Posted by: M. J. Arcangelini | October 25, 2009

MY CAREER AS A COMMERCIAL FISHERMAN

HUMBOLDT COUNTY, CA – 1983

“Why is almost every robust healthy boy with a robust healthy soul in him, at some time or other crazy to go to sea?” – Herman Melville, MOBY-DICK

Joe manning the wheel.

Joe manning the wheel.

I’m not sure how Dan met Bob C.. Friend of a friend, no doubt, a product of that network of connections one builds over time in a community of small towns. But meet him he did and in late winter 1983 he proposed to me the idea of leasing the Bushwhacker, Bob’s 19′ dory (a small fishing boat ranging in size from rowboat to about 20′), and becoming commercial salmon fishermen. He had been out on small commercial boats before (although never this small), mostly with our neighbor, Clark. He really enjoyed it and told me I would love it too. The idea intrigued me. I love the ocean, being near the ocean, being on the water but, I’ve never learned to swim; so the idea frightened me as well.

Besides we needed money and it looked like commercial fishing could provide it. The fact that I’d never done anything even remotely like this before and that I was not even much of a sport fisherman did not seem to be major obstacles to anyone. So I agreed.

The boat, I was told, needed some work before we could start fishing. But, I was assured, we could get all of that done before opening day of the commercial salmon season.

There was one more person involved in all of this, Donna, Dan’s wife and my oldest friend. I was never really sure how she felt about us taking this on, but I had the feeling she wasn’t too crazy about it. It meant Dan being away for most of every day we would spend on the boat and then coming home totally exhausted. And, I might add, not getting paid. In fact it would cost us for gas, supplies and licenses (for which I had to borrow $300.00 from my mother).  I was getting unemployment but it was not much. While we were gone all the time, Donna held down the fort with a regular steady job at a nursery in Fortuna.

Preparation:

Work on the boat began in late March or early April, starting with taking it apart. First pulling out all the gear and garbage, taking off everything that was not attached. All that stuff would need to be sorted through to determine what would go back onto the boat when we were done and what would be tossed. Then it was time to work on the things that were attached. We removed the davits and all the lines. Took down the mast and removed the fathometer, the CB radio, the PA speaker, anchor lights, etc.

Then we tore out the floor in order to remove the gas tank. That was supposed to be the biggest problem that we were going to have. The gas tank leaked and we were supposed to put in a new one. But there were no new ones to be had that would fit into the place the old one sat, so one had to be ordered. At this point we were not really worried as we still had almost 2 months before the season opened on May 15th.

Dan in the Bushwhacker at Bob's shop in Eureka.

Dan in the Bushwhacker at Bob's shop in Eureka.

Once everything had been taken apart that was going to be taken apart it was time to start on the outside of the boat. Specifically the bottom, which was encrusted with barnacles as well as plain old ordinary scum. First the barnacles had to be scraped off so the bottom would be relatively smooth. Then we had to go back with steel wool and brushes and soap and scrapers and get it as clean and smooth as humanly possible. Then we had to take Muriatic Acid and swab the entire bottom, let it sit and rinse it off. Then go back over it and make sure we didn’t miss any spots.

Only then could we started painting. Everything on the boat that was wood got painted, mostly gray but some white. Then the mast was painted white. The working fish box got gray and the storage fish box a clear shellac. Various minor repairs were done at this time as well: new filters and spark plugs, etc. some new wiring for the lights and CB radio.

It was now about a week and a half before the season opened. We’d been putting in between 2 and 5 hours a day, 2 to 4 days a weeks, with the other days being spent on the project in the mountains. But then boat work became 5 or 6 days a week.

Up to this point Bob, while not being much of a help, was not being too hard to get along with either. But it was somewhere in here that he began to be a real pain in the ass. Giving contradictory instructions, or incomplete instructions, expecting us to know things that there was simply no way we could have known, and making unprovoked caustic and sarcastic remarks. All of this did not begin suddenly but came gradually and accumulated, showing no sign of abating. Until one day we realized that we shouldn’t have gotten involved with him in the first place. But it was too late to back out, we’d already put too much work into it to walk away. We figured that in a week or so we’d start fishing and wouldn’t have to put up with it any more, just call him every other day or so with our report and that would be it.

We began to work on the gear: tying leaders and hoochies, which are small brightly colored, frequently fluorescent, almost psychedelic, pieces of rubbery plastic shaped to resemble a squid as drawn by Joan Miro and which, for some unknown reason, looks positively deliciously irresistible, one hopes, to salmon, hake, snapper and a variety of varieties, but especially salmon. The current favorite at the time was the T-15, a 3″ fluorescent green squidish thing with painted eyes.

