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Fishing the King Salmon opener: What it’s like delivering line-caught wild Alaskan salmon

This month, we celebrate the king salmon. And gratitude.

This is the story of what it’s like to produce line-caught wild king salmon.

I spend most of my time in the office answering emails and calls, composing monthly reports for our Alaska Gold Seafood business, and writing blog posts like this one. But in early July I got to go out fishing for the first summer king salmon opener in southeast Alaska and wanted to share my experience here for our customers because not until you see our fishermen in action can you really appreciate the extraordinary craft that is producing a line-caught wild Alaskan king salmon. It’s what makes me show up to work every day.

I went out fishing with Charlie Piercy who has been a Seafood Producers Cooperative fisherman/owner since 1986 and until recently has served on our Fishermen Board of Directors as Chairman. Charlie usually fishes with his wife Sally in what he calls a “mom and pop” operation on the F/V Tuckahoe, a  wooden trolling boat built in 1952 in Port Angeles, Washington. But Sally recently had knee injury and thought Charlie would need some company, so Charlie asked me to go fishing with him. It’s great to get out of the office and I responded, “Yeah, sure. It’ll be fun.”

“I don’t know about fun,” Charlie said, “but it’ll be interesting. You’ll be fishing. And as it is for all of us fishermen, when the money runs out, at least we’ll have the stories.”

The name for Charlie’s boat, the Tuckahoe comes from Virginia Algonquian tockawhoughe and is the name for either of two rhizomatic aquatic plants found in marshes and swamps used for food by early native Americans on the east coast. It’s also the name of a village in New York and legend says that the boat builder jumped up and swam there from Ellis Island upon arriving in America. The builder wanted a unique name with distinction.

Having known Charlie as our board chairman and seen him in action through fishermen board meetings, I know that he is an engineer by training from his methodical thinking and a poet at heart for his creative analogies to present ideas. You can tell all of this immediately once you arrive at his property, which Charlie calls his sanctuary. Overlooking a spectacular view of Clarence Strait amidst a beautiful forest, Charlie’s sanctuary is built with timber he felled and artifacts from a career of fishing and working in the woods.

Charlie’s mind works in different ways and he has unusual ways of communicating his ideas. You have to listen carefully because Charlie speaks in metaphors and analogies and might be talking about ice cream when he’s really talking about fish. The rockfish we catch he calls ice cream money, because they’re not why we’re out on the water, but they’re the icing on the cake, the little bonus to the fishing trip that allows Charlie to buy some ice cream as a treat. As chairman, Charlie led our fishermen-owned co-op with his unusual thinking that sparked productive conversations. His leadership got our board and co-op into a much better place and for that I am grateful and have deep respect for Charlie.

I meet Charlie in Ketchikan and the first thing we do is go grocery shopping for a week’s worth of supplies. Charlie lives at the end of the road on Revillagigedo Island in a house he built with timber that he cut down himself. That night, I meet the Piercy Family and have dinner and play my mandolin in the Piercy garden overlooking Clarence Strait on a long Alaskan summer evening before our departure. Even at 10:30, the gorgeous orange sun hangs in the horizon over the strait creating a symphony of bird songs and mandolin twang.  A fruit tree planted for each grandchild, Sally is careful to put the chickens in at night, as I see the damage caused by a brown bear on one of the crabapple trees.

Charlie Piercy and the F/ V Tuckahoe.

The following morning we depart Ketchikan Harbor just after 5am after a 3:30am wake-up and all the last-minute preps that take place before a big journey. A few miles down the road in what Charlie calls his old “crummy,” his beat-up old pick-up truck packed thick with gear and tools thrown everywhere, Charlie lets out a guffaw, remembering that we forgot to grab the bait. And he decides we’ll make do with the handful of bait he had from his last trip. (Fortunately, we have a fair amount of spoons, plugs and flashers, but we ration the bait carefully throughout our trip.)

