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Gone fishing with a four mile line

Gone Fishing With a Four-Mile Line 

By Larry Ciptak

The Pittsburgh Press


THE CHOPPY, ice blue Gulf of Alaska slaps at the bow of the fishing vessel like a cat playing with a mouse, commanding immedi­ate respect and promising the uncooperative an uncertain existence. For the sea offers man a limited partnership which can be terminat­ed at her fancy, something the five-man crew of the Patriarch seems well aware of.

The 50-foot boat heads back to Seward from Albatross Bank, fishing grounds south of Kodiak Island, with 20,000 pounds of fresh halibut and a crew that hasn’t slept — and barely rested — in 36 hours. The one-day halibut season has come and passed, but the work’s not done yet; the fish need to be unloaded, the gear reorganized and the blood and scales which color the gray deck brown scrubbed from the craft by hand.

How this sheltered suburbanite ended up — if only for a short time — at age 26 in what has been called the most dangerous occupa­tion in the United States is still somewhat of a mystery. All I know is I met one of the boat’s owners, Jim Grubbs, last March as he visited his mother, Peggy Mitchell, in Upper St. Clair. We talked about Alaska — I had hitch­hiked there and back in 1983 — and our conversation led to an invitation to join the “fraternity” of longline fishermen there.

Two months later I was hanging over the bulwarks of the boat, throwing up into the gulf’s frigid waters. The strong wind, high waves and barely visible mountains served as constant reminders of my new reality. Jim had warned me earlier that “you can’t walk off of this job.” I was stuck.

Jim came over, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Welcome to Alaska, Larry. Not the same as Upper St. Clair, is it?”

The boat’s bow-to-stern pitching didn’t affect me as much as the rolling from port to starboard. The constant movement was made worse at night in the crew’s sleeping quarters by the smell of fuel from the adjoining engine room. One crew member was thrown from his top bunk during a roll to starboard. The seas that tossed us mercilessly that night were eerily calm the next day –  a tribute to the unpredictability of Alaska’s icy waters.

 “Umswah!” cried George Alexander, a cantankerous 57-year-old Haida Indian from Ketchikan with 35 years of fishing experience. I found out later that umswah (um-shoo-wah) means “white boy” in Indian. George liked the word a lot, as was evident in his constant use of it in addressing me.

“Grab me 60 fathoms (360 feet) of buoy line, umswah,” George yelled as he prepared the lines for fishing. I couldn’t distinguish the 60-fathom line from other-sized ones, and got frustrated at his badgering.

“Don’t worry, Larry, you’ll catch on,” said Jim’s partner, Chris McNeil, chief of the small Laxsglit Indian tribe of Southeastern Alaska, who has fished Alaskan waters since age 5. Now 65, he uses sophisticated electron­ic equipment to find the fishing grounds.

“In the old days of the wooden schooners we didn’t have all this (radar, sonar fish locaters),” said Chris. “These guys (modern fishermen) couldn’t find their way home without it.”

On our halibut trip, more than four miles of fishing line were to be payed out into the ocean during the day. Snapped onto the line at eight-foot intervals were 4,000 individual hooks baited with herring. After letting it sit at several hundred fathoms for several hours, the line is brought back on board by a hydraulic wench. The crew works together as the fish are pulled on board, passed to a crew member who guts and gills them, and tossed into the hold where they are stacked and iced.

Getting some of the halibut on board can prove challenging, as the fish range from 25 to 300 pounds each. The larger fish are struck in the head by a steel gaff, a large pointed hook normally used to help pull the fish on board, and often three of us were needed to hoist the bigger ones on deck. Halibut are bottom fish, dwelling on the ocean floor. Whereas salmon fishermen use nets near the surface to get their catch, halibut and black cod fishermen fish in deep waters with miles of line — hence the term “longliners.”