That year, for the first time, Fish & Game was requiring barbless hooks to be used, so we were supposed to cut the barbs off all the hooks. Actually what we did was to smash the barbs down flat with pliers. We scrubbed the flashers til they shined in the sun. The new gas tank had not yet arrived and with no indication that it would do so we had to improvise. Bob bought two 20 gallon gas tanks so we could mount them on the sides of the boat, inside.

Now we had to cover and fiberglass over the hole in the middle of the floor where the old tank had been. Then we had to re-fit the davits and fiberglass the bases of them to the floor and the inside walls of the hull. There were also a number of small spots, cracks or nicks on the outside that needed to be fiberglassed as well.

All the turnbuckles needed to be taken apart, cleaned up and coated with a lubricant to retard the chance of their seizing up, in fact any bolt we removed had to be thoroughly cleaned and multi-coated with a commercial lubricant called “Never-Seez.”

Once all of that was done it was time to load everything back on; organize the gear; get the fish boxes set up; and, make sure all the lines were in good shape and all the parts were where they were supposed to be. We got the poles down from the rafters of the shop, laid them out, learned how to hook them up, and set it up, ready to go.

Dan in the boat at Bob's shop in Eureka.

Dan in the boat at Bob's shop in Eureka.

It was now May 15th, opening day of the salmon season, the boat would be ready in one more day. But one week earlier we’d had a bit of a blow-out with Bob. On Saturday he’d given us a list or 2-3 hours work to do on Sunday, he said he was going flying (he had his own plane) and wouldn’t be there to help. We saw no need to get up and go in at 7 or 8 AM as we’d been doing since the work was not much, so we figured to go take care of it in the afternoon. At 11 AM Bob called and started yelling at Dan – where are we? He’d been there since 8 AM etc. etc. When Dan tried to explain, Bob hung up on him.

By this time it was getting so hard to work with, or should I say for him that when this occurred Dan and I were just about ready to say to hell with it. So Dan went in to have it out with Bob. When I joined him there later that afternoon everything seemed fine. They’d had a talk, but not much of one, and that was that. So once again we reminded ourselves that soon we’d be fishing and be rid of him and on we went.

Dan & Bob at the dock in Fields Landing.

Dan & Bob at the dock in Fields Landing.

Late in the evening on May 17th we put the boat in the water at Fields Landing, sailed it over and docked it at King Salmon. The next day there were a few last minute things to take care of then it was a matter of waiting for Bob to get the time to go out with us and show us how it worked.

Instead when Dan went to the boat the next day there was a good 6 inches of water in it. Bob determined that there was a leak in the outdrive, between the engine and the outboard.

We had to pull the boat out of the water and back to the shop. Now came the really fun part. We had to pull the engine out and remove the outboard. The place where the leak was required two new parts that would take several weeks to get and would cost Bob close to $1,000.00. So instead of getting new ones, Bob took them in and had a machine shop re-work the old ones so they could be made functional. This took a good two weeks. In the meantime we cleaned and did minor repairs to the engine and took a week to go up to Jack’s.

By now we had bought our licenses ($175.00 each) and life jackets ($100.00 each) as well as various other little things here and there. So, no matter how disgusted we may have been we still felt that we had too much invested in it to walk away.

My commercial fishing license.

My commercial fishing license.

The life jackets we bought were actually “float coats.” They were full sized coats but with waterproof exterior and thick padding that would keep us afloat were we to find ourselves bobbing around in the ocean. The float coats were a great idea but by the time we went to get them the only color they had left was a green camouflage. That really didn’t seem to us to make a whole lot of sense if the idea was to be able to be found easily when you fell in the water – which tended to be green. What we had wanted was something bright like jailhouse orange or taxi cab yellow. But green camo was all they had left.

Then Dan got an idea. He bought a wide roll of highly reflective tape that we cut up and applied to our coats in the kinds of places we thought should be above water and visible if we were out there floating around hoping to be rescued before hypothermia got us. (I later used my float coat as a motorcycle jacket. It provided a great cushion the time I took the KZ650 flying!)

The longer it took us to actually get started fishing, the worse my nerves got. I truly enjoy the sea but because I cannot swim, the thought of going out in that small boat for 10 to 14 hours a day, every day, in all but the worst weather was beginning to terrify me. I armed myself with all the logical reasons why it should not bother me and why instead of fearing it I should be anticipating the enjoyment of it. Most of the time it worked.

Finally after numerous additional minor hassles, delays and setbacks we once more got the Bushwhacker in the water on May 31st. We were set for a trial run the next day. Instead, when Dan went to the boat to work on the gear he found that there was a good thick coat of oil all through the bilge beneath the engine.

We had a leak, it was later determined, in the oil pan. This meant we had to pull the engine out again. So back to the shop went the boat. When we got the engine out and the oil pan off. I cleaned it up and found that the damned thing had more holes in it than a colander. You could have strained spaghetti with it. So Dan and I spent practically the whole day running all over the north county looking for a replacement. There were none. Special order again and another couple of weeks to wait. Then Bob decided he would rig it around with a different one by getting a different oil pump. So that was done. Only problem being that the new pan didn’t have a place for the oil dip stick, leaving us with no way to check the oil except the pressure and temperature gauges. So, after more minor repairs and painting some engine parts we put it back together, got it loaded up, fitted out and ready to go, AGAIN.