Once we untie the boat and slip out of the harbor, we let out a sigh of relief, knowing that whatever we forgot we’ll have to make do without. We spend the rest of the day making the long traverse along Clarence Strait around Prince of Wales Island. Trolling boats troll at about 2.5 knots but “run” at 7 knots, which isn’t much, so it takes a while to make the journey to Charlie’s favorite July king salmon spot.

At some point during the late afternoon Charlie tells me that we’re coming up on a “whale-y” spot. Rounding Point Baker, I get out my binoculars. The water gets choppy here, but just as Charlie predicted, we see a family of orcas “finning,” showing off their massive dorsal fins not far from the boat. The largest male has a fin that is easily 6 feet high or more and it appears that he and some other adults are showing a younger orca how to hunt. A few minutes later we see a little mountain peak in the distance and a family of humpbacks.

That night, we anchor at Anchor Lab Bay near Labouchere Bay at the north end of Prince of Wales Island after a long day of “running.”

The next morning begins with the first of two “big sea crossings” from Labouchere Bay to the water in between Kuiu Island and Coronation Island, where a few months before a fellow co-op member’s beautiful schooner, the F/V Masonic, got stuck on the rocks, requiring a Coast Guard rescue in the middle of the night. Fortunately, all crew survived, most likely because of the high level of preparedness of the fishermen on board. But the Masonic, stuck on the rocks, unsalvageable, eventually gets pulled off the rocks by the powerful currents to find the bottom of the sea.

The second crossing is the 15 miles of open water between Coronation Island and Cape Ommaney. The sea is rough and I take a Dramamine and get a little drowsy during the crossing but spot an albatross and puffins at points far enough out to sea that we can’t see land through the thick marine air.

As we round Cape Ommaney and the southern corner of Baranof Island, I spot humpback whales preparing to bubble feed in Larch Bay and then again a bit further up in Puffin Bay.  

Late in the afternoon, we anchor in another bay, which I won’t name, where we spend the night. If you’ve never been around Baranof Island in a small vessel or flying above the island in a float plane, it’s hard to comprehend just how jagged and defined the island is with little bays and nooks and crannies. Makes you realize just how small you are being in these remote wild places.

Baranof Island Southeast Alaska
The jagged bays of Baranof Island, southeast Alaska.

Each bay has its own character, but this bay is special. You’re greeted by a very narrow entrance. On each side of the bay, you’re surrounded by what I called the Cliffs of Insanity in honor of my wife’s favorite movie The Princess Bride. Trees are growing out of rocks on the vertiginously steep cliffs. The cliffs are way too steep to log and the forest is ancient—yet you can tell that the area is renewed constantly by its remoteness and the constant storms. There’s a big waterfall at the back of the bay, and it isn’t until the second day of fishing, when the sun comes out, that I also see the glaciated mountain range that feeds the waterfall draining into the bay.

At 4am on July 1st, after our long journey, fishing hooks are finally in the water for the start of the southeast Alaska first summer commercial troll king salmon opener. Once the hooks are in the water, we go back to the wheelhouse and listen to the forecast on the Coast Guard radio station: “Low 60s, Northwest wind, 20 knots. Seas, 6 feet.” Boats are scattered around us. Some fishing 40 fathoms deep out at the edge a mile or so out from us, but we’re fishing at 25 fathoms running our lines in between the humps, the rock structures deep underwater where large king salmon lurk. And there’s only one other boat nearby, whose captain also must also have knowledge of the maze of humps.

Each trolling wire might pull 8 to 12 leaders. We use 8 leaders on each wire. The wires attach to trolling poles. Charlie has two sets of trolling poles—the bow and stern poles. Other trolling boats might have all 4 wires come off two poles, and there are pros and cons to both set-ups. You can see the pairs of trolling poles clearly on our Alaska Gold Seafood logo, and they are what give trolling boats their distinctive look. If you’re ever in Alaska on the water and see these boats with that distinctive profile and the trolling poles that make the shape of a fly’s wings, you’re looking at a classic trolling boat. They really don’t make ‘em like that any more.

