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First Time Commercial Fishing in AK

  • person Gwen Mistretta
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First Time Commercial Fishing in AK

We had flown from Portland, Oregon to Seattle, Washington first, then I arrived at the Ted Steven’s Anchorage International Airport in Anchorage, Alaska with my dad. The next flight is delayed for an hour, but once on the plane I sit in the aisle seat 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.

My older siblings, Erin and Jake, had been fishing at our family’s fish camp for the past few years. Up until now, I had been too young to join them. Now it is 2014 and I am 12 years old, turning 13 in August. The plane is full of fishing chatter. Who’s going to fish for who, how long they have been coming out, bear stories, and all things under the sun. I get so excited from eavesdropping and imagining myself being able to tell stories like this next year that I squirm in my seat for the entire 45 minute plane ride to King Salmon.  

When I exit the plane into the King Salmon airport, I’m surprised to see the airport is just one giant room with a baggage claim conveyor belt and a few airline customer service agents behind a check-in desk. My dad and I push through the crowd of Xtra Tuf wearing fishers and tourists to grab our bags. Since we came during peak fishing season, most of our bags are filled with fresh produce (a hot commodity at fish camp) and supplies that are needed for repairs. 

Just as I start thinking about how we are going to find our next flight, I hear me and my dad’s name being called out into the crowd. I raise my hand and wave at the young brunette woman who’s calling us. Jenny greets us cheerily and tells us that as soon as we get our bags, to meet her outside and she will drive us to our next plane. 

After waiting for what felt like forever due to my excitement, we grab our bags and stroll outside to find the van. Jenny from Coastal Air sees us and helps load our bags in the van, and then waving at all the local drivers, she weaves her way through the parking lot and down a dusty, pot-hole filled, dirt road to an adjoining smaller airport runway. 

Jumping out of the van and unlocking the gate, she drives over to a small white airplane, a 6-seater PA-32 that’s been chartered for us to make the quick hop from King Salmon to Egegik. Jenny throws our bags in the nose of the plane as her dad, Pilot Pat, opens the door above the wing to let us in. 

I want to sit co-pilot sooo bad, but I am too afraid to ask. Pilot Pat slides the co-pilot seat forward and instructs my dad to get in the back seat. Just as I start heading for the step to get in next to my dad, Pilot Pat slides the co-pilot seat back to its regular position. With a smile, he looks at me and nods “You want to sit up front?” With the biggest grin, I say “Yes!” 

Pilot Pat gets in first and climbs into the driver's seat, then I get in after him. He makes sure I have my seatbelt on and tells me to close the airplane door slowly. He leans across to lock it and tells me not to grab the steering wheel while we are flying, but lets my dad take a picture of me holding it first. 

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, but it makes me really nervous every time we hit some wind. I have a detailed view of the expansive patches of green tundra that are spotted with lakes and meandering little creeks that carve through the landscape. In the distance I see little buildings all in a row. As we start to get closer, I realize they are all fish camps lined along the beach and I start trying to guess which one is ours.

We fly over Big Creek then Pilot Pat turns the plane and starts to descend towards the beach. There’s no landing strip beneath us and I start to panic thinking we are making a crash landing in the sand. However, Pilot Pat is calm, as he has flown this path thousands of times. He’s skilled at landing on this small strip of beach between where the tundra meets the ocean. I still squeeze my eyes shut and brace for impact. To my surprise, the landing is soft and quick, and in seconds we’ve come to a rolling stop in front of a group of people sitting on four wheelers. We’ve arrived at Coffee Point Seafoods (CPS), and my family is there to pick us up. 

As we start to deboard, my sister, Erin, drives one of the four wheelers up next to the plane. Pat helps us unload our bags into the trailer that is in tow of Erin’s four wheeler. My stepmom, Sarah, drives up on another four wheeler, which I learned are called “bikes” here, and gives my dad a hug and kiss then comes to give me some love too. We all climb on the bikes and drive toward the tundra to get out of Pilot Pat’s way. Just as quickly as he landed, he takes off and is headed back to King Salmon to pick up more people. 

Once the plane has turned into a speck in the distance, we drive a quick 30 seconds to the first driveway next to CPS. As we climb up the driveway, I see our camp for the first time; a brown, double story cabin. On the right side of the cabin is a “mechanic shed” where I see my brother, Jake, and my Grandpa, Tony, working on a bike. We park ours right in front of the front of the shed and greet each other. My grandma, Gwen (aka Gigi), comes out the front door of the cabin to say hello and help us bring our bags inside. 

Erin’s childhood best friend, Natalie, is in the main cabin cooking dinner while uncle Siri is playing toy soldiers with my 3 year old brother Owen. Everyone gathers around as we pull out bags of salad, LED lights, brass faucets, and a hose from our luggage. 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 the items my dad and I brought are valuable. He also explains how the fresh produce doesn’t last the full fishing season, so they are very grateful to have salad again. I feel kind of like Santa delivering Christmas gifts!