I must interject here that each time we had to take a piece off the engine I was appalled anew at the incredible amount of rust and corrosion that covered everything. Each piece we took off seemed worse than the one before. I was getting serious reservations about the ability of this engine to work for more than three hours straight and had no wish to be stuck out in the middle of the ocean with a dead engine waiting for the Coast Guard to find us and tow us in. But Dan and Bob both said that what these things looked like on the outside was little indication of what they looked like on the inside and that no matter how terrible they looked it most likely did not impair their ability to function effectively. I tried to convince myself of that, and they probably were right – in most cases anyway.

Notebook: June 4 Sat
Finally got the boat “Bushwacker” in the water – had to pull the engine twice – Seems to be a problem w/choke or throttle cable and running lights don’t work – but these things can be fixed –

Too windy to go out –
Warm-up run around the bay – engine dies once but starts right back up –

Notebook: June 5/83 Sun.
Too windy

So, on June 5, late in the afternoon, we put it into the water for the third time. Dan and I went out and spent two and a half hours cruising around the Bay. Basically just a joy ride. It was fun, I was a bit frightened but if anything that heightened my enjoyment.

We now felt that we and the boat were ready.

Dan with the boat at the dock in Fields Landing.

Dan with the boat at the dock in Fields Landing.

Fishing:

Notebook: June 6
Breakers all the way cross the bar –
Set up gear –
Bob demonstrated how the lines work –
Problem w/oil pressure – either the guage or the pump –
run around the bay –
6-4 left hydrolics on – battery dead

(The bar: a narrow passage from sea to bay, or river or harbor; a sand bar which accumulates across this passage, under water.)

June 6, 1983: Bad weather, winds and a large lump at the bar from a recent storm. So instead of going out, Bob took us out on the Bay. He showed us how to set and run the gear, how to set the poles, etc.. We were out about two hours and then came back in. Report was that it would be a go day tomorrow. Spent $16.08 on gas.

Notebook: June 7
Training trip w/Bob
6′ Ground swell – little wind – fog

14 King’s – Avg wgt. 6 lbs
(1-20lbs)

Joey very sick

June 7: Bar still bad, but passable. Lump (ground swells at the bar) still pretty high. Six to eight foot swells. We went out. Bob with us to teach us how it all worked.

I had been on the ocean twice before. In 1976, in Oregon, fishing Pelican Bay with Clayton in a small motor boat, I did not get sick. And December 1982, in Humboldt, when I rode out with Clark, Dan and crew to photograph them crab fishing, and I did get sick, though not bad. I was able to hold onto my breakfast as long as I stayed out of the cabin and in the fresh air. There had been a storm coming in that made everything messier than usual and I chalked it up to that. So this day I did not take any pills for sea sickness because I wanted to find out first if I would get it or not.

I did. Violently and viciously. Vomiting until the little in my stomach was gone and then increasingly painful dry heaves. Dan kept telling me to drink more and more water so I would have something to throw up. And drink it I did. I spent most of the day like that. Finally, in the late afternoon, the worst had passed and I was able to help steer the boat and learn some of the work until we went in.

14 fish were caught that day. We discovered that the oil pressure gauge did not work, but not right away (it wasn’t until the next day that we were sure we wouldn’t have to pull the engine again). We also found that the microphone on the CB didn’t work. Which meant that we could receive but not send. If there a problem or trouble we would not be able to radio for help. All we would have were flares and a horn. These were added to the list of things which did not work or were not there: the speedometer, the running lights, the dip stick, the engine temperature gauge, and the horn (we had a canned horn).

Bob said he would get us a new microphone and bring it back to the boat that night. I said I was not going back out there without some pills. He said he’d bring some his wife had on prescription.

Bob also informed us that the knots Dan and I had been tying in the gear were insufficient. $50.00 worth of gear (Bob’s estimate), as well as a number of fish, were lost because the knots came loose. Bob said that all the gear we did had to be done over, tested and probably re-done before we did anymore fishing.

Bob seemed to have gotten quite a laugh out of my being sick. He said little to me about it but made numerous comments to Dan. This might have surprised me with anyone else but at this point it simply seemed to be in character for him. We were hoping this would be the last day we would have to deal with him.

The fourteen fish were split 50-50 with Bob and we all took them home. Bob wanted to can his and Dan had a couple people who’d asked to buy some. Of course that didn’t work out as expected, it never seems to. People say things in good faith but when it comes time to do it they back down. So it goes. We sold two for $24.00 to a friend of Dan’s; froze two; and sold three to the fishery for about $36.00.