The distinctive look of a salmon trolling boat.

Beyond washing dishes and sometimes cooking and keeping Charlie company, my job is to “run the lines.” Running the lines means operating a hydraulic gurdy that pulls the trolling wires up from the bottom. As the hooks come in, you check to make sure they’re not twisted, hooks aren’t bent, they’re not fouled with little jellyfish or seaweed or other debris. It looks a lot easier than it is. Charlie can run the lines without stopping the gurdy, but every time I run the lines without stopping the gurdy, I feel like the scene from the 1950s classic television show “I Love Lucy” when Lucy and Ethel are in a chocolate factory. The hooks pass me by just like the chocolate does for Lucy and Ethel.

Salmon trolling gurdies.

On each trolling pole, there is a bell. This bell rings when there is a tug on the line. Depending on the particular tonal qualities of the ring of the bell, you can get an idea of what’s on the end of the line. When Coho salmon hit the line they make a sharp ding-a-ling of the bell that soon stops. When king salmon hit, they make a big thump and a lower toned ring. You might see the wire on the trolling pole bounce up and down like a trampoline when a big king salmon hits. Each ding-a-ling gets me excited, although it must be noted that one of my lines—Charlie assigns me the two stern pole wires—is a bit more sensitive, so small fish seem bigger or just scraping the bottom gets me excited as if there were a fish on the line.

At 6am, we get our first fish. At 8 pounds, it’s at the very small end of the scale. Our second and third fish come in at 8:15 in a calmer part of the bay. The third is a 20-pounder, which makes Charlie happy.

We end the day with 20 fish. Charlie had written down 25 king salmon as a goal for the day, so we were a little disappointed that we didn’t meet our goal. Two of our kings weighed in at 21 pounds. One of these bigger fish was a white king salmon, which tend to be on the bigger side and also tend to fight harder, as Charlie has told me in the past, and it was definitely true today. The white king gave a big tug and was difficult to bring in. We sell the rare white king salmon or ivory king salmon here. Charlie maybe doesn’t catch quite as many fish as some of the younger highliners in the fleet, but his size average is exceptional. “They don’t pay you by the eyeball,” he winks at me. 

Charlie scratched in his notebook that the fish bit on a range of plugs, hootchies, and spoons, with no definitive lure being the clear winner. Each plug, flasher and hootchie is tied to a leader that is then tied to a trolling wire. Charlie has them separated at strategic distances for the depth at which we’re fishing. Each day is different and it’s worth noting what depths and lures are more successful than others.

Charlie tells me that plug fish tend to be bigger. Charlie also ties plugs onto much longer leaders. And it always feels like the lines that Charlie has assigned me catch the plug fish. It might be hard to believe but even when commercial fishing it’s very sporty to fight a large king salmon. You wrap the leader around your gloves, so basically you’re fighting a fish by hand. When the leader is 120-feet long, as it is for one of the plugs on my line, it can become quite a battle. You have to be careful where you drop your spare leader and it can become quite a mess on the boat. A fish can take off really fast while you’re bringing it in. If you’re not careful, the fish can snap the leader or slip off the hook with a jump and a little bit of slack in the line. At one point, I lose a 30+ pounder when I gaff the fish but don’t keep the gaff hook pointing up as I brought the fish over the rail.

Did I mention that there is a lot of heartache in fishing? During some of these moments my heart sinks and all I can do is wail at the sea.

At the same time, I can understand why somebody would give up a high-paying desk job to take a thrashing and a bruising to do this for 18 hours a day in the summer. It’s quite a thrill when everything works out.

It’s remarkable how unadulterated trolling is as a food production method. In an age in which everything is automated, digitized, modified, processed and re-processed, and iterated to function at its maximum efficiency, here I am fighting 20+-pound king salmon with my bare hands. 120-foot leader wrapped in my palms, one arm-length at a time, the king salmon tugging hard on the plug at the other end.

