmental conditions as well as the dictates of the Fish and Game Department.

Commercial fishing is notorious for being a brutal business often attracting people from the fringes of society. Though mariners as a collective group certainly possess upstanding qualities, their ranks have tended to include the felonious and dysfunctional from time to time. Commercial fishing claims no lack of stories that include deckhands battling addiction, sadistic captains and surly mates. A dragger captain out of Portland, Maine once answered my inquiry for employment stating that his entire crew was composed of addicts, the fact of which diminished my enthusiasm considerably. Not surprisingly, the thought of jeopardizing myself on George’s Bank with such reliable fellows seemed ill advised. Would any man of sane mind be apt to place his trust in the care of that august body? I think not. The classic drunken sailor is not as apocryphal as he might seem. And yet the Humpy Point set netting community departs from the usual stereotypes. It exists as a humble beachfront community and working waterfront. The crews are all family run, with the same individuals often returning year after year.

Set netters set, pick and pull on the water but conduct the rest of their daily affairs on land, resisting complete submission to the oceanic environment. They instead remain partial landsmen while periodically shedding that persona for that of the mariner. It is very much a tidal community, continually adapting itself according to the vagaries of wind and water. Unlike his pelagic brethren, the crab or cod fisherman, he does not venture offshore. The seiners call him a bed wetter and a fish choker. They disrespect his amphibious nature.

The set netter employs small craft, not the larger vessels usually associated with commercial fishing. His commands a fiberglass skiff that pounds the waves and whose construction grants little clemency to one’s knees in rough weather. At the low spring tides, he traverses the mudflats and pounds stakes- long pieces of rebar- into the marl. These serve as anchors that will eventually hold a gill net the fibers of which will be cramped with tension at the height of the ebb. Each end of the net is designated and held aloft in the current by orange buoys. There are so many on the inlet that to the casual observer, it might seem that the water is afflicted with an acute episode of the pox. Sometimes one crew will accuse another of establishing an illegal location or tempers might flare over a corking incident in which one net cuts off another. Set netters on occasion descend to fathomless levels of rancor as territorial disputes emerge. In their darkest moments, they have been known to hurl live flounders at each other in anger. However, despite his territorial and occasionally defensive nature, his deportment is most truly characterized by a magnanimity induced by common struggle. During these times, he is selfless and unhesitant to lend a winch or vehicle or conduct other neighborly repairs that might involve welding or engine work.

The Kenai Fish and Game Department rules over its duchy with an iron telephone message. When not mending, set netters are constantly exercising their fingers by dialing the Fish and Game hotline to hear when they either need to set or pull their gear. Using sonar, the government monitors the numbers of salmon entering the Kasilof and Kenai rivers, always striving to admit only the optimum number that they’ve mathematically contrived. Without Uncle Sam’s guiding hand, the salmon might run amok and that would not benefit them or anyone else. Day after day, and sometimes hour after hour, they record a different message stating the acceptable fishing hours. It changes as the conditions change and the numbers fluctuate. Some have joked that calling the number is like hearing the voice of god on the telephone. Others have looked at it less humorously and have playfully burned Fish and Game effigies out of frustration over a bad season. Their reception is always a mix of reverence and loathing. If too many salmon enter the river, wisdom dictates that the next year’s class won’t have enough resources to survive. Unfortunately, they don’t have mechanisms that will generate salmon if too few enter the river, but they’re working on it.

Several hours later, before the tide changes, we pick the nets- the bowman pulling the lead line and the tillerman pulling the corks. A few reds come over the side and hang like convicts from the mesh. Dying in a gill net occurs through strangulation and internal bleeding. Each fish presents a puzzle to the picker as he or she assesses the situation. Is the fish in the bag or out of the bag? Has it gone through another hole? Is it tangled around the sex teeth or the gills? Or has it slid all the way through to the dorsal fin? One flip out of the net brings us one step closer to solution. Fingers go under the mesh and free it over the gill plate. Out comes a salmon. If it’s been in for the duration of the tide, it might have the bloated aspect of a fat man with his belt cinched too tightly. The birds peck out the eye that is facing upward and the last thing the salmon sees are the harpies descending with beaks and talons. A fresh hit brings a vivacious fish into the boat and its silvery luster draws accolades. One man on the crew even dreams at night of the set. He leaps out of bed clad only in his underwear and violently tears the sheets from his bunk cackling, “I’ve got a king!” Those who sleep near him say it’s quite a spectacle though I have not had the privilege of witnessing it personally.