Spent $23.09 on gas, which means we actually made a sort of profit for the day. It would be the last time we did.

Notebook: June 8
Good weather –
Spent most of day in port re-doing knots in gear
radio trouble – one w/no mike, another w/no channel indicator –
finally out at 3PM – stayed out till 7:30 –
3 shakers – too much hake
nothing legal & sellable

trolling near the cookie jar above the bar
Joey w/pills –

(A “shaker” is a fish too short to be legal. The “cookie jar” was an area 3 miles out from the bar, 3 miles north and 3 miles south, closed to commercial fishing but open to sport fishing. One found fishing there by Fish and Game or Coast Guard is “caught with his hands in the cookie jar.” The fish seemed to be aware of this area and gathered there.)

June 8: Lump (ground swells at the bar) down. No wind. Good day to go out. Got to the boat 6:30 AM. Bob had left another CB and a paper bag for me with five capsules in it. They were clear and had half of a seasick pill and half of a Dexedrine. Take one every six to eight hours.

Dan and I set to re-doing the gear. We figured we’d be done and ready to go out by 11:00 or so. Instead it took us until almost 1:00 PM just to get the gear re-done. Once that was done Dan installed the new (used) CB. The microphone worked fine but the channel selector didn’t, so we had no idea who we were talking or listening to. Dan called Bob but he was out of the shop and Rick, his employee, didn’t know when he’d be back. So we waited for a while, called again, still no Bob. We waited, discussed buying a new one, discussed going home. Finally at around 2:30 we decided to just go out anyway.

We got out of the harbor and got the poles out and were headed for the bar when Bob showed up waving us back from the rocks. We pulled the poles back in and headed back to the dock.

And there was Bob, jumping in our shit because we spent all day doing the gear. Should’ve been out there on the ocean. Then he jumps in our shit about the radio. We don’t really need one anyway he says. Just go out and play with it until you find channel 14 (the dory channel) and then keep it there. He takes the old CB saying he’ll try to fix it and he leaves.

So finally around 3:30, we head out.

The ocean was fairly calm. The pill (I took one at 11:00 AM assuming we would be going out soon) seemed to work fine. I felt comfortable and slightly dizzy but not sick, which was all I could ask.

We got out with no problems, set out the gear (only two lines for the first day alone) and started fishing. Nada. Nothing. We stayed out til 8:00 PM and caught nothing legal. Lots of hake and some shakers.

Without realizing it, we had chosen the tail end of an el nino year to become commercial fishermen. El nino is a unseasonable warm current which comes on to the west coast cyclically. The warm water causes the fish, most importantly the salmon, to move on to where it is cooler. This means there are fewer fish around to catch. Even guys who have been fishing all their lives come back with greatly reduced catches during el nino. Looking back, I can see that we really didn’t have a chance of making any money that year. But how could we have known that then?

Notebook: June 9
40-45 fathoms
out from the Mad river – evening
(2 legals – 4 shakers)

June 9: Even better weather than the day before. Sea smooth, sky clear and bright. Perfect day to fish. Got to the boat around 6:30 AM heading out the bar within half an hour.

Dan manning the wheel.  This shows the float coats we bought and the reflective tape Dan thought to add so we might be seen in the water.

Dan manning the wheel. This shows the float coats we bought and the reflective tape Dan thought to add so we might be seen in the water.

Twenty minutes after we passed the bar we were out of the cookie jar and could set the lines. The other dories that were out had already been there for two hours or so. We listen to the radio and cruise up the coast waiting to hear where that day’s hot spot might be. Finally we heard that Tom was catching them at 55 fathoms, which is way off the coast, further than we would usually go. But Kevin was going out there too, and both of them were experienced fishermen, and if that’s where they were going then that’s where we were going.

So off we went. Having a big engine in the boat we could really zip out there fast and soon we passed Kevin’s boat. Bob had managed to fix the CB so we could talk to other boats now and we kept in touch with Kevin for a while.

Eventually we got out to 55-60 fathoms (the fathometer only went up to 60, so we didn’t know how deep we were really fishing) and we set out the gear, all four lines that day, we were beginning to feel confident, or at least Dan was and that made me feel a bit more confident.

We could see Tom’s boat off in the distance and after a while we saw Kevin’s boat coming up behind it. We could still see the coast, even though it must have been five or six miles away.

We trawled up and down the hill (north and south along the coast). Pulled the lines in when it looked like a bite, or when we got bored. The lines were connected to the poles by springs and that’s what you watched. When they got stretched out and start pumping, chances were there was a fish on the line. Each of the four main lines that we ran had ten lines on it, alternating hoochies and flashers with spoons and the occasional live bait (dead actually, but it’s real instead of plastic). So we actually had forty lines and hooks out there and we should have been killin’ ‘em. But we weren’t.

