When I was twenty years old, I had the opportunity to fish in Alaska. A friend named Melissa suggested it. Her dad was a commercial fisherman and she invited me up to her hometown of Sitka for a visit. By fishing, I’d earn enough to pay for my plane ticket.
I was already hooked on travel, and Alaska sounded adventurous. I’m not sure what I pictured when Melissa told me we could work on her dad’s boat. She used the words “commercial fisherman,” but I didn’t have any clear image of what that was. This was long before reality television, and there was nothing along the lines of Deadliest Catch to either scare me away or spurn me on.
Up to that point in my life, the idea of fishing conjured up images of standing lakeside with a fishing pole and a cup of worms at my feet, or middle-aged men in a lazy boat on calm water, drinking beer and chatting under hats speckled with fishing lures. I had no idea what commercial fishing at sea would entail. “So we’ll start baiting tomorrow morning,” Melissa said when I arrived. “And we’ll be long-lining for black cod.”
“Okay,” I agreed, as if I had any idea what that meant.
Before setting out, we spent two days baiting long lines with periodic hooks on them. The baiting process involved placing frozen squid on the hooks, then coiling the lines in three small circles, each partially overlapping the prior circle, until the fully baited line resembled a beach ball-sized coil of line. The job became harder as the squid thawed throughout the day, taking on a sickly sweet smell as they warmed in the sun and grew slippery and difficult to handle.
I became well acquainted with proper rain gear during this time. Before then, I would have thought of rain gear as a rain jacket and perhaps some rubber boots. But fishing in Alaska requires serious attire. It’s not just rain gear, it’s “foul weather” gear. I borrowed gear from Melissa’s mom since, as luck would have it, I was relatively the same size, boots included. The boots, thick rain pants, and heavy rain jacket go over your regular clothes, giving you the feeling of impenetrability, or at least the assurance that if someone threw a bucket of water at you, your underwear would stay dry.
The outer wear isn’t just to protect the wearer from rain or a splash of seawater or a random bucket from a water-wielding marauder but also to keep out the insidious fish scales that work their way onto every surface and into every crevice imaginable during the course of fishing. The scales act as a fish’s final retaliation and protest at having been violently and rudely plucked from the sea.
Our days at sea were long and took us to waters with no land in sight. We worked until our muscles ached and then beyond, falling into the ship’s bunks at night with a fatigue I’d never known possible. It was both grueling and enjoyable, setting out the lines and returning to them a day later to haul in our catch.
Melissa (left) and me, thirty seconds after sitting down to rest
As we let the lines out, I was prohibited from going near the back of the boat. This precaution, due to my inexperience, was to avoid having a flying hook catch me as the lines flew by. I was okay with this, as being hooked and dragged to the bottom of the sea wasn’t high on my list. When we’d haul the lines back in, Melissa’s dad Charlie would snag the fish with a great gaff hook and throw them aboard, where Melissa and I would wrangle them and throw them down in the icy hold to Dylan, Melissa’s brother, who not only packed the fish but also gave them a beating to the head if they were still moving.
We caught more than black cod on that trip, and I was endlessly amazed by the variety of creatures that would get snagged on one of the hooks and pulled onto the boat. Charlie often let me examine them before throwing them back. Sometimes these were other varieties of fish.
“What happens if we get a big crab or something tangled up in the line?” I asked.
“Then we eat good tonight,” he said. “Oh, look, here’s a…”
“A crab?” I asked hopefully.
“No,” Charlie answered. “An asshole.”
Of all the things he might have said, this was not an answer I anticipated.
“Why are they called assholes?” I asked. Stupidly.
“You’ll see,” said Melissa.
Charlie placed an object the size of an orange into my gloved hand. I looked to find an anemone-like creature with a single orifice surrounded by puckered flesh.
“Oh.” I nodded. “That’s why.”
I threw the asshole back into the sea, also not something I’d foreseen.
When the black cod expedition came to an end, I felt both exhausted and strong, and knew that I’d only had a minor glimpse of what true fishermen undertake for an entire season, for a lifetime.
We returned to Sitka, and I took a shower and scrubbed myself raw. I was sure I’d never get all the scales from my hair, or the scent of rotting squid from my nostrils.
I did, of course. And I never thought I’d say this, but I kind of miss it.
This story is condensed from a chapter in Vagabonding with Kids: Alaska.
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