The sea is quite “roll-y” when we’re doing all of this. On my first morning, the tea mug went flying, spilling tea everywhere, after hitting a big wave, and I had to find a better way to secure it when it wasn’t in my hands. Later in the day, I was also thrown out of my seat and I had to remind myself to hold onto something. Always. Everything is difficult, but satisfying.

This isn’t “Deadliest Catch,” but the boats are smaller, the working conditions sometimes precarious and cramped, the hours long, and you’re awfully close to the water, especially when the ocean gets “roll-y.” Getting up out of your seat in the wheelhouse is difficult, as the boat sways up and down in the rolling waves. Walking out of the pilot house and then around the hatch, up and over the fish checker into the trolling pit means that every step is a small adventure. You literally have to be holding onto a rope with each step. You can’t let go for a second. There are no guardrails, no “Caution” signs. Moving one arm to the next rope you have to make sure the other arms is firmly planted to the next rope. If you let go of something on the boat, you will end up in the sea and most likely perish if quick thinking and a bit of luck don’t prevail. After my trip, I’ve got bruises on my hips, that had been banging into the stove, the door, the hatch, and the pilothouse every time I tried to move to the trolling pit from wheelhouse with the seas banging the boat around. I’ve got bruises on my elbows from where I crashed into the hatch.

Working on an old wooden fishing boat.

Yet, in an age in which most of us sit behind a desk and click, few occupations are as fulfilling as producing pure, pristine food.

Day two: By 6:30am, we have bites on all 4 trolling wires. “We hit a clatter of king salmon,” Charlie says with the bells ringing. There were even 4 kings on one wire. “We’re in the cookie jar,” as Charlie likes to call a hole right in the calmer section of water just outside of the bay. “The first most important thing in fishing is location. The second is location. The third is location,” Charlie notes in one of his many lessons for the day.

Beyond location, there is another key factor to success in fishing: minimizing gear failures. As Charlie said to me at the beginning of the trip: Fishing is constant problem-solving. There are fouled lines, broken lines, broken auto-pilots, bad knots, bent hooks. He described a time when one of his trolling poles broke and he pulled into Port Alexander, chopped down a tree, and made a new trolling pole, and went out fishing again as soon as he could.

On this busy morning of fishing with the fish biting, we spent an hour trying to throw a grappling hook at the tag line to snap it back onto the trolling wire. “A fisherman thinks in 3 dimensions, sometimes 4. You’re running lines, steering the boat, watching out for rocks and other obstacles and certainly other boats who might or might not be on the same trolling tack as you. Obviously, you’re fishing. But you’re gaffing the fish, you’re cleaning them, and oh, you’ve got to go ice them once they’re clean,” Charlie notes.

In fishing, nothing is certain. Nothing comes for free.

It takes great athleticism to get a gaff hook properly through the gill plate of a thrashing salmon in the water 2 feet below where your feet are wedged into the pit, so that you don’t fall out of the boat while you are gaffing. It takes strength to get the gaff hook through the gill plate and accuracy to make sure you get it right in the best spot, not on the meat or even worse in my situation, missing entirely and hitting the boat. A gaff hook into the meat would “number 2” the fish, reducing your pay on your fish ticket and missing the fish entirely is just frustrating.

After doing this all day, I confess to Charlie I lost my confidence after losing a large fish (close to 30 pounds) and his gaff hook, which slipped out of my hands and ended up in the ocean after another poor placement into the gill plate, causing another wail to the breeze. Charlie keeps calm and says, “Kendall, you’ve just got to let your boat fish and have confidence in yourself.” Rules for all of life, I can’t argue. And he gave me a really old gaff hook to use. “Here, you don’t have to worry if you lose this gaff.”

I get better each time running the lines. Slowly but surely the day becomes more productive. Charlie looks pleased. He talks to every fish that comes to the boat. If it’s a particularly large fish, he’ll talk to the fish while it’s on the line: “Hello, fish. Good to see you!” Talking to the fish relieves the tension.  Every time I bring fish over the rails, I let out a very deep breath, as if I had just survived a harrowing quest. “Breathe,” Charlie reminds me, just like my yoga teacher.