We divided the work in this way: Dan piloted the boat out of the dock and harbor. Then we drifted in the bar while I (with his help) got the poles down and set off to the sides. Then Dan took us through the bar and out to where ever we were going to fish.

Once we found a likely spot I took the wheel. From this point on steering was mostly a matter of trying desperately (at times) to simply keep us on course, tack around and avoid anything that might get in our way or cause the lines to tangle. Dan, in the meantime, was setting out the gear and letting out the lines. First the float lines, then the main lines, one on one side then to the other side, one there and then the second on the first side, the second on the second side, etc. When we got a bite (or thought we did) he pulled the line in and took it apart, laying out the gear just right so it didn’t tangle. If we got a legal, sellable fish he pulled it aboard with the gaff hook and threw it in the working fish box. Then continued to pull the rest of the line. If we got a fish that was either too short (a shaker) or not what we want (hake or rock fish, etc.) then he used the gaff hook to get it loose from the hook and sent it back to the sea.

Dan cleaning a fish in the back of the boat.

Dan cleaning a fish in the back of the boat.

When we got a legal fish, and once he’d re-set the lines and set them out again, Dan would clean it out. Then it went into several inches of sea water in the storage fish box.

So essentially I steered and Dan did everything else. Not to say that steering was always all that easy. Between the currents and the winds we would never quite go exactly where we wanted to go, or even where we thought we were going. And when the lines were coming in or going out they would pull the boat off to one side or the other. The lines each had weights on them: 45 lbs on the floats and 25 lbs on the mains. And when the lines are pulling the same direction the current is pushing and that’s not the way you want to go, yer shit outta luck.

I had to keep a close eye on the lines, if I turned or if the current pushed us off course, then the lines could get tangled up underwater behind the boat. That’s trouble that could cause Dan to have to cut them if it’s bad enough, and that meant losing a lot of gear.

Even keeping the boat in the same spot while Dan pulled in and checked the gear was not easy with so many forces wanting to move us around.

Still, Dan did most of the physical and unpleasant work. Eventually, if we’d kept it up, I’d have had to switch off with him just out of boredom, even though he preferred this arrangement.

This was the first day out there that I actually enjoyed, unfortunately it was also the last.

There is much out there to enjoy. There are long stretches of quiet and peacefulness out at sea. You were certainly not going to hear a phone ring (this was before cell phones) and, provided one isn’t seasick (in which case it is true agony), the gentle rocking of the boat was pleasant and soothing, as was the occasional large swell that eased the boat over until it almost stood perpendicular to what would elsewhere be considered flat. This would happened in a sort of slow motion. We could see the swell coming, but as it reached to affect the boat it was all so easy and gentle that we could almost forget how powerful it was, how destructive it could become. Fear of turning over, capsizing, seemed distant (it came to mind anyway, to my mind at least).

And the sky is so big out on the ocean, all the cliches are wholly inadequate. It is the sky like it cannot be experienced anywhere else. I’ve driven across the Great Plains and not even there did the sky seem bigger than at sea.

We formed a close relationship with the compass. It is the only way to have any idea where you are or where you are going. It felt good to be drifting, knowing only the sea and the sky with the compass to guide us. We also worked at developing as close a relationship with the sea as we could. There is much danger there, both real and imagined (and I have one hell of an imagination). The more we could allow the sea and the sky to come into us, to enter our being and thinking, consciousness and unconsciousness the better off we were. The signs were all there. Nothing happened without warning; we just had to be aware of those warnings. And we had to be alert for what might look at first like the last day in the world that we’d want to go out on the ocean but which in half an hour become perfect.

For these sorts of signs we tended to follow the other boats with more experienced fishermen. If most of the fleet was already out or going out, then we went. If a sizable number were staying in or coming back, so did we. We couldn’t read the signs yet ourselves with any real certainty, though Dan had more experience and a better sense of them than I did.

Painting I did showing an impression of the rigging on the boat. Acrylic on board, 10" x 14"

Painting I did showing an impression of the rigging on the boat. Acrylic on board, 10" x 14"

From shore the sea looks flat, empty and lonely but that couldn’t be further from the truth. It doesn’t matter how many Jacques Cousteau specials you’ve seen, you can have no sense of the life in the sea until you go out there and meet it personally. What we did with the fishing boat only allowed us to come into contact with a small percentage of what was there, but each new fish or bird met was so unique and amazing that the mind spins thinking of all the ones we didn’t meet.

Cormorants are sort of duck-like, but sleeker. They are important to the fishing because they fed on the same sort of bait that the salmon do, so when we saw a flock of them feeding on the water or even just resting we knew there was a chance that there were salmon there too. When they are in the boat’s path they wait until the last moment before the boat will hit them then, instead of flying away (one seldom sees them fly) they either aim their heads straight into the water, turn ass up and dive straight down, or they flap their wings, rise up and run with their webbed feet across the surface of the water. When there are five or six of them doing that it makes you laugh with joy. I guess it’s joy, they aren’t really funny, just beautiful, graceful and amazing.

