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A Kid's Experience Commercial Salmon Fishing

  • person Gwen Mistretta
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family member, little Owen, kissing a salmon we caught on our raft

Owen - 2022

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.

UPDATE - 2024

I am 15 years old now. I am a permit holder and work every tide. I specialize in delivering the fish to the processor, but I also help with setting and pulling the nets and picking fish in the rafts. Here's what a typical tide looks like for me:

I dress with the crew in the mud room. I slip my lanyard with my Alaska commercial fishing permit card over my head, then pull on my neoprene waders, nylon fishing shirt, PFD (personal flotation device/life vest) and rubber gloves. 

While the rest of the crew bring the raft trailer and net trailer down to the beach and start fishing, Poppa and I hop on the tote trailer bikes and drive them to the Processor's concrete "buying pad". We pull up next to big totes full of chip ice and use a snow shovel to transfer about 7 full shovels into our fish totes. Then we drive down to the big hoses by the beach and fill the totes about a fourth of the way full with seawater to create slush ice. 

Owen and Jake catching an Irish Lord fishOnce we have iced the totes, we drive down to the water's edge and I walk out to one of the inside nets (the ones closest to the beach), get in the raft and help pick (detangle) salmon out of the net. I am not as fast at this as the other crew because I haven't been doing it as long . But my sister, mom, and uncle have been giving me pointers and I'm getting better. Pictured is my brother Jake and I after picking an Irish Lord fish out of our net. An Irish Lord is a type of Sculpin with spines on their head and fins. 

If the raft gets full of fish, we pull it to shore and "tote" (gently throw by the head) the fish from the raft into the slush ice totes. This can take a while because a full raft can hold about 500 fish. We all help, so we can get the raft empty and available for more picking. Then I put on the heavy insulated tote lid, snap it on and deliver the 1000 pound tote by driving it up the steep driveway on to the concrete pad as I described before. Except now I am a permit holder and I do it by myself. As the fish tote is being forklifted onto the scale, I pull out my permit to be scanned, confirm the weight on the scale, and sign the ticket (receipt). The buyer stores it in a file until the end of the tide and I drive the empty fish tote back down to see if any more rafts are ready to be toted.

At the end of the tide when we start to run out of water, I help pull the nets. We unclip the net from the buoy and get in the raft. One of us grabs the lead line and one of us grabs the cork line and we pull together as the 300 foot net piles into the raft and we slowly move towards the outside buoy. I like this part because it is a really good workout. 

Once the nets are pulled, I focus entirely on toting fish froOwen delivering sockeye salmon to the processor on the buying padm rafts and delivering the tote trailers to the pad until all fish have been delivered. On a really big catch day, Poppa and I each drive a continuous circuit between the full rafts of fish and the delivery pad while the rest of the crew continue to pick fish out of the nets. 

When the last tote of fish has been delivered, I collect all the receipts from that tide and bring them home to be tallied. Then I help with cleanup in the yard, using two high pressure sprayers to rinse all of our rafts, four wheelers, and brailer bags with fresh water, which takes about an hour.

Finally, it's time to hang up my wet fishing clothes to dry and get something to eat! 

Owen repairing the raft trailer with Tony

When we are not fishing, I do my bike fueling job and help with camp chores like fixing equipment or changing the oil in the generator.  Here's me repairing the raft trailer with Poppa.

 

 

Owen sand boarding behind a four wheeler

During my downtime I like to ride my dirt bike, play football or baseball on the beach, or do some "sand boarding" with my friends behind our four wheeler. 

 

 

I do have more responsibilities now then when I was younger. But I like the satisfied feeling of working hard and being a full member of the team.

Written by: Owen O'Neill

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