By Eric and Crystal Beeman
It was a day to love, it was a day to hate. Bristol Bay is a faucet, barely dripping until nature suddenly twists its mighty wrist and all those millions of fish come streaming in. Our nets near the mouth of Dago Creek started out lively and the catch just got stronger as the day progressed. We crew of four had been picking steadily until high tide, then the fish gods gave that final twist and all that biomass blasted in and laid our nets right over. In times like these, when the tide is falling and the nets shallowing up, all you can do is switch to damage control: picking like mad, and just jerking the gear into the skiff to be sorted when you can catch your breath. Three hours later, we finally picked the last salmon from the tangled mound of web and set off down the creek channel to deliver our catch. During that time, the tide fell and the wind increased dramatically. I was hoping to get to the tender for an offload near the tide’s bottom, as the river bars emerge and break down the incoming swells. Alas, those hours of picking had put us behind. A few net-lengths from the tender, we plowed into the shallows at Dago’s low-tide mouth. No amount of shoving could coax our overladen vessels to budge, and with the tide still receding, we settled in for the three-hour wait for the water to free us once more. The cutting wind chilled, and I was already tired. I’d been bartering sleep for poundage during the last couple weeks and my body was close to defaulting on the promissory notes that my ambition had been writing.
By the time we again floated, the light had gone, and the wind began to shriek. My bowman got a line on the tender, and we began to unload our catch under the sodium deck lights. The ramming swells made this the worst delivery of my 52-year career. We jerked so violently that it was hard to stand and several times we were slammed down on the deck. Our 700-pound bags of salmon swung like wrecking balls, threatening to crush us against the vessel sides. In the midst of this, our bowline snapped from the strain. We shot astern but managed to again retie, and finally our last bin was emptied. We cut loose, grabbed the other skiff and crew, and offloaded the rest. Finally done, we motored back into the creek, tied up the skiffs, and drug ourselves onto the wheelers for a cold eight-mile ride home in the darkness. Just another day in the bay, heading home with all our body parts intact and a few more pennies in our pocket.
I first entered the fishing scene at 19 years of age, starting out at Moser Bay, on the south end of Kodiak Island. My first thought about “setnetting” was bucolic: on a remote beach, alone with just a net secured on the shoreline, picking fish fresh from the sea, eating them with wild greens, fresh fry bread, rice, and soy sauce. And all intermingled with quiet cabin living and wildlife. I quickly found reality was much more active, adventurous—and messy. There were groceries to purchase, boat parts to source, motors and nets needing repair. And another reality check: many more hours of actual fishing when all I wanted was to drop the net, go to bed and let my aching back and body rest. Did I mention the hair-raising night deliveries to some obscure tender in the dark? One got tough really quickly.
Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to catch 100,000 pounds of fish, feed him for the rest of his life.
Alaska really has only two kinds of jobs: salmon fishing—and everything else. When I was age eight, my first fish flopped over the rail. I was an empty vessel eager to haul in an ocean of knowledge. I was fortunate to have some great teachers, and certainly the first 50 percent I learned came from my father. As I grew older, the second half came from a couple mentors who were pretty good at telling which way a salmon’s nose was pointing. And the third 50 percent came by a half-century of just putting my bow into the waves and heading out. I began fishing in our family operation on an island in Cook Inlet, a perfect place to grow up during the long, relaxed summers. After a quarter century, ambition overcame contentment, and so in 1995 I deckhanded on a Bristol Bay gillnetter, all the while keeping an eye out for setnetting opportunities. One morning on the North Line of Ugashik, I spied a couple setnets loaded with salmon and thought, “This is the place for me!”
After a 20-year hiatus doing motherhood three times over, I found Eric, a setnetter truly, I thought, living the dream. We teamed up and spread ourselves amongst three places; contract fishing on the east side of Cook Inlet, then helping Eric’s parents on Kalgin Island, and building the skillset to succeed in the Ugashik District of Bristol Bay, evolving from beachside truck fishing to using small skiffs pushed by 75-horsepower two-cycle motors. That was a big advance from my Kodiak days of wooden skiffs and 25- and 35-horsepower motors.
That advancement has now evolved 20-plus years later to a 115- and a couple 140-horsepower four-cycle motors for our two large skiffs and hydraulic rollers to help pull the loaded salmon nets aboard. Slush ice bags and brailers make chilling and delivering those beautiful streaks of precious silver cargo quicker and easier too. And best of all for me, because this all takes more people power than one aging woman can give, I became the Camp Queen, Chief Cook and Bottle Washer.
I rein over the camp compound, cook up high-calorie meals, organize crew gear when necessary, wash and hang out to dry filthy fish-slime-loaded clothes, and in general keep the team comfortable and, hopefully, inspired to do all the work we ask of them. Knowing firsthand what that entails from past experience keeps me motivated to keep myself indispensable right there in camp.
