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A Kid's Experience Commercial Salmon Fishing

family member, little Owen, kissing a salmon we caught on our raft

My name is Owen.

Fisher on Alaska Series raft commercial salmon fishing in Bristol Bay

I'm twelve and I've been going to fish camp every summer since I was three years old. When I was little, I played while the crew worked. I played with army guys in the sand dunes, fixed things with my Poppa, did art projects with Gigi, and even built a play structure out of whale bones with my mom! As I got older, I learned how to drive our "bikes" (ATV four-wheelers) and operate some of the tools we use around camp.

I'm a long time vegetarian so I don't really like the fishing part of our operation, but I do have some other specialized jobs that I do to help out.

  1. Bike Wrangler.
Fisher on ATV bike delivering sockeye salmon to processor

My Poppa gave me this title. It basically means moving our bikes around to help the crew while they're fishing or working on the beach. I do this by paying attention to the incoming tide and moving bikes further up the beach if the fishers are out in the rafts. I drive the raft bike over to the beached rafts when they're empty and ready to be loaded on the trailer, and most importantly of all, I also deliver full totes of fish to the processor. The totes of fresh salmon and slush ice weigh about 1,000 pounds and the sandy driveway up to the processor is steep, so this is a hard job. You drive down the beach a ways to get a good run up, do a wide U-turn, pick up speed, shift into 3rd gear, and roar up the driveway with the full trailer bouncing behind you, splashing water over the sides. Once you start you have to commit and not let off the throttle or you'll roll backwards and jack knife the trailer in front of everyone waiting to deliver. My Poppa usually rides with me because he has to show his permit to the fish buyers. When you pull up on the cement buying pad, you take the lid of the tote, gather the loops at each corner of the brailer bag and put them over the forklift tines. Then, you wait while the forklift dumps the full brailer into the processor's ice tote and it gets weighed. Then comes the worst part, when you have to catch the slimy empty brailer bag that is dangling from the forklift tine and put it back inside the tote, ready for the next delivery!

  1. Flounder Release.
Wild Alaskan Flounders caught in Egegik Alaska

When I do go out in the raft with the crew, I don't like to touch the flopping salmon so I focus on releasing any bi-catch, like flounders. Flounders are a bottom fish that are a smaller cousin of halibut. They're shaped a bit like a diamond with both eyes on top of their head. When the crew pull up a portion of net with a flounder in it, it’s my job to gently detangle it from the net and toss it back in the water while they pick the salmon out. I like this job because the flounders are cute and I like saving them. 

  1. Bike Fueler.

I do this job in our yard at the end of every tide. I use a five gallon red gas jug and carry it to each of the bikes we use to pull the net trailer, raft trailer, and tote trailers. I unscrew the tight gas cap, balance the jug over the fuel tank, line up the funnel tube and fill the tank, then tighten the cap as hard as I can. It's also my job to fill up the two high pressure sprayers that we use for cleaning our equipment after every tide. This refueling job is not fun to do on a windy day, which is a lot of days in Bristol Bay, because I end up getting gasoline blown all over me. And I have to be careful to not to leave the gas cap off accidentally in case it rains during the night and water gets in the gas tank.

  1. Snack Deliverer.
Driving down the Egegik Bristol Bay beach and mud flats

One of my favorite jobs is delivering snacks and drinks to the crew when the tide has gone out but they still have a raft piled with salmon that need to be picked, toted and delivered. They have been working hard for hours so they are very happy to see me when I drive out to each net with my basket full of quick snacks and cold sodas.

As I get older I'm going to have to do more and more salmon picking in the rafts, but for now I am working on perfecting these jobs and having fun with my family.

Written by: Owen O'Neill