After the gifts have been parceled out, Erin gives me a tour of our camp. The main building where the kitchen, mud room, and shop are is a traditional wood frame building, but the rest of the outbuildings are mostly re-purposed Conex containers. Erin and Natalie's room, called “the girls Conex”, is an insulated 8x20 Conex with a small boot room at the entrance of it. Inside, there are bunk beds on the far wall and a few organizer racks on the left side where their clothes are neatly folded. Built on the left side of the girls Conex is a room called “the Page room”, named after Tony’s best friend, Page, who helped him build it. It has a plastic roof and a wood floor with a small “room” where the bunk beds are. It looks more like a fort than a room because there are orange construction tarps being used as walls/insulation. My stepmom and dad sleep here with my little brother. 

Built onto the right hand side of the girls Conex is “the net room”. A mirror of the page room. But instead this being sleeping quarters, there are bags of fishing nets on the right and storage of paper products on the left. There is a small 3x3 room on the right of the net room called “the pee house”. That one is self explanatory… there’s also a nicely built outhouse on the other side of camp as another option for the bathroom. The tour also includes the generator room, the sauna room, the boys' Conex (where Jake and Siri stay), and the garage. 

While we wait for dinner, my sister tells me she needs to teach me how to drive the bikes. So she takes me through the process of starting the bike and shows me how to shift it. When I ask her about the brakes, she tells me “there are no brakes”. I laugh at first, but then realize she’s serious. The salt water corrodes them and can lock up on the wheels, so we use downshifting as brakes. She takes me out for a drive on it, and then trades me places. I tell her I’m only 12 and don’t have my drivers license, but she tells me “that doesn’t matter here” and giggles. 

Erin tells me when to shift as we're whizzing down the beach, dodging dead salmon and pulley systems used for fishing. I feel so cool! She tells me you can hear when you need to shift and lets me try to shift at the right time. I don’t do as well without her instructions and grind the gears a couple times. By the time we make it back to camp, I feel like I know how to drive the bike, but I still need help with shifting.

The rest of the evening passes quickly with dinner and a quick group meeting about our plan for the next day, and then I retreat to a bunk bed next to Tony and Gigi’s room. The wind howls and bangs things outside against our cabin. I think that a bear is trying to get in and eat me! I creep over to Tony and Gigi’s room to ask them if there is a bear outside. Gigi tells me that we are safe and it is just the wind. She gets me a book with a flashlight and makes me some hot chocolate to calm my nerves. I fell asleep reading about a girl who grew up in Alaska. 

In the morning, I rise to the smell of eggs and chocolate chip pancakes. Gigi has made us all a big breakfast before we go out to fish. After a delicious breakfast, the crew descends the stairs into the mud room and pulls on their neoprene waders, rainjackets, PFDs (personal floatation device aka lifejackets) and waterproof gloves. Sarah says it is too wavy for me, but she will come get me when it is safe. So Sarah, Erin, Natalie, Jake, and Tony go out to fish. Dad, Owen and I play inside while Gigi does her lawyer work on the phone. 

After a few hours of playing and watching everyone fish through the window, Sarah and Tony come up to get me. I put on my fishing gear and hop on the back of their bike. We drove down the beach to the edge of the water where a piece of rope (called our safety line) is anchored to shore and extends out to the furthest net. Sarah tells me I’ll be fishing with Erin and Natalie who were in a raft, pulling in on the safety line to come pick me up. While we wait, Tony tells me some fish picking strategies and to “pretend every fish is a $20 bill, don’t let them go!”. 

I hop into Erin and Natalie’s raft, and they start pulling us back out to the net. The ocean water is still a bit wavy, but nothing too scary. After a few minutes, we arrived at the net and they worked to get it over the nose. Once we are under, we sit on the sides of the raft and begin pulling fish in. I watch in awe as my sister and Natalie detangle the fish from the webbing. They tell me to try to pick a fish and I start to tear up, not wanting to hurt it. Erin tells me “fish don’t have feelings” to make me feel better and after a little more coaxing and coaching, I pick my first fish! At The Popsie Fish Company, we bleed every fish to ensure the best quality, but I was too scared now. I made my sister bleed my fish for me. 

Since I’m not very fast, I sit and watch Erin and Natalie work. While they are looking down picking, I see a fish swim out of the net! “Every fish is a $20 bill” rings in my head. Without another thought, I jump into the water after the fish. I grabbed it, but it was so slippery that it got away. As I reach my hands up to hoist myself back into the raft, I realize I can’t touch nor can I reach! Oh no - my waders are starting to fill up with water. I start yelling for Erin to help me, who can’t stop laughing at me for actually jumping in after a fish. Natalie wastes no time and jumps over the net, grabs me by my PFD, and uses her body weight to pull me in the raft. Once I am back to safety, I join my sister in laughing at me. 

Wet and fishless, they take me back to shore via the safety line. Tony saw us pulling in and was waiting for us when we arrived. Erin couldn’t wait to tell Tony about my swim. We laughed some more, then he took me up to camp to get changed. I decided to stay inside and help Gigi make everyone lunch while they finished fishing the tide.

My little splash was the talk of our camp that day. It has come up every fishing season since then too as a warning story to new crew. I stayed at fish camp for 10 days on my first trip in 2014. I’m still coming out here 10 years later, but now I stay from open to close. The lesson I learned that day was: yes, every fish is like a $20 bill, but I’m worth more than $20, so don’t drown over one!

 Written By: Gwen Mistretta

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