I arrive at the Ted Steven’s Anchorage International Airport in Anchorage a quick flight from Homer, Alaska. Checking in at the gate, I see that I have the option to upgrade for first class for $20.93. For that price, I’m happy to move from 19D to 3A. Thanks, Alaska Airlines! The flight is delayed for an hour, but once on the plane I sit next to a jovial middle-aged man who takes one look at my Xtra Tufs and asks me, “You going commercial fishing?” And I answer with pride that I am.
As a lifelong Alaskan, whose first job was in a cannery, this is the first time I’ve been across Cook Inlet or gone commercial fishing, and it feels like a right of passage of sorts. Ted, who is sitting next to me in 3B, introduces himself and tells me that he’s been coming out to a lodge near King Salmon to sport fish since 1976. When I tell him that’s the year I was born, he laughs and jokes with me by asking, “Are you sure you know who your daddy is?” Drinks have already been served in First Class, and even though it’s an inappropriate question, it’s the kind of humor that’s common out here, so I laugh along with him while also rolling my eyes.
By the time the 45-minute flight has landed in King Salmon, I’ve met Ted’s two fishing buddies - one runs a farm manufacturing business, and the other is retired FBI - and they wish me well on my trip out fishing.
When I exit the plane into the King Salmon airport, I’m surprised to see the airport is just one giant room, filled with relatively well-dressed, good-smelling people. Probably more tourists than fishers in this crowd. Just as I start thinking about how I’m going to find my next flight, I hear my name being called out into the crowd. I raise my hand and wave at the young brunette woman who’s calling me, and she greets me cheerily and tells me as soon as I get my bags to meet me outside and she will drive me to my next plane, a small 6-seater airplane that’s been chartered for me to make the quick hop from King Salmon to Egegik.
After fetching my bags, and receiving some more good-natured ribbing from the trio of sport fishermen I met on the plane, I go outside to find the van. The brunette woman, Jenny from Coastal Air sees me and helps me load my two bags in the van, and then waving at all the local drivers, she weaves her way through the lot and down a dusty dirt road to an adjoining smaller airport runway. Jumping out of the car and unlocking the gate, she drives the van over to a small white airplane that looks more like a toddler’s toy than a plane you’d pay money to fly in. She tells me her dad Pat will be right there and that I can get on the plane after him. She throws my bags in the nose of the plane, but lets me keep my camera upfront with me. Right on cue, Pat shows up and shows me how to step on the right place on the wing to climb into the passenger seat right next to him. He and I are the only two people on the plane, and I am sitting directly in front with a birds-eye view of, well, the birds as we take off from the airport.
I keep thinking that he’s going to fly higher, but the whole flight we aren’t more than 600-700 feet above the ground. It's an exhilarating feeling. I have a detailed view of the expansive patches of green tundra that are spotted with lakes and meandering little creeks and wider rivers that carve through the landscape. Just as I’m getting used to the view, Pat turns the plane and starts to descend towards the earth. There’s no landing strip beneath us and I can see that the only place to land is on the grey strip of beach between the green tuffs of land and the glassy silver flat ocean. I pull out my camera to document this landing, as it’s a terrifying novelty.
However, the surprisingly soft landing comes quickly, and in seconds we’ve come to a rolling stop in front of a windsock I recognize from pictures. We’ve arrived at the Popsie Fish Company commercial fishing set net site.
Pat helps me unload my bags onto the sandy beach about 30 yards from the entrance to the encampment. And then he takes off. I start awkwardly dragging my bags up the beach. The rollers which I'm sure were a patented breakthrough in luggage technology for airports are completely useless in the sand, and my pitiful plight attracts the attention of two fishermen who are passing by on their four-wheelers. They slow down and ask me if I need a hand, which I clearly do, and I accept their offer of help. One of them loads my luggage onto their four-wheeler and the other offers for me to climb on the back of his “bike” as I learn they are called out here. They drive me up the beach and into the camp, where despite being delayed at the Anchorage Airport, I’ve arrived earlier than expected to the camp. They were just readying a "bike" to come pick me up, but I’d hitched my own ride already.
I’m greeted to the camp by Tony, the owner of Popsie Fish Company, and his wife Gwen. After catching up with me about my trip out there, our attention turns to the bags that I’ve brought. One is full of personal gear, but the other is freight that I’ve brought out to the camp that is a collection of things that the crew has ordered, amongst other things. The rest of the crew starts to gather around as we pull out containers of mayonnaise, LED lights, brass faucets, a hose. Tony explains to me when something breaks out at fish camp, it’s not like you can run to the Home Depot to buy the parts to fix it, so each of these items I’ve brought is valuable and will solve some problem they’ve been having in camp. I feel kind of like St. Nicholas delivering the perfect Christmas gifts.
