Fishing in Bristol Bay was one of the coolest and craziest things I've ever done. I can definitely say this trip pushed me to my limit, but how would we ever grow if we never venture of our comfort zone? I think about that a lot these days. I want to be constantly challenged and pushed to adapt. What was the lesson after all of this? "Ask and you shall receive." I was the epitome of a first timer in Bristol Bay, and to say I was pushed to adapt would be an understatement.
I want to share my experience with you because, in the beginning, I had no idea what to expect. "Wild Caught Alaskan Salmon." What does that even mean? Hopefully by the end of this post you will have a better idea. There are lots of pictures I wish I could have taken, but I was on the boat as a crew member, not a photographer. I did end up with some pretty cool photos though, and I'm going to try my best to fit two months on a boat into this post.
After arriving in Naknek, Alaska, we still had a week on land to get the boat ready. Some of those things included: Unloading the supply tote, checking and repairing brailer bags, loading the net onto the reel and taking inventory of our freezer boxes.
Here are some details you should know- Brailers are bags that contain the fish under the deck of the boat in refrigerated holding tanks. When it is time to offload, we would tie the boat up to the side of a tender. Tenders are large ships, (typically crabbing boats,) that hoist the brailers full of fish up and into their own holding tanks. During this process, they weigh and take record of our catch and then transport the salmon back to the processor on land. Tenders also transport supplies like nets and basic groceries to us out on the water.
The processor you fish for is your home base and support system. We strategically put our frozen food into different boxes based off of what we wanted to eat while on the water. Bacon, veggies, steak, sausage, lunchmeat, we ate very well. Only the occasional salmon if you can believe it. When it was time for another box, we would radio in a request and pick it up at the tender the next day. Pictured below are Damien and Zach. When spending 40 days at sea on a 32' boat, I couldn't be more thankful for having these two as shipmates.
Some general photos from around the boatyard. Zach found a whale vertebrate and baleen beachcombing last season. All the assorted bags are spare nets ready to be shipped out to other boats.
Off we go! We set course to fish the Nushagak River, about 5 or 6 hours from Naknek.
In Bristol Bay, there are several rivers you can fish- Nushagak, Kvichak, Igushik, and Egegik, just to name a few. Every fisherman is given access to detailed, and surprisingly accurate data that forecasts the run for each river. Where you decide to fish is completely up to you. For the Nushagak river, the predicted run for sockeye salmon was 7.36 Million fish, with an escapement goal of 370,000-900,000. Escapement is population protection, allowing the salmon to spawn up river and reproduce without being caught. River openings and closures are put in place by the division of fish and wildlife to help reach the escapement goal. When the river is open for fishing, it doesn't matter what time of day or night it is, it's go time.
Drift Netting is fairly simple: Set the net, mend the tow line, hook the buoy, run the hydraulics, pick and bleed the fish and get them into the holding tanks. Just don't fail to hook the buoy during that critical moment, there is a certain cringe after being yelled at by the captain for that one. Pictured below you can see our boat running the net to scare the fish into it and the splashes after they hit it. If the top of the net looks like boiling water, it's typically going to be a good catch. Once you start reeling the net in, it's time to pick the fish out as fast as you can. Because I was the new guy, I was responsible for bleeding fish. I spent a lot of time on my hands and knees, covered in blood and slime, cutting the gills and putting the fish into the holding tanks. Yolo. Luckily my rain gear kept me clean. Bleeding and refrigerating the fish preserves the meat and produces a higher quality product.
The last picture shows the scale of a boat our size next to a 100' tender and a 500' at sea processor.
Here are some shots from a few different days. You can get an idea of the average weather conditions- Rainy, grey and cold. Swells would sometimes reach 4 or 5 feet high, which doesn't seem that big but they can really knock around a boat that is only 32' long. There is an invisible district line at the mouth of the river that you cannot fish beyond, so boats stack up real tight against it to catch the first fish coming in from the ocean. In the Nushagak river, there were at least 600 other boats, so things could get pretty crazy at times. Among the roar of diesel engines and choppy water, boats shoot gaps between others setting their net. A few of these days we had massive catches in only 4 feet of water. Some push their luck by fishing a little too shallow while the tide changes and get beached.
Pictured below was an 8,000 lb day
It's not just the physical labor alone that makes this job so difficult, it is the combination of that, and severe lack of sleep that takes its toll on you. Once the escapement goal has been reached, there are no more closures. This means you can fish 24 hours a day if you want, and some people probably do. During the peak fishing weeks, we would fish for 15 hours or more, travel to the tender, wait in line with 8 other boats, offload our fish, cook, mend nets, sleep for 2-4 hours, and then do it all again. Some days we would start fishing at 3am and others at 3pm, it's all dependent on the tides or if we hear news of a big run coming through from other boats. Don't forget to add crashing waves, cold temperatures and rain that seemed to come from every single direction. At this point you're basically a zombie. But remember, you don't come here to sightsee, you're here to make money by catching fish.
I've developed an entirely new appreciation for a 10 minute power nap and warm cup of coffee.
We would also occasionally get a 20+ lb King Salmon in our net. This fish typically goes for $25-$50/lb in markets and tastes amazing, soooo yeah, we're going to eat that one.
Not all days were gloomy though, the sunsets and sunrises were some of the best I've ever seen. The sun usually set at 1:30am and rose again at 4am.
After hitting land, it's time to strip the nets and clean the boat. I stopped to take a progress shot while scrubbing it down.
After spending a season fishing in Bristol Bay, I learned how important these salmon are to the livelihood of so many people. The fisherman, who's boats are small businesses and the communities that thrive from the commotion of a busy season. Most people know each other on a first name basis and time moves reeeeaal slow. Although they were the hardest 6 weeks of my life, I've actually returned home feeling refreshed to have left the city for a while. I'm thankful for everything I experienced out on the boat and I'm hoping to return again next season.