Cleaning Cohos by the Dozen by Jana Suchy

We were still tied to the pilings under the ice chute—iced and grubbed and fueled and all ready to fish—but Dick still wasn’t sure which way to go. Only seven days left to salmon troll for silvers in Southeast until the 10-day coho closure on August 15. Time was wasting.

Although it was getting late in the season, the traditional fall runs up north didn’t seem to be coming in yet. A large fleet stood by up there from Cross Sound to Yakutat waiting for the smash to happen. Radio reports from friends coded only spotty fish scores.

Maybe the coho would hit tomorrow. Maybe not. Maybe they would come in to the south, somewhere along Baranof Island from Sitka down to its terminus at Cape Ommaney. It was a full day’s charge on outside waters either to the north or south, and if we missed the fish there was precious little time to run around and find them.

But fishing’s always a gamble, and the two of us were, after all, fishing on the F/V Gambler. So when I asked the skipper if he wanted to flip a coin, he just shrugged and said why not. 

“O.K., Dick, you call it in the air,” as I dug in my pocket for coin.

The nickel twirled. “Heads, south.”

That’s how a nickel sent me to college. I had this last week to make the money I needed to go to Montana for the winter for some graduate study in journalism so I could migrate off deck to write about life on deck—and we got down to the cape just in time for the hot bite.

Dick Curran fished alone a lot. He didn’t need me onboard, and I knew it. But trolling Alaska’s long summer days alone is hard and tricky work—steering the boat, running gear, staying on the drag, catching and cleaning fish, dodging the fleet, cooking or grabbing what food you can, and at day’s late end, icing the salmon or pulling up to a buying scow to off-load them fresh-caught. I talked the reluctant loner into taking me along, and I aimed to make it worth his while.

Especially since I started out on all the wrong feet. When first helping him tie up the boat—still trying to convince him of the merits in hiring me—I managed somehow to confuse my port and starboard. Call it dumb luck. Call it a few too many beers. I call it just plain dumb and embarrassing.

After crewing out a few seasons on several boats I had grown rather particular myself. At 30, and a woman, I could no longer endure the rigors of crewing out just as a job. I loved fishing for the lifestyle, and the people, and the experience, and the ocean—these things are what made all the hard work rewarding.

Dick Curran bringing in another coho salmon in Alaska’s Southeast.

I had known Dick for a while and wanted to fish with him, but he had lost his boat the Mira the autumn before when it rolled over suddenly. He got out with only his life and swam to a nearby shore in November’s chill waters. But to hear it from this soft-spoken man of few words it was no great feat. That’s the kind of guy Dick is.

So while catching a shower and doing laundry at the fish plant, fresh from a trip on another boat, with delighted surprise I found him unloading his catch from the leased Gambler. I was ready to work hard doing whatever needed to be done, even though I’d recently quit a boat earlier in the season, disappointed to discover the skipper ran all the gear and caught all the fish. But Dick gave no orders, said I could do whatever I want. This was at first rather unnerving. I was used to asking a skipper how they wanted things done, adapting to their system and following their quirks. But Dick’s only reply to my every question was the same, “However you want to do it.”

We started to catch some fish. A few at first, but when we approached Wooden Island off the cape the cohos started hitting hard. I believe in efficiency of movement. Dick knew his stern, running gear and landing fish with ease and style. Me, I found it rather awkward on this boat, especially in a stiff chop, a matter of being short on a high stern with only short gaff hooks aboard. I’d have to wait until we came down off the crest to reach a fish with the short gaff hooks, so I offered to forego the gear to clean cohos and humpies at the hatch.

I never had such a great time cleaning fish before. As the checkers filled with fat silver salmon I took to throwing a dozen at a time to the hatch cover for easy counting and fast cleaning.

Dozen after dozen. We were in ‘em. Nothing like a sharp knife and a flat surface at a comfortable height to gill and gut fish without begrudging the task. I found the fish-cleaning tray terribly slow and inefficient in mass production, and was happy to adapt to this system at the Gambler’s roomy hatch. Feet apart, braced against the boat’s roll and gritted teeth chomping-down on toothpicks, I often migrated around the hatch to follow the sun or hide from the wind as we trolled this way and that.

All the while I was happy to hear tunes coming out of the cranked-up tape deck. Some boats and skippers aren’t rigged for music on deck, but I always said I could do most anything for 18 hours a day if I had good tunes to listen to. Even clean fish. So every once in awhile I would rinse the blood from my blue rubber gloves and go into the wheelhouse to flip Willie Nelson or Bob Dylan over, scan the horizon for approaching boats, maybe adjust the autopilot.