After the gifts have been parceled out, Erin Washer, the granddaughter of Tony and Gwen gives me the tour of the premises. The main building where the kitchen, gear room and shop are is a traditional wood frame building, but the rest of the outbuildings are mostly re-purposed Conex traliers. My sleeping quarters are an insulated 8x20 Conex with a small boot room at the entrance of it that is connected to another Conex with a bathroom, shower, and living room built in-between. I’m impressed that even though everything has been pieced together, it has all the comforts of home. There’s also a nicely built outhouse around the back as another option for the bathroom. The tour also includes the generator room, the sauna room, and a room where some of the crew are smoking salmon and vacuum packing it.
It’s late in the afternoon and the high tide was too low to fish, so the crew is busying themselves with painting the outside of the main house. I’m told that we’ll fish the next morning at 8am “Out the Door” time and we all have the evening off for “Milling about” time.
Owen, a cherubic-faced 12-year old, the youngest at camp is excited to show me how to drive the four-wheeler or “bike” as they call it. So he takes me through the process of starting the bike and shows me how to shift it. When I ask him about the brakes he tells me “there are no brakes”. I laugh at first, but then realize he’s serious. He takes me out for a drive on it, and then trades me places when we are down on the beach and lets me drive. He tells when to shift and were whizzing down the beach, dodging dead salmon and remnants of fishing. By the time we make it back to camp, I feel like I know what I’m doing on the bike, but I don’t think Owen is as impressed with my skills yet.
The rest of the evening passes quickly with dinner and a quick group meeting, and then I retreat to my Conex for bed. One of the advantages of sleeping in a metal box with no windows in the summer in Alaska is that it’s one of the few places that’s actually dark, so I don’t even need to wear an eye mask to get to sleep.
In the morning, I rise with my 7am alarm, pull on some long johns and a flannel, and meet the crew in the kitchen for coffee. After sufficient caffeination, we descend the stairs into the gear room and pull on our neoprene waders, rainjackets, PFD (personal floatation device aka lifejackets) and waterproof gloves. I hop on the back of a bike and we drive down down the beach to the edge of the water. The ocean water is flat, calm, and silver like a mirror. Sarah Neal O’Neill, the 40-something crew leader and daughter of Tony Neal, shows me each of the three set nets that the crew will be picking fish from. We are on the net closest to shore, and the three of us - me, Sarah, and Avery, an easy-going 20-year old - wade into the water to begin work.
I have no idea what I’m doing but I pretend that I do as I bend over and pick up the net that’s floating in the water with a sockeye salmon wedged into it between the lines. I shake and pull the fish and net haphazardly to no effect until Sarah gently walks me through the best technique for removing a salmon from the net. “Hold the salmon by the gills and hold it up with one hand. Then use your other hand to free the head from the net. Once it’s freed, you can pull up on the head, and slide the net over the body of the fish”. She demonstrated the technique a few times while I looked on, and clearly, she knew what she was doing. Having fished out here for over 30 years, she’s probably “picked” thousands - if not tens of thousands - of fish from the net so far. I needed more practice. Trying to follow her technique, I tried once again but as soon as I’d freed this fish from the net it squirted through my fingers and slipped back into the murky waters out of sight. Oh no, I plunged my arms into the water elbow-deep to catch it, not wanting to lose my second fish of the season and realized I’d made a mistake when getting dressed. Ice cold water rushed into my gloves causing my fingers to go numb almost instantly. But somehow I managed to catch the fish that had gotten away. I cradle it close to my chest, the way one does with a baby, relieved I hadn’t lost the fish altogether. Sarah laughed good-naturedly at me and shows me again how to grip the fish through the gills with a finger so it won't slip out between my hands.
We work our way down the net, picking salmon out and tossing them gently into the raft that we drug along with us. Occasionally, we find a flounder stuck in the net and tossed it back into the ocean. One salmon we came to was missing its head which Sarah and Avery agreed had probably been bitten off by a seal, after it got caught in the net. After about an hour of this, we’d collect the salmon for the length of the net and were ready to take them to the processor.
The fish processor, Coffee Point Processing, butts up against Popsie Fish Company's leased land, so the commute to deliver them is not far. After we’d emptied the fish from the boat into a brailer bag and a big fish tote filled with ice, we drove the fish over to the processor where we were greeted by a cheery woman who weighs the salmon and then takes it away on a forklift to be processed.
During processing, the salmon will be flash frozen and packaged, and then put on a barge and shipped to Seattle where it will be distributed from there.