Charlie begins naming each fish. Fish number 32 is named “Dennis” after a basketball player with whom Charlie played at Port Angeles High School. The other fish all get names, some famous basketball players, others high school heroes, others become presidents and their corresponding currency bills, others just Charlie’s imagination wild at work. A hootchie named Fleming that he bought at the Fleming Paint Store in Sitka becomes the hero after getting a number of fish in a row.  

 “Thank you, Salmon,” he says with a twinkle in his eye each time he brings a salmon over the rails into the fish checker. As he does this, I realize the deep respect Charlie has for the fish.

The fish keep biting through the evening and it gets on 6:30-7 and we’re once again in a clatter of king salmon, the bells on the trolling poles ringing loud. I’m dead tired, hungry, have a headache, and Charlie asks me if we should give up for the evening and have dinner. I muster enthusiasm, “Are you crazy? We’re in a clatter of fish!” The bells on the trolling poles continue to ring ding-a-ling ding with the thumping tone of king salmon. A clatter indeed. We found Charlie’s cookie jar again. I sip some tea and keep on keeping on.

Trolling wires and bells.

Charlie puts a few sweet potatoes in the oven. When the potatoes are ready, we eat them plain with our hands as if the potatoes were cigars. Each of us accompany the potatoes with a can of ivory king salmon. No seasonings, no adornments—a simple but extremely satisfying meal. We keep bringing in fish and don’t quit until after 10pm. When we pull into the bay, we still must ice the last fish, anchor the boat, and put the gear away. There is no better sound than when Charlie turns off the engine once we are anchored. The engine has been humming from 3:45am until 10:30pm. It’s been a long day and we hit the sack sometime after 11.

King salmon in the fish checker.

On our third fishing day, we get a late start. 5:40am. Charlie had gotten up earlier to look and it was too foggy to even move out of our anchorage.

It’s still foggy, but there’s enough visibility to pull out of the anchorage. While running lines in the fog, I lose track of where we are until all of a sudden while bringing in a fish I could hear the waves crashing into the primitive rocky coast. By this time, I had thought we were several miles out to sea and I was surprised to hear the waves. “Charlie, we’re by the shore, almost on the rocks!”

“I know where we are!” Charlie gives me a hard time for being completely disoriented.

We start listening to the weather forecast again and it starts becoming a joke to us. This morning, it’s “haze,” as if the computerized weatherman voice is afraid to see the F-word. Fog. The computerized voice on the weather forecasts has started making us laugh. Yakutat becomes Yakoootick. It’s like a voice box. Other Alaskan coastal communities are also mispronounced.

It’s another busy day. Slow, but consistent. A slog. For dinner we make what Charlie calls “Crazy crust pizza” 1 cup flour, 2 eggs, 2/3 cup of milk, oregano, grated cheese. Mix and Pour into cake pan. We put it in his oil stove—maybe try 400 F for 20 minutes in your home stove. We used venison burger meat, but this recipe would work well with our Easy Salmon.

Fourth of July is another foggy day and we keep slogging on. Charlie puts on his fishing music.  “The sea has its blessings but there are very few perfect days. You have to sing to yourself to keep from being dismal,” he says. We listen to Stan Rogers, a Canadian folk singer. “This is one artist the whole family loves,” Charlie notes as we listen to “Barrett’s Privateers,” a sea shanty about a pirate.  We anchor in the back corner of Sandy Bay. Still foggy, we’re all by our lonesome on the Tuckahoe—no fireworks for Independence Day and a relatively early anchor.

July 5th and we overhear on the radio that the July commercial troll king opener will close at midnight. We listen to the Coast Guard radio station and eventually confirm the message we heard in other conversation on the radio. Once the Alaska Department of Fish & Game determines that the quota is nearly caught by the entire southeast Alaska troll fleet—based on fishing reports, processor reports, and their own research—they make the announcement of the closure. This quota number comes from a number calculated by biologists and from international treaty negotiations. It’s a very complicated task and the goal is to make sure that the king salmon stocks remain viable for future generations. There will be other openers throughout spring and winter, all with targeted quotas based on escapements and when certain stocks are projected to pass through regions.

