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8 Things I Miss about Guiding – OR – Annual Solstice Delirium

An irish lord glares before being released
Captain Chance Miller

176lb halibut and Captain Chance on the bow of the Thomasea

Winter is a time to reflect

For me this means thinking about being on the water. 

“The sun came up upon the left,
Out of the sea came he!
And he shone bright, and on the right
Went down into the sea.”
-The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

The winter time: everyone ends up going a little crazy, usually just temporarily, sometimes permanently.
It’s cold. People fight about weird stuff. It’s not unlike being on a boat for some amount of time: the longer people are out to sea, quirks emerge. They get too quiet or too loud, they get moody. Often, they start writing their own dialogues. Forming little packs. Picking the most socially acceptable person to communally dislike.  Alaska is sparsely populated, and there are also plenty of reasons the world isn’t filled with career mariners. This may or may not be coincidence, but as a social experiment either scene is completely bananas.

An irish lord glares before being released

Who’re you looking at?

A notable winter fact is that historically anyway we haven’t run boats for charter, and thus (at least I) don’t go fishing. Despite the opinions of onlookers, as a guide who takes it seriously, fishing is incredibly stressful. Even if we’re doing well, I am inwardly freaking out nonstop. It’s a long day, a lot of physical and mental work, and there are a lot of expectations to meet – least of all my own.  Somehow however it doesn’t take time long to twist the stress and discomfort of guiding into nostalgia – somehow it often gets swept under the rug sometime around winter solstice.

I don’t know if other Alaskans feel this way but for me, winter solstice basically means summer is coming. It’s a big deal, rolled out with a ton of memories and emotions that I think most people generally associate with the new year. Even though winter hasn’t even really hit, anticipation for the spring and all that comes with it has always managed to keep me up at night. In the midst of the winter weirdness, I think I’ve always found myself focused back on fishing, which has this nonsensical positive spin – like nothing was ever less than perfect. Like I was never in full panic mode 80% of the time, like I didn’t ever get back to the dock to immediately find out things were broken or people were upset, and that the already long day was nowhere near ending.

The young man catches a nice fish, this one was tagged!

Even as a kid, I caught myself missing it, even though I hated waking up in the morning, never had clean clothes, and was generally wet, cold, or tired. I’d have little dreams about the feel of beads marking the depth of the downrigger cable slipping into the water. I’d remember the complicated relief of hot, dry air and diesel fumes from the red dot heater, both warming me up and making me want to puke at the same time. The taste of salt washing off my face into my mouth in what seemed like weeks of non stop pouring rain. Patiently watching that old sonar with the lights in a circle, looking for the ridge. Sitting on the bow in the fog while we edged out at 8 knots, looking and listening and trying to stay awake. There are always little things to appreciate though. I mean even then it was what I did. It was part of my identity, at the core what I let define me, even if I had no idea what that even meant (I’m closer now but I still don’t).  Come mid winter I’d catch myself appreciating how the rain makes the scales easier to clean up, how if you got cold enough the ocean water would actually feel warm against numb hands. How there was somehow always a tub of leftover salmon to smash between slices of cheap wheat bread on board. I was mostly little, and I know now being allowed on the boat was likely more about childcare than vocational training, but as I got older I stopped getting seasick and I got better at things. I was allowed to do more than net fish, set gear, and reel. I graduated to being permitted to occasionally gaff, and run the boat. I quit napping most of the time, but still left pilot bread crumbs in the forepeak and didn’t do a good enough job cleaning – ever (though I used plenty of soft scrub and comet).

Luca considers safety a priority.

