Commercial Salmon Fishing – Bristol Bay Alaska

 Here is a somewhat detailed synopsis of my experience commercial salmon fishing in Alaska’s Bristol Bay.  I will be adding to this as time allows, but for now here is something to start with.  Keep in mind this is just my account on one boat, by no means is this intended to be a 100% factual depiction of what this industry is like, it is just one mans observations and it’s primarily intended to entertain – then inform.  So, please, enjoy!

A beautiful view from the mouth of the Ugashik river where we fished.

A beautiful view from the mouth of the Ugashik river where we fished.

Another beautiful view from the mouth of the Ugashik river at sunrise.

Another beautiful view from the mouth of the Ugashik river at sunrise.

The entire back of the boat full of fresh Salmon after a good pick of fish from the nets.

The entire back of the boat full of fresh Salmon after a good pick of fish from the nets.

Here is a boat off-loading its catch at the end of the day to the Trident Seafoods tender vessel "Time Bandit" which was featured on the Discovery TV series "Deadliest Catch".

Here is a boat off-loading its catch at the end of the day to the Trident Seafoods tender vessel “Time Bandit” which was featured on the Discovery TV series “Deadliest Catch”.

A typical set-netter fishing boat headed out on an errand.  These boats and crews set a net at a specific location rather than drift with the net like the larger boats do.

A typical set-netter fishing boat headed out on an errand. These boats and crews set a net at a specific location rather than drift with the net like the larger boats do.

After spending 25 days living with two other men on a boat, on land and at sea, in one of the most remote areas of the world, Bristol Bay in Alaska, plenty of human and natural dynamics come into effect and help create many unique experiences. And after being out-of-touch with modern forms of communication for the last 15 days, I’ll try to fill in the gaps and paint an interesting and accurate picture of what it could be like and what it is like up in these remote waters, doing what I’m doing—commissioning a commercial fishing boat, living with strange people in close quarters, and commercially catching Sockeye Salmon for the rest of the world to eat.

Here I am posing with, of course, the smallest sockeye salmon we caught all season...we ate it for lunch that day.

Here I am posing with, of course, the smallest sockeye salmon we caught all season…we ate it for lunch that day.

The commercial salmon fishery here in Bristol Bay Alaska runs a little something like this: People from all over Alaska and some from other nearby areas of the US such as Bellingham, Washington and a few stragglers from other random cities across the US, purchase one of the limited commercial salmon fishing licenses from a previous owner, buy a boat known as a “Bristol Bay Gill Netter” and put a crew together of 2-3 people to help with the fishing. The whole process typically begins in April and really gains momentum early May when most boat owners arrive in at the King Salmon Airport in Alaska and drive up to the town of Naknek to begin work commissioning their fishing vessel for the season. It’s not uncommon for boat owner’s to work 20 hour days getting their boats ready. The sun hardly hits the horizon in this far northern region of the world before it rises again. Owners and crew become delirious with what day it is, what time of day or night it is, and sleep and eat whenever nature calls on them to do so. It’s a very new take on life and work. It becomes apparent pretty quick that it’s almost a race to get your boat ready first and get in the water as soon as possible to start fishing. The first week of the season is known as “Free Week” where fisherman can fish as much as they want, whenever they want. Since it’s still early in the season, the catch is not typically very good but it all adds up in the end.

All the vehicles in King Salmon and Naknek are forgotten relics from decades past. It’s a little like going back in time except the name of the game is to keep it running for 3 weeks and that’s all that anyone seems to care about. When you go to the small grocery store in town or one of the canneries and look at the parking lot you would think you are looking at a junk yard only chances are all of the vehicles you are looking at run and are actively being used. People are driving vehicles with cracked cylinder heads, non-working alternators, bad batteries, tires with cracks so deep they resemble the earth in the driest regions of Death Valley, California. Some of the quick fixes for these issues include owning more than one battery for the vehicle so that you can charge one while you’re using the other, carrying a lot of water with you when you drive anywhere, and jumper cables are a must-have. Most vehicles sound like a great grandfather that smoked for 80 years and is dying a slow and painful death of emphysema while trying to run a marathon in a smog inundated city. The scariest part of this whole equation is that we haven’t started talking about the boats yet…and a lot of the boats aren’t much better.

Here is a typical vehicle found on the road in Naknek, Alaska.  As you can see, the bed is, well, not structurally sound anymore.

Here is a typical vehicle found on the road in Naknek, Alaska. As you can see, the bed is, well, not structurally sound anymore.

Here is the other crew member Jeff posing next to another style of typical vehicle found on the road in Naknek, Alaska.  Wild.

Here is the other crew member Jeff posing next to another style of typical vehicle found on the road in Naknek, Alaska. Wild.

When it comes to commissioning the boats, the concept of fixing something takes on a whole new definition—at least from all of the detailed training I’ve had over the last 20 years. Fixing something on one of these boats means to make or just try to make it work, not to ensure that it will work in the future. Fixing something on one of these boats means to directly wire everything to anything, to twist wires together and wrap electrical tape around the poor weather exposed joint, to epoxy bolts in place that can’t be tightened or loosened and provide no additional stability or benefit, to use a piece of old chewed up car tire and a bolt as a “drain plug” to seal a drain hole in the keel of the boat and then to fiberglass over the bottom of it at the start of every season, or to use a separate switch to excite an alternator instead of just wiring it into the ignition switch. Everything on one of these boats causes stray disruptive radio frequencies and not many things work consistently or reliably. Thankfully most of them are outfitted with trusty 2-stroke diesel engines that are robust and resilient to this kind of ineffective maintenance.

It’s a pretty strange world in the Bristol Bay fisheries. Some boats are fast, most boats are not – barely able to get out of their own way in heavy seas. They perform a little like a tug boat – low speed, large propeller, lots of pulling power, big and fat like a bathtub.

Here is a typical Bristol Bay Gill-netter -- the style of boat used in this salmon drift net fishery.

Here is a typical Bristol Bay Gill-netter — the style of boat used in this salmon drift net fishery.

As a crew living aboard one of these vessels you are much at the whim of the captain. Many captains have strange quirks which add up to create many comical dynamics if you are not the one subject to them. With the excessive masculinity and lack of check by the opposite sex, men are peeing in empty peanut butter jars and pooping in buckets, eating fresh salmon from the same unwashed pan for 25 days straight, eating nothing but starch for 25 days with an exception for the fresh fish, not showering for 25 days, and eating 8,000 calories a day.

Here is Jeff's lunch, two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a can of chef boyardee.

Here is Jeff’s lunch, two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a can of chef boyardee.

At typical lunch and dinner on a fishing day or the day after a fishing day--fresh pan fried salmon.  Mmm

At typical lunch and dinner on a fishing day or the day after a fishing day–fresh pan fried salmon. Mmm

Here is an example of a more elaborate meal that I made: hand made veggie burgers made from black beans, canned corn, a piece of bread, instant mashed potatoes, and some soul seasoning. (probably why I was deemed the "chef of the boat")

Here is an example of a more elaborate meal that I made: hand made veggie burgers made from black beans, canned corn, a piece of bread, instant mashed potatoes, and some soul seasoning. (probably why I was deemed the “chef of the boat”)