It’s another foggy day and we fish outside of Whale Bay. And once again, it’s spooky not seeing where we’re going. The sun clears through from time to time and we see the beautiful Whale Bay in the distance, enjoying its glow only to see it disappear.

Toward the end of the day, I take a look at our scorecard for number of fish caught.

July 1st 20

2nd: 42

3rd: 34

4th : 15 (fog)

5th 14 (fog)

As I am closing my notebook with 14 fish for July 5th, there’s a thump on the line. I bring in and gaff the last king salmon of the trip. Our 15th of the day and 125th on the trip! We also caught 15 coho salmon. 1 sockeye, and roughly 140 pounds of rockfish.

We pull into Charlie’s secret anchorage in Still Harbor, part of Whale Bay. 10:15pm. In the fog, we  couldn’t see two landmarks that fishermen note on their entrance to Whale Bay–Dog rock and Wolf Rock. Charlie was disappointed not to show me.

The next day we’re up at 4am to run back to Sitka. It’s a gloriously sunny day. All the boats in the fleet need to unload their king salmon before going out fishing for coho salmon, for which they’ll be fishing a good chunk of the rest of the summer.

There’s a triumphant feeling upon return to our fishermen-owned plant in Sitka with a load of fish. And then a long wait. We call in on the radio once we’re in town and get the news that we’re about eighth in line. It takes about 2-3 hours to unload the fish from a boat and then re-ice the boat. There are 3 hoists and Charlie calculates roughly an eight-hour wait. Charlie takes a nap and I take off my fishing bibs and play my mandolin on the boat deck during an abnormally warm and sunny Sitka day. I play and watch the boats come by. I see the Astrolabe, a boat on which I had fished two summers ago and wave hello to Carter the captain, who usually fishes alone. Charlie wakes up and we all swap stories. Carter notes that fishing was hot up north where he was, though not on the Fairweather Grounds, where a good chunk of the fleet was fishing. The Astrolabe is a larger boat than the Tuckahoe, and Carter is not quite the mad scientist engineer that Charlie is, so the boat is a bit better organized. But the Astrolabe is a newer fiberglass boat, and I remember feeling much closer to being seasick on the Astrolabe. In fact, for over a week after fishing with Carter, every time I stood still I could feel a room sway like the sea. I’m either becoming more seaworthy with experience or the Tuckahoe was more stable in the sea. Both boats and both captains showed me a beautiful part of the world and an extraordinary craft. And I am forever grateful to both captains.

Delivering King Salmon
Delivering King Salmon to the Seafood Producers Cooperative dock in Sitka, Alaska.

As I have spent time with Carter and Charlie, I got to thinking about what we do in the office. We work to preserve a truly unique lifestyle. We work to preserve southeast Alaska coastal communities, which would struggle without independent small boat fishing families and the ancillary businesses that grow up around them. We work to preserve wildness. Without fishermen, there would probably not be the wild places that we see in Alaska. So much of the wildness of Alaska is in danger from development, mining and timber industries. Mining brings quicker profits to a few. But when managed well, as is the case with Alaska fisheries, Alaska seafood supports coastal communities and will support them into perpetuity. The money from fishing for the most part stays in the coastal communities and isn’t shifted to some foreign entity. Some of us prefer clean air and clean water over massive development. Yet, in terms of political clout, “the best we can hope for,” a fisherman once told me, “is to hold ground or lose just a little bit, and that’s a lot to wish for.” This fisherman’s statement seems to mirror the prospect that all of us who fight for the environment seem to face—we can at best hope to lose just a little. When the fishermen are gone, so are some of the lasts bit of somewhat pristine land and water left on the planet.

With Gratitude,

Kendall

Alaska Gold Seafood Customer Service rep Kendall Whitney with king salmon