Albatross are larger. They look more like seagulls; big brown seagulls. And the pelicans are even larger. We did not see many of these. When we would disturb an albatross or pelican with the boat they would spread their wide, wide wings, flap them a few times and loft into the air. Once up, they can accelerate and be gone from sight before you can turn and say, “Look, a pelican.”

Every now and then we would see one or more dolphin. We saw some right over the bar one day. Everything you’ve heard about them is true; they seem to embody grace, beauty and a strange sense of fun. It might just be media anthropomorphism, then again maybe they’re really out there just swimming around and enjoying themselves. Who knows. I loved seeing them. They answer something inside me that I can’t really vocalize. As though they know something that is inside of me but I can’t bring it out. When I see them there is a kind of recognition that goes beyond understanding and articulation. It is pure sensation. Pure emotion. Very right brain. It is also very close to the feeling I get when I see a deer out in the woods. Something about freedom and independence and an indefinable joy. If I could just somehow get closer to that.

The first time I saw a sunfish I thought I’d spotted a shark, all I saw was a grey fin sticking up out of the water. There were sharks out there and from time to time they would get on a salmon line, though we never caught one. But this was only a sunfish. Such a strange creature. It is a kind of oblong boxy shaped fish, though taller than it is wide. And it hangs about near the surface of the water lying on its side with one large dorsal fin sticking up out of the water. It is grey on top but the bottom two-thirds of it graduate to white. Sometimes there will be two or three of them together just hanging out, sunning themselves. I got a real kick out of them. Poor Dan, every time I saw one I would let out a yell and he thought that one of the lines must have a bite or we must be in trouble or something. But it would just be me spotting another sun fish.

There are some creatures in the sea who look very serious, others who look down right evil, and who some seem to have the personalities of Catskills comedians. Seals are the latter. They’ll sit just off the side of the boat, no fear and all curiosity, with only their heads above water. As they hold stationary, treading water, they look just like dogs waiting to be petted or handed a treat. Unfortunately what they were actually waiting for was us to get a fish on the line. Then they could dive down and feast on the catch. By the time we could pull it up all we’d have left would be a fish head. Or, if we were lucky, a legal fish with one or more bites missing. No good for sale but we could eat it. When we heard on the radio that someone had been “takin’ pictures” of seals, or “shootin’ pictures” of seals that means they were shooting them – with guns. They have no market value here so when you get one or more following your boat you have two choices: you can either pull your gear and speed off to another spot hoping to outrun them, or you pull out a rifle and kill them. It’s that simple. Because if you do nothing they will eat anything you get on the line and they will not “just go away.” This is, of course, illegal. One cannot just go around shooting seals and sea lions; but it is done. The way a rancher will shoot a coyote preying on his sheep, the fisherman shoots the seal. We did not have a gun on board and did not want one. If we ran across seals, as we did this day, we would either wait them out and hope they move on when they discover what unlucky fishermen we were. Or move on ourselves.

And always there is the sea and the sky. Constantly changing. Always the same. It’s all humbling and practically religious at times.

Another painting I did about how it felt to be in the boat between large swells.  Acrylic on board, 14" x 10"

Another painting I did about how it felt to be in the boat between large swells. Acrylic on board, 14" x 10"

That day we stayed out around 60 fathoms or so most of the day. It was clear and warm with a gentle sea. Dan and I both got sunburned. I took photos.

We were out for 13 hours and caught 4 legal fish, 14 shakers and who knows how much hake. It had been a good, though not very profitable day.

Coming in as the sun was setting over the ocean I saw the most amazing thing: a real true honest-to-god, no shit, silver and gold sunset! The sky was not much, stretched out pale orange clouds with blue from deep above to pale powder at the horizon. But the water! Woven silver and gold. Bright. Iridescent glowing silver and gold. Not grey and orange, mind you: silver and gold. Enough to take a man’s breath away!

At 8:30 PM we cruised into the fishery dock to sell our four fish, only there seemed to be a problem. The weighmaster came over and threw two of them back on board. He said they were undersized and really gave us shit for it. Told us we could lose our licenses and boat and be fined and never fish again. All of which might have been true but he was saying that they needed to be 24″ long and we thought it was 22″. Well we were too tired and too green to argue. We took the two salmon home and looked it up in the regs. According to the regs we were right. The next day we called fish and game and asked. They said 22″. We figure that weighmaster was either misinformed (not likely) or trying to pull a joke on the new guys (quite likely). And if it was the latter I can only say it was not funny.

The Eureka Fisheries dock in Eureka, as viewed from the Bushwhacker.  This is where we went to sell the fish.

