Forget notions about being on open sea, commercial fishing not for queasy

Posted: Sunday, August 31, 2003

For anyone who has ever entertained the romantic notion that they could be a commercial fisher, I'm here to say that it's not for everybody.

A few weeks back when storms had kicked up the seas, driving thousands of salmon into the waiting nets of commercial fishers, I asked to tag along with a setnetter I know.

I thought it would be great to be on the open ocean, the fresh sea air filling my lungs, the wind blowing spray from the surf into my face, all while standing knee deep in flopping salmon.

Sounds great, doesn't it?

Now let me tell you what it was really like. Instead of a fun foray, my experience was much more like an adventure in sadomasochism.

Two seconds after I got to the beach I was in a boat being launched with three fishers. Two more seconds went by and a giant wave broke on us and knocked me to my knees.

One of the guys yelled, "Start bailing!" So I grabbed a giant scoop crafted from half of a plastic gas jug and started furiously pitching water overboard.

Three more waves broke on us before we got far enough away from shore to start the motor. Despite my rubber garb, my clothes underneath the slicker suit were drenched from the icy cold water.

We got out to the net and it was full. I mean really full hundreds, if not a thousand or more, fish were in this net. Even the seasoned guys out with me were shocked by the huge haul.

We pulled the lead line up and started picking. They quickly showed me the proper technique to get the salmon out of the net, but they must have made it look easier than it was. For every one salmon I did, these guys did about a dozen.

After about 15 minutes of being bent over looking down, huge waves still rolling under and occasionally over us, the big meal I had eaten just before coming out started to sit a little poorly.

Moments later my dinner was overboard, not tasting nearly as good coming up as it did going down.

I was crumpled in the bow of the boat like dirty laundry. One of the fishers continuously barked at me to sit up and look at the horizon, but anything besides the fetal position felt excruciatingly horrible.

Despite how I felt, I knew there was nothing I could do but wait for them to finish. An hour that seemed liked an eternity passed and I vomited another half dozen times.

One of the guys was kind enough to inform me that my skin color was as green as the parka I was wearing.

Finally the net was done, but they still had another site to check. Realizing I was in no shape to continue, they took me to another boat, which was supposedly heading to shore.

This boat was full of fish, too. I had to jump from one craft to the other, and landed spread eagle in a waist-high pile of slippery fish.

Maybe it was the dehydration combined with the hypothermia, I'm not sure, but at that point the guys on this boat with their large statures and bushy beards, looked just like Vikings to me.

As it turned out, they explained to me, we picked fish so long that the tide turned and it was now too dangerous to go in with the boats so heavily weighed down with salmon. It would be at least another hour.

Another hour!

I knew I couldn't do another minute and started pleading with them to either call the Coast Guard or let me swim for it. They cordially informed me that wasn't possible.

So for an hour, these guys laughed and joked, smoked and dipped, while I continued to vomit overboard until nothing was coming up but blood.

Finally, after 45 minutes, they announced we were going in and started the motor to head for shore.

On the way in one of the guys must have gotten curious about why I was out there in the first place and asked, "So, you eat a lotta salmon?"

After mustering up the last of the strength I had in my body I replied, "I used to." The three Norsemen gave a deep full-bodied laugh at my response.

Back in the world of the living, or as some call it onshore, I felt reborn. I went home, took a hot shower and passed out for 12 hours.

Several weeks have passed since the experience occurred that left me thankful and yet traumatized at the same time.

However, when I think back about it, my feelings are the same now as when I first stepped out of the boat.

The crews of the commercial fishing industry out in our Alaska waters are a different breed. They're tough guys and gals with even tougher jobs, and it's too bad more people don't know how hard they work and just how good they are at what they do.

Joseph Robertia is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.

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