Day on Cook Inlet has its ups, downs

Posted: Tuesday, July 16, 2002

At 3:15 Thursday morning, with the dusky sky laying over a calm Cook Inlet, John McCombs and his oldest daughter, 15-year-old Maureen, steam from the Ninilchik harbor to begin what will be 12 hours of hunting salmon.

John, a driftnetter for 27 years, guides his boat, the 33-foot, fiberglass commercial fishing vessel Katydid, out to the inlet and grumbles under his breath at his and other commercial fishers' lot. This will not be a normal fishing day, and he knows it.

He'll be fishing the Eastside Corridor.

"The state sold me a license and said I can't use it," he says. "It's like selling someone a real estate license and telling them they can only sell homes on Mondays and Thursdays and only in Mountain View (in Anchorage) or Muldoon."

The Eastside Corridor is a zone established to regulate fishing in Cook Inlet during three periods of the commercial fishing season to allow salmon to reach the Northern District of the inlet. The narrow band of water extends from a mile and a half off the eastern inlet shore to as far out as five miles at some points and stretches from just north of the Ninilchik River to Colliers Dock in Nikiski. Fishers can see where they are in the corridor from a predesignated map on their global positioning systems.

This is one of the days designated by the Northern District Management Plan to allow sockeye salmon to pass the corridor up the center of the inlet, where most of the fish travel, while keeping inlet driftnetters boxed into an approximately 82-square-mile rectangle hugging the coast. The remaining two days will fall sometime between today and July 31.

A little after 4 a.m., chatter begins on John's radio as fishers begin talking about everything from their current GPS location to what they stand to gain from being on the inlet at the top of the morning.

"Look at that," an unidentified voice says over the radio of the magenta sky the sun creates rising behind morning clouds. "That's one of the benefits of being up this early."

Most of the talk over the airwaves centers on if there are any fish jumping, a sure indicator that fish are swimming just beneath the surface.

Then, around 6:03 a.m. ...

"Hey...! I seen a jumper!" the same disembodied voice cries.

John finishes his coffee and maneuvers Katydid to where his GPS shows latitude of 26.81 degrees north, longitude 25 degrees west. Eleven minutes pass and idling his engine, he stirs his deckhand from her slumber in the cabin below before heading outside to don rain gear and begin preparing his nets.

"Hey, Mo!" he booms. "It's time to get up."

The fishery opens at 7 a.m., and for 20 minutes until that time, the boat bobs silently in the water as John, in green, salt-covered rain gear, and Maureen, in a green poncho and an orange bib, wait silently.

The time arrives, and the duo are fast at the stern of the boat unraveling the gillnet and slowly motoring westward, away from the buoy at the back of the net to stretch it out, or set it, to catch fish. Then, more waiting. Mostly an hour at a time for a ritual the fishers will repeat at least 10 more times.

"I'd rather be drifting on an inner tube down Deep Creek," Maureen says during the wait while her father is outside the cabin at the helm watching the corks on the net. "I got kind of sick last night. But I have to come out. I'm his deckhand. He doesn't have anybody else."

John says he is proud of his daughter for coming out despite feeling bad.

"You've got to give it to Mo for coming out when she's sick," he says. "She doesn't like coming out here."

He hopes one of his two children will go into commercial fishing, but he doubts Maureen or his younger daughter, Leslie, will bite.

"It isn't for everybody," he says.

John says he built his home on the bluff in Ninilchik and wants to stay there and work in the view he can see from his house.

"That's why I'm still fishing," he says.

After the first hour, John and Maureen retrieve empty nets. John repositions his craft and sets again, only to find just three fish. Then, two fish on the third set.

Many of his fellow fishers, he discovers, are coming up short as well.

Over the radio, fellow Ninilchik fisher Teague Vanek relays a joke from his deckhand.

"At least we don't get any slime on our gloves," Vanek says.

It's cold comfort for John, however.

"In some ways, it's kind of foolish to be out here," he says. "It's like being open on Christmas. If you're a restaurant, maybe you'll be OK. But if you're a dry cleaners, forget it. But you never know."

In addition to fishing, John is the head custodian at Ninilchik School. He also halibut fishes from Katydid when the salmon fishery is closed. He says he'd much rather be setting for sockeyes and king salmon, but with the current rate of 50 cents a pound, he can't afford it.

"If they were paying $2 or $3 (per pound) for salmon, I'd probably be gillnetting," he says. "How can I get out of it? I have kids at home and debts to pay."

As the afternoon progresses, fish trickle in on each of his sets. The tide picks up, and John sees the chance that his fortune could grow like the 10-foot swells now buffeting the boat.

"I'm definitely sure this flood tide will help," he says. "Just wait."

But misfortune nearly strikes.

While pulling in his gear after towing the line for nearly an hour, his boat drifts back onto the tow line and the propeller severs the line and is nearly tangled in it.

He quickly eases off the idling motor so the line can float away from the prop and pulls the net rigging out of the water.

"That could've been disastrous," he says. "We would've lost our engine and our net."

With 2 1/2 hours to go before the fishery closes at 7 p.m., John maneuvers the Katydid even with the Anchor Point gas tower, points his boat to the west, sets his nets and drifts north with the tide.

After a slow day, he begins seeing some glimmers of success, as fish dance on the waterline in his nets. He remains on the ship's bridge and continues to watch the fish come in, drifting until he is just north of the Kasilof River.

With such a slow day, he easily can contribute his catch to the Cook Inlet Salmon Branding program, because he has more time to bleed and chill the fish.

"It's pretty hard to do quality when you're doing quantity," John says, referring to busier days. "It's like a guy with three mistresses. It's hard to spread yourself around."

At 6:30 p.m., with the tide churning and growing by the minute, John and Maureen pull in their net one final time and find more than 50 salmon ensnared. Their total catch for the day is 72 fish, equaling 432 pounds.

But this is not where the story ends.

Saturday, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game announces an emergency opening from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., opening up the entire inlet. John brings in 1,300 fish -- about 8,400 pounds.

"I wasn't going to go for a while," he says. "It was quite a surprise."

Barring any extra emergency fishing orders from Fish and Game, there are seven more days left in the commercial salmon fishing season which closes after Aug. 9.

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