The Eureka Fisheries dock in Eureka, as viewed from the Bushwhacker. This is where we went to sell the fish.

So, total profit for the day: $15.00.
Spent: $18.26 on gas.

We were so dispirited by the incident with the weighmaster that we stopped on the way home, pooled what little money we had and got two tall-boy cans of beer to drown our sorrows – it was all we could afford. When we got home Donna seemed in an odd mood. She had made a really nice dinner, which was by now of course, cold. She seemed to be waiting for something but we were pretty wrapped up in everything that had happened. We told her about our day and looked up the rule book to check the legal lengths for the fish. We tried to relax and get ready for bed so we could get up early and go out again. Then she finally told us what she was upset about. In our concentration on fishing we had completely forgotten her birthday – hadn’t even gotten her a can of beer. We both felt terrible and promised to make it up to her. (Later that summer we threw her a surprise belated birthday party.)

June 10:

Rain. Breakers half way across the bar. But the south end looked passable and the other dories were out, so we went.

We decided that since we hadn’t done so well by ourselves the day before we would hang out with the fleet this day. They were all fishing very close to the cookie jar in 20-25 fathoms. So we headed out there. The rain made me realize how dry fishing usually was. We had no place to get out of the rain on our small boat so we just got soaked. The water was relatively calm but not as nice as the day before. As we went out to join everybody else we kept hearing them talk about crab buoys being all over. It wasn’t long before we found some. The gear was out, so maneuvering was no easy matter. The swells were just high enough to hide the buoys, giving flashes of them that you had to catch as soon as possible before you were on top of them.

Perhaps I should explain what they are and what they’re doing out there. Crab season begins in December, they are caught thusly: steel mesh woven pots, maybe three feet across and one foot or so deep, have a hole attached to a funnel. The crab can crawl in after the bait but then can’t get out again. These are set on the ocean floor attached to ropes leading to the surface where a buoy both holds the rope up and marks the location. Each boat has its own color and/or design of buoys. Usually they are strung out in a line of a dozen or so. Should a storm come up they can be swept away, the pots buried in the mud and rock so that they cannot be raised. The buoy rope often remains attached, this is what forms the danger for the salmon boats.

Well I managed to get around the first two sets we found without any problems, more or less. We were almost out to where the rest of the boats were when another string of two came into sight very suddenly and very close. I tried to steer clear of them, and thought I had, but after we passed them I tried to steer south-west and found that no matter what I did I kept going south-east and then east and then north-east and it became obvious that we were indeed hung up on a crab line. No matter what I did with the wheel we kept going around in a circle with the crab pot at the center. Frequently when this happens to a boat the only thing to do is to cut the line or lines loose. You lose a lot of gear and line (steel cable – expensive) but the alternative could be capsizing. The night before, Dan had been talking to Clark (next door neighbor and longtime fisherman – Dan worked with him for crab season and would later work with his dad) about the danger of fishing these waters with the buoys. Clark had given us a set of iron weights to use in this water instead of the more expensive lead ones. Also they were attached with a lighter line instead of the very strong leather. This way, ideally, if you snagged a crab buoy the weight and pressure would snap the light line freeing the boat and the gear line so that any loss would be minimal and safety served.

So I kept the boat as far from the buoy as possible and Dan pulled in the untangled lines as fast as he could. When he’d finished that I put the boat in neutral and we allowed the hydraulic puller to edge us in toward the buoy as he pulled in the tangled line in order to salvage as much gear as possible. At least we only had six instead of all ten lines on. Once Dan got to about the third line the whole thing went limp, indicating that the weight had fallen off just like it was supposed to. Dan got the gear in and we found that all we’d lost was the weight and one set of hoochie/flasher. Very minimal, considering what could have happened, from losing all the gear we’d had out to capsizing. We got off easy, but it was still pretty scary. All the while we’d had the radio on so we could hear that most of the boats were either on their way back in or leaving soon. The rain had gotten worse and a wind was coming up. We decided to follow suit. I went to the back of the boat to help Dan roll the gear properly, he’d been too busy during the crisis to do this, and I found that the back floor was really slick. We chalked it up to spilled oil when we were working on the engine, figuring that the rain had just made it more obvious.

Finally we headed for the bar. Three hours and nothing caught but some hake and that crab buoy.

Spent $32.70 on gas.

We went to Bob’s shop to give him his 40% of the previous day’s catch: $6.00. He made some comments about “wimps” and “a little rain” and that was that. We went home.

June 11

That morning we got to the boat around 7AM. The fog was so thick we couldn’t see the bar very well. Turned on the radio and found that everyone else was out so we figured we might as well go because the fog would probably burn off soon anyway, there wasn’t any wind to speak of and it wasn’t raining.