Ugashik hit me with a face-full of cold water. The nearest lee shore is Kamchatka, and those ocean waves could get gnarly pretty quickly. We had to haul our catch 12 miles to the nearest tender. Sometimes the swells were so big that we used trucks to pull our nets up on the beach, where the fish would get sandy and need to be washed by hand. With no shoreside buyer, the catch would be loaded into tubs and trucked to a calmer location, loaded back into the skiff and off to the tender for delivery. Quality every step of the way! Four times that summer, I jumped out of skiffs that I thought were going to roll over in the surf. Trucks got stuck and broke down. Diesel stoves crudded up. Outboard motors needed “assistance.” Fortunately, my secret weapon was a superb crewman who could literally repair anything, except an empty whiskey bottle. To top it off, 1997 was a run failure in Bristol Bay, although we managed to do ok by season’s end. But I had it easy. The woman who pioneered this operation spent her first two summers in a wall tent with her two young kids, with only a .357 magnum for company.
Nowadays, we fish a mile away from our processor, who sends out smaller vessels to take deliveries close to our sites. Our catch is cooled with slushed ice and delivered quickly. Our skiffs are much larger and have hydraulic rollers. Only occasionally do we fish our original sites, especially after 3,000 bull walrus hauled out on top of them (try working that one into a business plan). Much of those 12 miles we used to run are now done on four-wheelers—faster, and a heck of a lot calmer—to our sites in the mouth of Dago Creek.
Along with salmon come bears. The ones you never see are older, smarter, and usually travel at night, passing up camp and headed for nets left onshore, taking sacrificial fish while the skiff waits its turn to deliver offshore. Then, there are three- and four-year olds, brash and cocky, with no understanding yet of humans and guns. They saunter right into the yard, intent on the ground squirrels around the cabins—or worse, a nap near the front door. These delinquents seem to like the awesome sound of plywood on claws, and enjoy a daytime peek in the windows, or worse, at night while the crew is again in line offshore waiting to deliver their booty. A VHF call to another distant human calms the nerves somewhat.
Just last summer, one bear got the urge to drag a deceased seal around our equipment in the shop yard, lug all 80 pounds of it uphill past the outhouse, and proceeded to excavate a massive amount of tundra detritus over it only 100 feet from our bedroom window. Sure enough, a graphic sounding meal commenced right at darkness and continued for three hours. Not much was left by next morning when the crew, with a loaded gun, walked over to inspect the carnage. Never mind our camp has miles of open tundra all around it. This particular bear assumed we would be good neighbors and not steal his dinner.
Hello, my name is Eric and I’m a fish-a-holic. I do not pay the big bucks to arrive at this beach-side slice of paradise just to stress about run strength, plugged markets, toilet-level prices, crew disputes, and aging equipment. And I sure don’t come for the effervescent Alaska Peninsula weather. I’m here to catch fish. As many as my swollen greedy fingers can pluck from our nets. Some fishermen hope to catch fish, but I expect to. If the fish aren’t there, I pull up and try another location. I’ll leave mediocre fishing to find great fishing, and if I don’t, I’ll try somewhere else. Some days I never find it, but I’m a numbers guy, and I keep on trying. Nothing is more depressing than catching one fish at a time.
At age 63, the time has come for me to remain onshore, keep home fires burning, lights on, and meals made. Hubby and crew come home to eat, eat and sleep, or simply eat and return to nets, but the key word is always “eat.” Running a camp is a full-time job and the chores are done mostly by one person—me! The daily grind goes till the last rush of homeward-bound fish go by.
And suddenly it’s over. The end of season comes. The bay empties of both fish and fishermen. Boats are prepped, gear inventoried, and lists made for things needed for next season. Equipment is carefully put away for the long Alaskan winter.
Months later, approaching next season, lost lists are found, guesses made on what you needed and reality vs. dreams set in on which plans can be afforded to update the camp, fishing gear, and boats. Crew found, markets confirmed, and flights booked. Totes of groceries and supplies are purchased for the summer’s consumption. The time has come to do it all again.
No boat floats forever. I can’t see Russia from my setnet cabin, but if I squint through my sunburnt eyes, I can almost spy the mast of that final delivery poking over the distant horizon. Barring that accidental Big Squish, I figure I’ve got 10 more years of picking Ugashik sand from between my teeth. Along with those brailer loads of “salmodollars,” I have accrued a successful carpal tunnel surgery and a banner season of tinnitus. My once impervious body occasionally creaks and catches—must be the caulking falling out of my seams. Nowadays, I stand aside and let the young bucks do the heavy lifting, and when I don’t, the Admiral reminds me that I should. I still worry but not as much as I used to. I enjoy my neighbors more. I now have to sleep at some point during the seven-week season. But I’m still a long way from making that last set. I know why I’m here. In my 60s, size no longer matters, but poundage is still where it’s at.
Cabins and equipment age, you find new aches and pains, and your most unforgettable memories take on a patina of nostalgia. Your kids have matured and learned work ethics, and then other people’s kids were hired and learned skills too. Encounters accumulated with the wildlife, days of fabulous and poor fishing, exceptional sunrises and sunsets caught on camera or in your mind, and through it all you realize it has been a lifestyle, an adventure that you would do all over again in a heartbeat.
“We turned our stern to the morning sun and headed into the great western ocean.” ~Greek myth with an Alaskan twist