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Drop a Card, Make the Set

A #VQRTrueStory Essay  

Photo by Marc Albert

ISSUE:  Fall 2023


I start lucky. Two friends in Southeast Alaska have a permit and a boat and invite me to join them as a deckhand, gillnetting. For three summers, we share a bunk and work within a few feet of each other, coming back to Juneau most weekends, grilling and playing ping-pong. We don’t get rich, which is fine. We do well enough to keep at it until we go our separate ways.

I try a desk job with a swivel chair but can’t stay put and the next summer find a crew eight hundred miles west of Juneau in Bristol Bay. I’ve heard plenty about it.  Those easy ping-pong days are gone.

When I arrive in the King Salmon airport, luggage is heaped near the door and maybe ninety percent of the people I’m pressed up against are beefy and bearded, wearing flat-brim hats. My skipper, Marc, offered to pick me up. “I’ll be in the red hat,” he said. It takes me a long time to find my bag in the luggage pile and even longer to find Marc’s red hat in the crowd. We get in a truck, make the long flat drive to Naknek.

The winters here are long, residents number in the hundreds, but in late June, Naknek is inundated with thousands of gillnetters, barge operators, slime-line specialists, inventory clerks, boat mechanics, and underwater welders, all vying for a piece of the most productive sockeye fishery in the world.

Our crew spends five days in the boatyard. We make engine repairs, bag gear, fasten buoys to the rails, fix an odometer, and string our net onto the large metallic drum. We buy raincoats and extra fish picks and two cases of overpriced light beer. At night, we go to the bars at the end of the road where I spend money like I have plenty of it—shooting pool, ordering a forty-dollar pizza worse than what you’d find in the food court of a low-rent mall. A few days later we drop a card, commit to our area, then wake up before dawn and wait for the tractor to come tow us into the water. A brown bear stalks the shore. Bald eagles shriek in flight. Marc throttles up and the stack belches diesel fumes and I find myself nauseous at the rail as we stagger over six-foot waves. No swivel chairs here, no desks. Just big water and the occasional squall.

 Photo by Marc Albert

 Water smacks the hull in the ebb, in the flood, in slack tide. It’s bright as day at eleven p.m. and we can no longer see town, just a seam of gray water and gray sky. We make our sets. The metal drum spins, our net unfurls in a pale green blur. We watch for the corks to bob, for fins to show, and then we crank it all back in and pick out the sockeye, then crawl about stabbing the gills and sliding the sleek, bloody bodies into the refrigerated sea water in the holds. We fish midday and in the dead of night. Days pass. The run picks up and seals rise from the water near our net, sleek and silent creatures, attracted to our haul. We bang on pans to scare them away. Later, over the diesel roar, I hear the echoes of distant crews shooting at the seals near their nets.

More days pass. The cuts on our hands won’t heal. The sky is heavy and the shore is vague in every direction. The internal rhythms are gone. You might catch a rest from midnight to two, then haul to the line to fish the next opener at dawn. Marc says we have probably twenty more days of this. “You don’t want to think about it too much,” he says, and soon enough it all runs together: fish scales on your hands and neck, fish scales hardening on your cheeks, fish blood in your greasy matted hair. You lose the past hour in last week and the labor is always the same. In the lulls between sets, we eat canned food and eggs boiled in the coffee pot, the radio blaring while we stretch the tendons in our fingers and wrists. One day: a dead seal. It floats belly-up with its head blown off, stringy yellow tissue undulating with the waves. The sea swells and sends the boat rocking. Mist jumps the rail and coldly hits your face. You turn from the wind and brace yourself or stagger to the stack to rest your gloved palms on a metallic warmth that quickly begins to burn.

Our bread runs out. When I sleep my fingers curl inward. If I dream, I dream of sockeye, hundreds of them, wide-eyed and writhing in their own blood. Rolling out of my bunk, I wonder if any payout is worth this.

Photo by Marc Albert

 Two weeks in, we catch a massive king, and it’s the only fish we pause to gawk at and photograph before it’s lost among the sockeye in the hold. Our haul nears one hundred thousand pounds.

“That’s it,” our skipper says. “We’re getting hauled out tomorrow.” I’ve been here for more than a month, haven’t slept for more than a few hours each day, haven’t consumed a single piece of fruit. I no longer see fish, just dollar bills. I could hike upriver to where the escaped males spawn, see their vermillion bodies, their mouths toothy and hook-jawed, and try to re-up my capacity for awe. But we’ve harvested them by the ton, and I want out. We anchor in the Naknek River that night and sleep like dead men. A cannery sits beyond the shore and from it a long tube runs down to the water, spewing the remains of processed fish. It’s still going when I wake the next day, and gulls have swarmed the red froth. I sip instant coffee, just sitting here away from the sea.

By midmorning, I’m in a cab with strangers riding back to King Salmon Airport. I inhale candy bars while waiting to board. I see a man in a suit—it’s strange beyond all reckoning. The jacket seems like a thing that constricts his arms and the pant cuffs make no sense. Near him, two kids of maybe seventeen chat about their trucks while their skipper tells me about how they fish ten months of the year, how he dropped out of school at sixteen and bought his first boat at eighteen. They’re on their way to Washington to go after the albacore. No thanks. I’m bound for Seattle, where I’ll hike the Cascades with friends. After that, it’s Missoula for cider in the fall. I’ve never had this much freedom to seek leisure, and eventually I’ll go broke doing so, but for now all I see are high times, one check in the bank, another one coming. The kids are still talking about their trucks as I board my flight.

Sunlight hits the tundra and boggy valleys as the plane ascends and I see the glare out on the water where boats are still hauling, white corks bobbing on the surface, all of it toy-like, unnatural. The sockeye that made it continue upriver, swimming against the current toward their end. Not a one will turn back.


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