We’re well acquainted with Platicthys stellatus, the starry flounder. They arrive in prodigious numbers on the larger tides. Sometimes their numbers are so great that they clog the mesh resulting in damaged equipment and flagged nets. Most of the flounder roll in the bag until it becomes so heavy that we need to lean over the gunwale and rake mesh into the skiff with the hundred pounds of flounder we’ve accumulated. There is no glory in catching a starry flounder for they are the homeliest creatures of the sea, with little to recommend them physically or personality wise. The flounder lives an ignoble, abused existence- it looks like a tatterdemalion leather briefcase. Among fish, it is a malingerer, among fishers, a curse. There is no worse sound than that of ten starry flounder beating a furious cadence on the deck boards.

The salmon are predominantly sockeyes that have spent the last several years maturing at sea. Upon feeling their reproductive impulse, they have returned to the Kasilof shore to ascend the river of their origin. In many ways, the set netters who pursue the salmon live lives of a similarly cyclic nature. The summer salmon season draws them to the beach and as August brings long slanting rays of sun, they recede to winter locations perhaps to lead land bound existences until the fecundity of the inlet draws them forth again.

The skiff chugs along, blue smoke curling above the engine as it runs in asthmatic fits. We’re encumbered with nets and we sit on them, feeling the limpness in our arms and gazing at the approaching shore. The tillerman stands in the gurry, his feet growing cold from the ice and we see the truck rumble down from the hill and idle by the water.

I had come to Alaska searching for a place where the water was blue and the blood was red. In my mind I had already constructed it, down to the salmon’s scales and the weave of the mesh. In the end, the water turned out to be grey and the blood that washed across the deck was a brooding maroon. If the blood swirling about my ankles were the true crimson of my mind’s eye, it would have been an abrupt end to an endless quest. In my mind, I’ll transform it shade by shade after the fact, when I’m re-established in the regular patterns of my life and then it will become that idealized shade. What hues reality failed to provide, I provide myself in order to create a grand saga out of it. Is there even room in the 21st century world for red blood and blue water or have they been rendered obsolete? Did they ever exist at all? Maybe I’m just searching through a gloomy present for a past that has only revealed itself to me by déjà vu, or the collective memory of previous generations.

People have become so accustomed to technological convenience and the highly polished enamels of this modern world that when they see blood, they recoil because it confronts them with the truth of their own mortality. Unlike the salmon, swimming on to eternity, we lack the luxury of instinctual programming. Perhaps if the salmon were in our position they would take a break and get a time share in Hawaii for a while- enough of this whole spawning business. It’s a drag. But the salmon in their unconscious condition remind us that despite our materialistic values and erudition, our physiologies are the same and that we divorce ourselves from the natural world at our own peril. To forget the sea as our place of origin and to view the world in anthropocentric terms can only estrange us from the true business of living. To continue in that direction will only reinforce our satisfaction with the hollow entertainments that we presently substitute for reality: one composed of blood, water, sweat, and sand. I will carry all those things with me as I begin a trek tomorrow afternoon with my colleague, Johnny Five Sandwiches, a prodigious lad with an immense appetite (he’ll eat five sandwiches if given the opportunity regardless of contents) from the mouth of the Kasilof to the town of Kenai some thirteen miles to the north. We’ll walk along the shore and hopefully arrive just before sundown.

Joshua Wrigley is a free lance writer and graduate of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.He is currently pursuing a degree in maritime environmental history at the University of Kansas.

Photo by Luke Eberhart-Phillips

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