This morning we got up at 4 to head to the Wind Walker. We only had to travel four hours to get to the fishing grounds, but fishermen don’t just pull up to the site minutes before the fishing begins. They like to arrive the day before to scout the area. If they don’t see a satisfactory number of jumping fish—or “jumps”—they move on to check out another soon-to-be-opened district.
It’s still the beginning of the salmon season, which typically runs from late June to the first of September, so, because the salmon aren’t yet plentiful, fishermen fish just two days a week, usually Sundays and Thursdays. The state Department of Fish and Game, which administers waterways three miles from the beach, where salmon are caught, announces precisely where and for how many hours fishermen can do their work. These fishing days are called “openings.” Next week, when the salmon runs grow bigger, the department will start to allow two-day openings—two days of fishing followed by two days off. When the season peaks in August, the schedule kicks up to grueling four-day openings, with one day off to catch their breath before the next four-day opening starts.
Mitch, my fiance, fishes with a purse seine, a huge net that stretches 1,500 feet long and is 75 feet deep. A skiff, or small boat, pulls the net off the main boat and holds it open for the fish to swim into. (The mechanics of this type of fishing are quite complicated. To read a more detailed description, click here.) Seiners usually fish with a three- or four-person crew, plus the captain. One person drives the skiff—always called “the skiff man,” be it man or woman—and two or three deck hands coil the net in neat piles as it’s pulled back on board.
Mitch’s crew is made up of two 21-year-old guys named Nick: one from Southern California, a fishing neophyte, and another, a Petersburg kid, already with nine years of fishing experience. Petersburg Nick drives the skiff; California Nick works on deck with the third crew member, John, a wiry 31-year-old who also hails from Petersburg and has worked on boats for 20 years.
Days like today, the day before an opening, have become my favorite part of these trips with Mitch. The actual opening may promise more excitement, but when it comes to spending time with Mitch, I might as well be back in Seattle for all the interaction we have while he’s fishing. Catching salmon consumes him from the moment the opening’s starting bell sounds: He spies the water for jumps, figures out where to set his nets, talks to and sometimes yells a bit harshly at the crew, among many other things. There’s not much time left to chat with a visitor.
But puttering out to the fishing grounds on the Wind Walker feels like a vacation to me. The boat’s top house, which sits above the galley, has a cabinlike feel, with two comfy chairs: Mitch steers from one; the other, for the time I’m on board, is mine. Behind the captain’s chair is the captain’s bunk, the only place on board to nap near an open window. My bunk off the galley resembles a closet. The crew sleeps in the fo’c’sle (short for forecastle), four bunks tucked in the bow.
At the previous opening, which took place the day I arrived in Juneau, Mitch had had a successful day in Hawk Inlet shoreline, so we returned there to take a look. Of course, Mitch actually scouted; I took notes on his behavior. He slowly eased the Wind Walker along the beach, ever on the lookout for jumps, and kept in close contact with other captains in his fishing group. A fishing group is made up of about eight guys, each on his own boat, who have familial or friendly ties. They feed each other good-natured reports over the radio on how spirited the jump action is where they are.
Around 6 p.m., only 11 hours before the opening was scheduled to begin, Mitch changed plans and started the 10-hour journey toward the Hidden Falls Hatchery, after his dad, Dick, who is also a fisherman, told him the area was rich in jumps. Being at the hatchery meant we’d have a shorter trip back to Petersburg tomorrow night, giving the crew a few more hours the following day to ready the Wind Walker for crabbing.
I love traveling at night. The boat cruises along on automatic pilot, the person at the controls can meditate on the expanse before him and keep track of such particulars as the course of the boat with a glimpse at the computer screen. At least that’s how it looks from the comfortable vantage of the captain’s bunk—until my exhausted fiance pleads with me to relinquish his bed.