For several days we had fish scores well over a hundred, not even including the humpies. The fleet had grown as the news spread of a bite. The buying scow and tenders in the Port Alexander harbor were picking up good loads and bringing them back to Sitka, so there’s sure to be talk. Mysterious codes crackled the airwaves to share the good fortune with buddies.

We could hear reports on the VHF and CB radios of a “green yellow,” or a “D F G,” telling the decoder of daily fish scores, location, and sometimes even depth and the color spoon to use. No matter how isolated or secret a bite, somehow the word always leaks out and specks dotting the horizon multiply like so many flies. And this was no exception: looking buglike at a distance, the mosquito fleet appeared in a swarm.

Codes get pretty involved sometimes, and sometimes they even backfire. I heard later of a report on the single-sideband radio transmitting all the way up north that the fishing down here was “pretty slow.” Apparently there was great distinction between pretty, real, and kinda’ slow; pretty, real and kinda’ dead, and so on, any of which could have meant a daily fish score from one to 400.

The reception that day was poor and very broken. My friend told me later that the misheard news of “kinda’ slow” spread through the fleet up north like wildfire. Even though Ommaney was a full two-day run with only a few days left of the opening, the mistaken hot report of 300 fish a day and thousands of dollars to be made flashed brightly next to the disappointing scratch up there. It was said half in jest that the sound of anchors could be heard coming up all throughout the harbor. By the time the horizon at Cape Ommaney was thick with flies the fish scores in the hundreds had dropped to a third. Can’t chase yesterday’s bite—fish have tails—and fishing got kinda’ slow, all right.

We anchored out every night close to the drag instead of wasting daylight to run the extra distance to tie to Port Alexander’s dock. The temptation to socialize with friends would have robbed me of sleep, and I was grateful the shorter days of August had finally brought five or six hours of night.

We ate well too, three squares a day. I’m a scratch cook and don’t mind doing extra galley duty during a lull in deck work. Having acquired the knack for boat recipes, I often combine ingredients for a meal to cook itself while I’m working out on deck. Spices come aboard with my raingear and survival suit, and I’d been packing around a four-ounce box of wild rice for several seasons now. This trip it finally met its match—a pair of Cornish game hens with wild rice and mushroom stuffing. A rare treat at 11 p.m., finally at anchor after another long day.

Early in the morning until very late at night the Gambler trolled back and forth, from Breakfast Rock out past Wooden Island and back again, threading through the fleet trolling back and forth on the drag. One day a thick, gray fog rolled in and quietly engulfed the boats. It was eerie. The drag was thick with trolling poles gliding in and out of view, often so close we could hear their music or yell a hello.

With the boat on autopilot Dick and I would both stay busy on deck. But now another troller could suddenly emerge from the gray curtain directly in our path, and it made for quick and frequent leaps up forward to adjust our course. As the fog bank slowly moved on we sometimes trolled out of it to find sparkling blue skies, but eventually had to turn back to let the dense cloud swallow us again.

It was during a sunny spell on a crystal blue ocean that I saw the whale. I first caught sight of a humpback skimming the surface and coming our way. I should have taken this as a sign of things to come and grabbed my camera, but I was busy and my gloved hands bloody. Sure enough, it appeared again, this time maybe 25 feet off our port bow. I could see the rubbery blow-hole in motion with its breath. The whale dove with a graceful arch of its back, the huge flukes flipping skyward to dwarf all life aboard our troller. The giant, barnacle-encrusted tail slipped slowly beneath the water much like the setting sun upon the horizon. This brief moment made my day. One awed gasp sparked an 18-hour stretch of gilling and gutting and icing, and made me smile. Besides, you often have to choose between experiencing something or capturing it—where you really only see it in the photo like everybody else.

As the closure drew near a weird weather pattern developed. A stiff wind cut a swath down the west coast of Baranof Island, whipping the water and bringing a solid stream of white fog with it. But as soon as we trolled back toward Wooden Island and into the lee behind Baranof the wind stopped, the sun shined, the ocean flattened. It was downright pleasant—unusually warm. With the solid band of white weather plainly visible flowing past Wooden Island in the distance I’d take off my hot raingear and strip down a few layers of wool. Inevitably we’d venture back out to test the fishing and the weather, the sudden fury of the wind and the waves and the spray sending me back into a hooded, layered bundle.

Two or three times a day I would jump down the hatch into the fish hold to ice a heaping pile of silvers. I usually enjoy icing, seizing the opportunity to work up a sweat and get a workout chopping binfuls of melted-down ice back into fine flakes with a scoop and shovel. I call it aerobic icing—little else can be done on a small fishing boat that’s aerobic.

But this hold seemed cavernous to what I was used to, and we filled it full with ice. The first batch of fish I iced by snaking up forward on my belly, reaching back for a fish and placing it down several feet over the bin board on the layer of bed ice at the bottom of the empty bin. With these acrobatics in the narrow space I would fill a layer with fish in sardine fashion, then set to icing. With nowhere to move, I started chopping a hole close to my face, eyes squinted to the flying chunks. Scoop by scoop I’d lean way down with both hands, body draped over the bin boards, one hand to open the salmon belly and the other to toss in some ice—resisting the tendency to tumble into the bin with the roll of the boat. It got easier as the bin filled with layers of iced fish and came up closer to my level perched on top of the ice, even easier once I had a small hole chopped out I could crouch in. Sometimes the body folds in the fishhold in ways I never thought possible.

Once Dick kept landing so many fish I stayed busy cleaning cohos by the dozen without stopping to ice until I had quite a pile down there. Over 100 fish, about half a ton. I had a pounding headache this day, and after a short while chopping ice I felt dizzy and sick. I needed some air—the hatch cover’s kept closed to keep the hold cool—and decided to go topside to clean a few more fish until I felt better.

The Gambler’s hatch cover is huge and heavy. I couldn’t lift it with all my might from down below, so after a futile struggle I stood and yelled for help. Dick must have seen the hatch cover jump a few times from back in the cockpit, because before I could finish my plea he lifted and shoved the cover forward, the wood edge smacking me in the head. If I thought I was dizzy and had a headache before, I felt really great now. Needless to say, I made sure to jump down for a manageable 50 from then on and didn’t wait for a mountain of fish to pile up.

Dick Curran and trolling gear.

The bite died and fishing slowed to a dribble the last day before the closure. The sun was shining in Chatham but the nasty blow still streamed down the coast. We’d have to buck it all the way home to Sitka to offload. Even hardcore Dick called it an early day around 6, and I was happy for his decision to spend the night in Port Alexander to visit friends.

The tiny dock was packed with a forest of trolling poles. We finally had a chance to compare scores with the boats I’d watched pass by, reading their names but not hollering hello to those I knew. After all, I jumped on the Gambler mid-season so no one knew I was aboard and I figured they wouldn’t recognize who was hollering at them.

As soon as I hit the dock and saw a familiar face it started, a chorus of surprise:

“So that was you on the Gambler with Dick.”

“I thought that was you, but Greg said, ‘No, that’s not Jana.’”

“We heard there was a woman fishing with Dick but we couldn’t figure out who it was.”
“I figured it was you. Chuck said it was a guy, but I looked through the binoculars and saw you sitting on the bucket, and when you stood up so fast I told Chuck, ‘No, that’s gotta be a woman. No guy is gonna finish his business on the bucket so fast.”

I had to laugh. Even later after I got back home to Sitka I heard the same curious controversy had swept the fleet way up north. And when I mentioned the boat to a bartender at the Pioneer Bar she said, “So you’re the girl who was fishing with Dick.”

August 15 dawned bright and sunny in P.A. Cohos were closed, the morning sparkled. Coffee flowed freely as fishermen gathered ‘round, laughing and talking. A closure is a good time to catch up. But we had a long, 10–12-hour charge up the outside, and when we finally pulled away the Sokol and Sea Wife joined us for the trip home.

It was a bumpy ride. I felt pretty good and wanted to cook a special Mexican breakfast, even borrowed an egg from Chuck at the dock to have enough. With the last of the food I prepared a feast of refried beans, eggs, potatoes and tortillas, with plenty of avocado and hot sauce. But the oil stove kept going out with the wind blowing down the pipe. It took forever to cook, and every time we slammed into a swell the pans threatened to fly. I jammed sea-rails all around in a careful pattern to keep the coffee pot and frying pans penned in, but taking a good one over the bow finally launched the potatoes onto the galley floor. Oh, well. Comes with the territory.

During the long charge up the coast we took turns reading an old TIME I had stashed, exchanged wheelwatch, each caught a nap, scrubbed down the deck and the galley. At dusk we finally rode into town, the buildings and mountains of beautiful Sitka a welcome sight.

We lucked out and without delay pulled under a hoist at the fish plant to fill bucket after bucket with silver salmon. I had counted 632 cohos while cleaning them by the dozen, and except for one slip of the knife and a couple that came out of the water scarred they were all graded No. 1 quality.

“Nice fish,” the grader said. Made me feel as good as the fat fish check.

And that’s how a nickel sent me to college, a journalism graduate student—so I could write about fishing.

Cleaning Cohos by the Dozen by Jana Suchy originally appeared in Fishing for a Living in Alaska’s Southeast and is a story the author let us borrow to illustrate the fishermen’s life. Jana’s new book,   

© Jana M. Suchy 2013