A “60 Minutes” segment classified long- lining in Alaska as the most dangerous occupation in the United States, and every fisherman who has been around boats for a while can tell grim stories of tragedies on the water — boats sinking or catching fire, others getting caught in hydraulics, men falling overboard into icy waters where they can survive two to four minutes at best.

As we worked the one-day season, the halibut piled on the deck of the Patriarch, ach pound worth $1.10 at the cannery in Seward. In 24 hours we caught, cleaned and iced 20,000 pounds of the flatfish. After food, fuel, ice and bait were subtracted from the total, the shares came to $1,622 per crew member. Since I was a greenhorn, I received a half-share, or $811 for the day’s fishing.

I thought I was on my way to getting rich. But commercial fishing is a gamble. Only a small percentage of boats make the kind of money that draws scores of adventurers to fish commercially in Alaska. “Don’t get all excited yet, umswah,” George cautioned. “Things change quick in this business.”

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game determines the quota of halibut that can be caught without depleting the valuable Northern Pacific resource, and sets a length of time — usually 24 hours — that fishing can take place.

The department wishes to avoid exhaust­ing another Alaskan marine asset, such as happened to the king crab industry in the 1960s. Fishermen then were permitted to take as many of the tasty and much-demanded crustaceans as they wished — and in a few years depleted the resource.

In addition to the several halibut openers in the year, the men fish for black or grey cod, red snapper, or outfit themselves with hy­draulic netting for salmon fishing.

Black cod are much smaller than halibut, but pay more — $1.75 a pound. After spending a week readying $4,500 worth of new gear for black cod, we were off on our second trip. The boat again headed south of Kodiak Island to Albatross Bank in search of the elusive “deckload,” where the fish hold is filled to capacity and to bring more fish on board risks the chance of capsizing. Stories are told of greedy fishermen whose boats sink under the weight because they can’t resist putting a “few more” fish onto the deck.

After baiting several thousand circle hooks with herring, we ran the new gear into the water in hopes of The Big Catch. But several hours later we returned to the site to “pick” (retrieve) the gear and couldn’t find the buoys or flags we had used to mark its placement. After half a day of frantic search­ing, we spotted a buoy — cut clean of the other gear. Either another boat had crossed our gear and cut the line, or a dragger which scrapes the ocean floor for fish had caught our gear in its nets. Regardless, the irresponsible parties chose to cut and dispose of the gear rather than take the time to untangle it from theirs. An illegal and immoral practice, but one that happens frequently in the cutthroat business of commercial fishing.

Having no gear left to fish with, we returned to Kodiak with a loss of $4,500 in equipment, plus the expense of food, fuel, ice and bait. Nobody said too much in the 24 hours it took us to return to shore.

As we neared Kodiak, several whales swam alongside the boat and put on a show of beauty, breaching and sounding in unison to remind us that there’s more to the ocean than the harvest of its resources.

We reached shore, and Jim decided he’d had enough of boat ownership; he sold his share to Chris, and went salmon fishing on another vessel in Bristol Bay — as a crew member. Crusty George swore he had had enough of fishing (a friend of his later remarked that he says this every trip), and the other deckhand flew home — broke and disillusioned — to Seward. With my $1,100 ($811 from the halibut trip and the rest earned as a construction worker before my six-week adventure aboard the Patriarch), I remained in Kodiak for a week, waiting for the ferry to return to the mainland.

Chris was undaunted. “This happens all the time,” he said. “You have to learn to roll with the punches.” He recalled a time in the early 1960s when his boat sank off Kodiak Island with $100,000 worth of king crab aboard. “I had to work like a dog, but I made it back in the black in a couple months,” he said. “This business isn’t for quitters.”

The sea has a way of weeding out those who don’t belong. The waves which tossed the Patriarch like a toy in a bathtub convinced me — and my stomach — that I make a much better landlubber. But although I didn’t stay long, I did see the awesome power and the beauty of the cold, blue open waters of the Pacific Northwest.

I wasn’t sure what George meant when he said, “You’ll never go all the way back to Pittsburgh, umswah.” But I think I do now.