It’s still nostalgic, but it’s different. It’s nearly 2020 and believe it or not I am (big mystery) deliriously misguided about raising my own brand new child. It turns out, you can’t throw them on a boat with you and take people fishing, at least not at 6 months old. They have to be like 4 or 5 for that (I double checked). My son will probably never have a love hate relationship with a heater or diesel fumes, our boats run outboards and burn heating oil. He’ll likely have no idea the rush of blasting up a downrigger ball by hand while someone fights a salmon over  your shoulder – the downriggers are all electric now. He may never even have the experience of deck handing – the one certainty about the future of the fishery is that it is going to become more and more regulated and specialized.
This year, I learned guiding fishing means paying a sitter for 16 hours while you worry about… everything.  You’re gone, your kid is at home with a well meaning caregiver 120 miles from his mom who’s working in Anchorage, and despite having the best communications equipment available, you’re still at least 2 hours from the beach if he snorts a bean up his nose or finds out he’s allergic to basically anything. I did everything wrong, there’s no way it should have worked at all. Between that and not being on call around the shop, it was a huge inconvenience to everyone and I was distracted on the water as well – in short, despite my best efforts I was always letting someone down. So, in order to stay married (among other things) I didn’t take a ton of trips this last summer. Winter solstice has come and gone, the new year is on the horizon, and despite the difficulties that 2019 presented I find myself mired in boating memories. I like many others am conveniently forgetting the midnight maintenance sessions, the fatigue, the family stresses, tough fishing days, equipment failures, awful smoke, fire bans, and all that goes along with running and working at a fast paced seasonal business.  I asked our guides what unlikely things they find themselves missing, and made a short list.

8 Insane things we find ourselves missing about the summer season

1. Limiting out at the last minute

Newspaper Clipping and Note

We fished all morning in the pouring rain surrounded by the whole Seward fleet, limited the boat out in 30 minutes at 4pm surrounded by nobody at all at a hail mary spot on the way home.

There’s nothing quite like making it happen right at the end of the day. It’s a white knuckle thing, but one thing is always true: Either you give up, or the fish do. At the end of the day, someone couldn’t wait any longer.  When this happens at 2:30pm and you start watching rods bend, things get undeniably positive on board. People are freaking out, fish are slamming the deck – this could happen first thing in the morning and everyone thinks it’s just the status quo, but when it happens at the end of a long slow day, everyone knows it’s special, and they appreciate the effort so much more. Nobody believes this can happen during any point of the charter – it happens all the time.

2. Unexpected Successes

Halibut Fishing in Seward Alaska

We had never caught a halibut at this spot before today.

Having new clients with different perspectives and expectations on board each day keeps things interesting (and challenging) for the crew. You know all too well that even though you had a nice catch yesterday, today is a whole different ballgame. Everyone seems to believe the guide has this infallible master plan, but the truth is what made the folks happy yesterday may not make the new crew tick.  Often, you get a weird feeling and change your whole game plan fifteen minutes before you get to where you were headed.  It’s ultra stressful, it’s a shot in the dark: It usually works.  When you knock it out of the park on days like this, nobody believes you when you say that you had no idea what you were going to do 30 minutes ago, or that you’ve never fished this ridge in your life, or the last time you fished it was 15 years ago.
“Do you usually do this well here?”
“(Technically) Yes.”

3. The Smell

Chance's ALS challenge response

When named for the ALS icebath challenge, Capt. Chance opted to go a less than traditional route

I don’t know what else to say, this is pretty simple. Cold firm herring, halibut gurry, and wool with dried saltwater get me. It’s foul to many, but ultimately, deep down you want a fishy crew. It’s the smell of success.

4. Color commentary from unlikely crew members

I asked Capt. Bill if he had any photos describing the sentiment of topic #4 and he just sent this image with no explanation. Use your imagination I guess!

When your grandma is screaming obscenities at the two people trying to help her hold the rod still while she cranks, the guy coaching her to keep going, and the person edging in with the video camera, it’s pretty priceless. When mom limits out in the first twenty minutes and then sits back talking trash for the next 4 hours, it’s totally out of her character, but it’s fantastic.  People come out of their shells on the water, often the least expected fisher is the most successful.  That mutual feeling of success, of working for something and having it happen, of shared effort – of the empathy.  It’s usually hilarious, but always memorable.

5. Gallons of Coffee

During the summer, I will start the day with a cheap cup of Folgers coffee with creamer and too much sugar. Its taste akin to caffeinated hummingbird food. When the cup is about half full, whether that means I spilled it or drank it, it is topped up again with a few pumps from one of the two air pots we bring aboard each morning.  This same cup of coffee remains full or half full for the entire day, soon becoming a cold, biting, heartless black sludge filled with wayward grounds. It serves as breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It is constantly referenced, refilled, and recalled. I do not know how much coffee I drink during the summer, but an alarming amount. I personally can’t eat on board – the rush of energy to my digestive system knocks me flat out, and I’m immediately sleepy and miserable.  Coffee, and maybe the wayward handful of Kirkland brand trail mix, keeps me going. I can drink coffee at midnight and fall fast asleep five minutes later.