So off we went. Running through fog, we could hardly see the whistle buoy until we were almost on top of it (this is a buoy straight out of the bar about a mile that indicates the correct approach to port.). We got past it and past the cookie jar but the fog was still so thick that you probably couldn’t see 20 yards. Most fishermen would have put their lines out in it as fog is supposed to make for very good fishing. But, being as inexperienced as we were, we didn’t want to because it would just be too easy to miss a string of crab pots (again) or to suddenly come upon another boat with its lines out and get the two tangled. We decided to wait until the fog burned off or we were able to sail out of it.

Soon it thinned out enough that we could see the boats closer to us and realize that all that talk on the radio was coming from boats that were very close. The whole scene was very “flying dutchman” with boats appearing and disappearing in the fog like ghosts.

After a while, by heading north/north-west, we emerged from the fog, unable to see the coast at all. The east was nothing but a grey curtain with boats gliding in and out of it, skimming the edge between what is supposed to be good fishing and the light.

We found ourselves surrounded by boats of every size and shape. More than we’d seen altogether all week and all in the same area. Dories like ourselves, larger commercial boats like Clark’s, and the very small, rowboat sized sport boats. These latter were everywhere you turned.

We put out the lines and tried to get out of the major traffic while staying in the same general area since it appeared to be the hot spot. But no matter where we went there were more boats. Sometimes heading straight for us, or two squeezing us on either side so that we couldn’t pull our lines in for fear that the pull they exert on the steering would cause a collision.

Then Dan found out where the oil was coming from. The hydraulic fluid was leaking from one of the starboard handles; in a good steady stream too. Well that was that. We had to get the lines in and go back to port. Without the hydraulics we couldn’t fish.

Now we had to get out of this traffic; as soon as we got a break I tacked it around to the south/south-west, the opposite direction of most of the boats. It took nearly an hour of weaving and dodging and close nerve-wracking calls before we found ourselves with enough room to safely pull in the lines.

Complicating all this was the fact that I’d used all five of the pills Bob had given me. I’d called the clinic to try and get some of my own. “So, let me get this straight,” the nurse said, “you want an upper to go with your downer?” She laughed, “No.” Even when I explained the necessity of my being alert at all times I could not change her mind. So I was taking a commercial, over-the-counter seasick pill and it made me very drowsy and more than a bit dizzy. I wasn’t getting sick but was hardly in condition for the kind of maneuvering I had to do. Dan and I took turns at the wheel.

By the time we got the gear in and were aimed for the bar the fog had burned off and it was a wonderful day for fishing. The radio though was buzzing with rumors of a big wind, and a number of boats were beginning to head in. So we did too.

But ah! There was yet one more surprise waiting for us. A very large tanker was coming in to port and we had to beat it or follow it; which would mean waiting and then riding in its wake. So Dan took the wheel, pulled out the throttle and we started screaming toward the bar with a half dozen or so other small boats trying the same thing we were.

Coming through the bar and looking back at the tanker after we beat it through to bar on my last day as a commercial fisherman.

Coming through the bar and looking back at the tanker after we beat it through to the bar on my last day as a commercial fisherman.

The sea is like the desert in some ways and one of them is that distance is very deceptive. It seemed to take ages to get close to the tanker. As though we weren’t really getting any closer it was just getting bigger and bigger and bigger. Finally we got ahead of it and managed to just squeeze into the bar before it got there.

Sometime after we discovered the leak, and while we were dodging the boats, Dan looked at me and said, “I don’t know about this.”

And I said, “Yup. I was just thinkin’ that maybe I don’t want to do this anymore.”

So we threw in the towel. Dan didn’t feel confident or experienced enough to do it alone and I don’t think he quite had the heart to try and talk me into continuing.

We did catch one last fish when Dan pulled in the lines the last time. We brought it home for ourselves.

We may not have made any money but we both learned a lot, from engine mechanics to currents. I suppose it all could have been different if it hadn’t been for el nino, if the boat hadn’t needed so much work, if we’d been leasing the boat from someone easier to work with. But it was a fine adventure anyway. Bob may not have made any money either, but he got a lot of work done on his boat for free. Dan continued to work both crab and salmon seasons, often with Clark, for many years after. I, wisely, never tried it again.

first draft completed,
Hydesville, CA 06/18/83
revisions 02/24/08-10/25/09
Sebastopol, CA

Advertisements

Responses

  1. Excellent! Having never been out, you knew a ton more than I ever dreamed of. I probably wouldn’t have fared any better, likely worse. It was a way of life for many of our friends, and who could have imagined what they really go thru? That first summer (’72) Ray was gone all summer fishing with Tommy Gardner. It was after that summer Ray sold the house on the cliff above the beach in Brookings, and he and Mureen moved to the Sunshine Claim, situated just south of Copper, Oregon on the California side of the Applegate Valley. All that is now underwater, the Applegate River having been dammed, or so Ray tells me. What a loss of damn fine mountain space, and a way of life (gold mining) for the few hardy souls who could make a go of it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: