A History of Trolling in Southeast Alaska

As the Sailor Loves the Sea by painter Ballard Hadman, originally published in 1951, is a beautiful history of trolling in Southeast Alaska, and offers as good as any look at what it means and what it has meant to be a small boat hook and line fisherman in Southeast Alaska:

“The beginnings of trolling are dim. No one seems to know how it was first discovered that salmon could be fished profitably on trolling gear. Originally, all trolling was done by hand, from small round-bottom skiffs. There are still hand trollers who fish inside channels, camping on the beaches during the summer season. The old-time hand trollers, however, fished off Forrester Island.

Forrester Island, a sea-bird sanctuary lying roughly twenty miles to seaward of Cape Felix, is best known to me as a bluish shape on the western horizon, wearing a soft pouf of clouds. […] Old-timers tell me that the Forrester Island kings were subtly different like the kings we catch off Cape Felix; Felix kings are unlike their brothers caught just a mile or two to northward. Magnificent fish, averaging far more weight for size than fish caught elsewhere; heavy, wide-bellied, lordly kings, full of fight. You lose as many Cape Felix kings as you land; each one that snaps a leader and flips away with an impertinent gesture is a vanishing ten-dollar bill. Not only that, but he costs you money, for spoon, hook and leader go with him and no sailor ever forgets an expense.

No one knows who the genius was that first trolled by power rather than the sweat of the brow. But, beyond a doubt it was some thorough sailor, exercising the brain to spare the back. The rigging used for power trolling has evolved from limbo into a highly complex affair, totally unlike any other form of fishing.

Our trolling poles would be called ‘outriggers’ if we were yachts, but they wouldn’t have the same character. A trolling pole is a highly personal production. It begins as a young cedar tree, growing back from the beach so as not to be wind-shaken, sheltered deep among its fellows to grow straight and true toward the light of the sky. Stripped of bark, trimmed to a graceful taper by careful hands curling back the fiber with a drawknife, it is mated to a twin; tall for the mainpoles, less tall for the for’ard. Seldom are the poles painted, but sail their first season in all the pride of naked cedar; their second, they age to silver.

Troller in Southeast Alaska

The king salmon is a deep-water fish; if he’s feeling sulky, he’ll even go down below the halibut, which is a bottom fish. Where he goes when he does this is a stumper. We fish kings anywhere the kings are, usually at an average depth of thirty to fifty fathoms, though seventy-six fathoms is not uncommon; and once my husband had to drop to ninety-five fathoms.”

After a lengthy detailing of rigging for trolling, Hadman notes: “One more detail about rigging. When the great king slacks off at the peak of summer, we make ready for the coho run by mounting small bronze sleigh bells on the tips of the poles. The coho makes a fussy strike, a sound of fun and gaiety—for everybody but the coho—setting music ringing over the sea. The bells make only a murmurous sound as the poles dip and pull in a heavy sea. But when a fish strikes the line it is possible to recognize the kind: an uneven pizzicato phrase for a halibut; a galloping glissando for the coho; two spaced notes and several arpeggios for the great king.”

“Now we swing into action. Speed, dexterous handling of the gear all count. Up come the leaders to be coiled swiftly, sullen pull. A great king breaks water and the battle is on; as fast as it can be done the great king lies panting on the deck, quivering. The most beautiful fish of all, an elegantly designed, full and satisfying fishy shape; gorgeous with color—metallic gold and silver, iridescent green and red-violet. In all the years of trolling, I have never been able to see a splendid king fought to a gallant standstill, gaffed and killed, without regret. This, I think, is not so much a sentimental regret as an artist’s regret for the death of anything beautiful.”

In addition to her appreciation for the fish, Hadman paints a beautiful picture of the sociology of us fishermen, the communication necessary among us, and the bonds we make with each other and the sea:

“Hand signaling has developed into an expressive sign language, graphic gestures indicating how many and what kind of fish you have, what depth you are fishing, whether you’re contented or discontented. The gesture indicating disgust is indescribable, as words are unprintable. If you have more fish than another fellow, he may ask what depth you’re fishing. With that query, highly esoteric values are at once made manifest. If the man is numbered among your close cronies you tell him. If not, independence above all. He should find out for himself. Too, he ought to know enough to realize that he shouldn’t ask you this intimate, almost indecent question. The only possible answer is a lie.

This then is what you troll with, and how. Trolling is no dream of ease, being rather one of the most problematical pursuits nature can contrive. But, if it is hard, it is hard in a good way. If it is hazardous—as it is—you have the comfort, having survived a few experiences, of knowing your own caliber when faced with imminent disaster. It is too a gambling game on a grand scale. You gamble against the elements, the weather, the prevailing prices in the fish market. You gamble daily against the dangers inherent in offshore water, against the unknown factors which control your engine—that engine which is often all that stands between you and an ugly death.”

Hadman notes that trollers are called swivelnecks. Between the motors, the lines, the drift, the hooks, they’re constantly keeping a watch out. That’s are livelihood. Constantly watching out, on the lookout for whales, for birds, for fish, for life itself on the ocean. It is a grand profession.

SPC is a fishermen’s cooperative that is the connection between eaters that appreciate high quality sustainably harvested seafood and responsible small boat fishermen.

We as a nation of people need to help shape the market for products and processes that support the sphere within which wild creatures—whales, birds, fish—thrive. Southeast Alaska is this place. Our small boat fishermen have that connection.