6. Yelling in general

Hollering at the crew is something I flat out can’t help. If you’ve got a salmon on, people on nearby boats will know it. “GIVE IT A JERK! TIP UP! REEL REEL REEL REEL REEL…” It’s awful. I can’t help it. I just want you to catch fish. It’s all I want. That, and my coffee. The deckhand could move faster I guess. Why aren’t there whales?
Nevermind – I want a lot of things.

7. Casually reacting to – Mind Blowing – Natural events

When you get to go to and from the Fjords every day and are fishing in a never-dark non-stop feeding frenzy of breaching whales, puffins, porpoise, salmon and halibut bridled with mountains climbing out of the ocean, calving glaciers and adventure, you’d think a person would never get jaded.  They do, but they don’t work here. If you aren’t excited to see a whale, you need to find a different job. That said, it doesn’t mean you don’t get good at pretending this isn’t the coolest thing ever, after all – you still have to run the boat.  For example – when Orcas pass under the bow and roll on their side to look at everyone, it’s never boring!

8. Filleting

A 150 quart cooler full of Halibut Fillets

A successful day means a lot of cutting – this is a full sized 150 quart cooler full of fillets from a group. Quite a haul for home!

Cutting fish is an important part of the day. You work hard, and sometimes you’re successful. You’re usually at your limit of energy after a 2 hour run home with everyone usually taking a nap, the deckhand scrubbing the gunnels, and just the drone of the outboards and the sleepy roll of the prevailing swell trying it’s best to knock you off your game.  Despite that, it’s time for what the shore team calls “The Fish Show”, and everyone gets a second wind once you hit the beach.  It’s a toss up between time for photos and getting people moving – there are planes, processors, and dinner dates which all have strict cut off times.  Whats important though is despite the rush to do your best to take care of the fish. All of our catch is bled immediately upon coming aboard, with a good cut through the gills keeping blood from resting in the fillets.  We make sure all of our salmon are always kept in salt water and ice, a frigid mixture that stays ultra cold for the whole day. The halibut are put “sunny side up” in the fish holds belowdeck, so that any mottling happens on the green side of the fish, making for a beautifully clean white photo when we hang the catch.  Once we hit the beach, our shore team starts fueling and hauling fish to the cleaning tables. We hang and rinse the catch off again for everyone to get photos with their family and friends.  Fish are marked throughout the day depending on which party harvested them, and we usually start filleting with the party that had the smallest amount of people first so we can move everyone along quickly.  We always skin our halibut, salmon, and ling cod, rinse the fillets again but are careful not to let them sit in pools of fresh water, and then bag them in clean clear plastic bags to take to the processor.   After all the work put in getting the fish, carelessness at the tables can spoil the harvest.
We work fast and efficiently, doing our level best to get every ounce of flesh off the carcass so as little as possible goes into the “gut bucket”.  It’s hard to not get pulled from the tables – there’s always something pressing to attend to and after all the deckhand is there, but it’s a point of importance to all of our guides to stay until it’s done and see it through ourselves. It’s not only a ton of work, it’s also a part of guiding to ensure the end product is treated in the best way possible and the clients are left with questions answered for its continued care after it leaves our space. Watching each guide filet his fish can be interesting as well, certain operators take pride in different aspects, and the tactics they use might almost be called artistic.
The tables often gather a crowd of onlookers and children in addition to the crew, asking questions and taking photos.  You’re always welcome to join us! Boats generally get in at 11am, 4pm, 5:30pm, 6pm, and 9pm daily. Our tables are open to our guests with personal boats as well, so there’s usually always someone out there cutting fish! If you got some on your own and you don’t know how to do it, always feel free to come in and ask. I’ve never turned a guest down needing a hand with their catch, it’s always our pleasure to help if we can.

 

Happy New Year Everyone! Summer is coming!

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