Diary of a Fishing Season

By Seth Kantner

June

sethfish01When the salmon were still far out to sea, swimming their way through False Pass in the Aluetians, or further out in the Pacific, I was sort of safe from my “gambling” addiction – otherwise known as commercial fishing. I was “working,” walking the country searching for ivory and gold – a career my unemployed friends claim you can definitely count on. I sure found some old bones.

As the summer fishing season approached, rumors swirled around these parts.

“Tom – no, Ron, yeah Ron Monson – will be buying salmon.”

“Some fella with a lotta money is coming up, gonna buy all the fish.”

Long-time fish buyer Tom Monson, who bought fish here for three decades and shipped out more than a million pounds of Kotzebue salmon in 2001, had some indirect advice: “I’m selling my boat.”

So I began my month of phoning buyers and other salmon people. Here’s how a salmon call goes: I dial Great Pacific Seafood Owner/President Bob Shelly (the first thing to know in the salmon business is a “y” is required at the end of your name). Then I call Tommy and Ronny Monson. Then Lenny at the fish plant in Anchorage. I finally speak to Bob Shelly.

“Shelly, this is Seth in Kotzebue, I was wondering about the market this season…”

“The market is soft, Seth, soft. It’s the shipping costs, the shipping costs….”

“Do you think you’ll want Kotzebue Chum this season?”

“Maybe, there might be a possibility, a possibility…”

“How’s the price look?”

“Well… it’s soft, Seth, real soft.

July

Finally it came down to arranging a loader/forklift through Bering Straits Fishermen’s Association, which only took about fifty calls and two weeks of hair-pulling. Then, ordering fish totes, calling Fish and Game for a catcher/seller permit, period openings, run predictions…. More calls concerning markets, which of course were still “…soft, Seth, soft…”

And behind all my plans for this little niche fishery in Kotzebue Sound lurked a dinosaur – Kotzebue Electric Association’s ice machine. Everything hinged on ice.

The ice machine, a community-service brainchild of General Manager Brad Reeve, is ten years old and has provided ice for millions and millions of pounds of salmon shipped south. Without ice you have qauq, or more accurately uilaaq – unfrozen stink fish – a local delicacy which, I believe, is not yet popular in European high-end restaurants.

The ice machine, like so many individuals, likes attention. It’s a maze of valves and tubes and gauges, all tied in with the thundering power plant that lights and runs Kotzebue. Brad arranged to have his engineers test run it before the fishing season. All went fine, but unfortunately he wasn’t counting on a simple, slimy, stinking, over-tired, babbling fisherman (that would be me) fiddling with the buttons.

The key words here are simple, and fish. That’s why I go through all the nightmare of marketing, arranging freight planes, carrying a cell phone around my neck like a ball-and-chain – so I can fish. That’s why we all fish – to avoid cell phones and machines with too many dials, and calculations of salmon egg recovery rates, and paperwork. We like it simple, just a step or two above the caveman. Net. Anchor. Buoy. “Grab rope, Thag, Grab rope.”

Why Brad and all the workers at KEA haven’t lost patience and hauled the whole machine to the dump amazes me. It’s Kotzebue Electric Association, after all, an electric cooperative, not “Northern Ice Supply, filling all your chilling needs.” But, without them there would have been no commercial fishery this season.

August

Finally, after all the hassles, I’ve even gotten to set the net. The run apparently is poor, but we’ve caught some fish, and shipped some out. We get to eat all the fish we want, and have also been feeding a lot of seals and sea gulls. I’ve given up on teaching my partner Mike “Mikey The Hair” Schieber to use a cell phone. He’s been out in camp too long, with his dogs and logs and dried meat. He loses the phone in the boat, talks in the wrong end, can’t hear it ring.

A third fisherman signed on: Andrew Greene (notice how easily he can add a “y” to that name and turn it into “Andy”). You can always tell the real fisherman. Of course he knows this, too, and immediately hired Randy Toshavik.

At home and in the boat the phone rings constantly.

“Lynden left six thousand pounds.”

“Northern’s not coming today.”

“Your totes are leaking.”

“We need more ice.”

I spend my days and nights in a long, continuous panic – between cancelled freight planes, the ice machine making too little or too much ice, strange fluids dripping from the forklift, slime water dripping from leaky fish totes. In my spare time I muddle through numbers, fill out fish tickets, buy insurance, argue over prices and poundage, hang new nets, repair lines, pump gas, write invoices. In the rest of my spare time I fish.