Monday, January 12, 2015

Alaska Beckoned Me Once Again

By Jeff

With the beginning of the New Year I realize just how busy we’ve been for the last several months. I thought I would catch up and post about some of my activities from last fall.   

Tom, a friend of ours in Bellingham operates a prawn boat in Southeast Alaska and asked me if I wanted to crew for him.  Always willing to try new adventures I agreed and found myself on a flight to Wrangell in the last week of September.

Tom normally keeps his boat in Gustavus, near Juneau.  He'd already moved the boat to Wrangell to be ready for their district's prawn open. I spent a week prior to leaving lacing up new prawn pots to ship them up to the boat.  Upon arrival, it was a little more of the same, checking the older pots and effecting any repairs needed.  The other deckhand, Dan, bad been onboard for a few days already, going over the gear so we were in pretty good shape.
Weather the first day, and what I expected.
As a little background information, I’d been through parts of Southeast while working a run on tugboats, but had been left feeling somewhat underwhelmed.  Of course, that had more to do with the fact that I’d barely seen any land what with all the fog and mist.  I was left with kind of a meh opinion of Southeast so far.  Based on the weather when I arrived I didn’t think I would leave this time with a different opinion.

The weather we actually had most of the time!

 A day prior to the open, it was time to head south. Tom had previously done a little scouting and had a good idea of where he wanted to be. We also wanted to set a longline or two to get some baitfish to supplement to frozen whole fish and pellet we had onboard.  We left Wrangell in the evening and transited the narrows in the channel southbound by radar and GPS in the dark.  After clearing the south end of Wrangell Island we made our anchorage on the east side of Etolin Island, a run of about three hours.

The next morning, we were up to an absolutely beautiful sunrise and clear skies.  After a leisurely breakfast we fired things up to set our longline.  This consisted of a few rocks as anchors with baited hooks clipped on every few fathoms, then a line to our buoy.  It didn’t take too long to set and we went off to scout.  Whenever Tom saw a promising location on the depthsounder, he marked a waypoint on his GPS and by early afternoon we had or plan of attack for setting pots the next day.  When we returned to check our baitset, we found we’d done okay. I was frustrated that we had to send back any halibut we caught.  No one onboard had a recreational halibut permit and it was illegal for Tom to keep any halibut caught on a commercial longline baitset.  Tom was taking no chances, so back into the water they went.

Longline hooks baited and ready.
The thing that sold me on this adventure is that this fishery is completely civilized.  Regulations require that fishing gear can only be moved between 8 am and 5 pm.  This is one way that Fish and Game keeps this prawn fishery sustainable.  The other big regulation is the regular and frequent catch reports the boats are required to file.  This way the biologists keep tabs on the catch and know when to cut the open off.  It usually runs between twelve and seventeen days. 

5:30 am found us up eating breakfast and drinking coffee and the first day of the open.  After breakfast Tom took us out to where he wanted to start setting while Dan and I rigged the pots.  We put five pots on a length of floating crabline, one pot every twenty-five fathoms.  The buoy line consisted of twenty-five fathoms of floating line on the bottom and the same length of sinking line on top, attached to the buoy.  This rig kept the line floating off the bottom, reducing the chances of it snagging on rocks, and the sinking line at the buoy minimized the chances of fouling a prop.  The five pot rig is called a “suicide five” as they might hang up on a rock, have the buoy line break and leave the pots on the bottom.  The other possible rig is a ten pot string with buoy lines on both ends.
100 pots stacked on the workdeck.

At 0800 precisely, our first pot went in the water.  From that moment on, Dan and I worked furiously to build strings and Tom took us to the next setpoint.  I would assemble and bait the pots while Dan built the strings. When we neared a setpoint, Tom would call out to stream the buoy, which would then go over the side.  At the spot he wanted the pots he’d call “Set” and we would toss a pot over the side.  Each pot in a set went over after the line had uncoiled and stretched out.  Working quickly Dan and I stayed ahead of Tom ad 5 pm pound us with the last string of twenty in the water.  Tom was pleased to gotten al one hundred pots in the water.  With the job done, we retired to the anchorage to drink beer.
The fruit of our labors in the live tank.
And so ended the easy days.  After the first day, we would be processing prawns mornings and evenings as well as turning pots during the day.  The next morning we pulled out of the anchorage and at 8 am precisely, began pulling strings.  The first pot was LOADED with prawn and Tom was thrilled.  He picked out the biggest one he saw and returned it to the sea and we were all business after that.  Tom hauled the pots, Dan opened them and dumped the prawns into the live tank and I rebaited and stacked them.  As soon as the pots were ready, we reset the string since we’d found a good location.  Wash, rinse and repeat and that is how the day went.  By 5 pm we’d turned every string and managed to move a few that weren’t on good grounds.  
Then the processing began. Tom likes to head his prawns and process tails only.  He doesn’t like the after treatment chemicals that are used when handling whole prawns and feels the snapped tails yield a higher quality product.  More work for us, more money for the product.  We start by snapping the tails off the prawn, the heads went straight back into the sea.  The tails were then sorted by size and we packaged them into plastic tubs and waxed paper boxes depending upon the customer, and everything was loaded into the blast freezer for overnight freezing. 

The next morning we unloaded the packages from the blast freezer, dipped the boxed prawns into water to glaze them and loaded everything into the hold freezers. All this had to be complete before 8 am to we could start turning pots for the day.  Our first days catch was almost 300 pounds of tails--it was the second best day Tom had ever had in his fishing career.  Needless to say, he was pleased! The second day continued as the first, but as Dan and I had sorted out the deck rhythm we were able to spend more time heading prawns in between sets.  The harder and faster we worked, the sooner we could have a beer and get to sleep in the evening.

A variety of some of the really cool critters that crawled
 into our pots for a free meal.
The weather was amazing, clear and sunny one moment and raining twenty minutes later.  Keeping a weather eye out and changing layers to meet what was coming, kept us quite comfortable and happy. Tom’s biggest concern was that we needed more bait soon as we were turning sets faster than he thought we would.  The morning of the third day, we left the anchorage early so Tom could get to cell phone coverage and order more bait.  Things were shaping up to be a record-breaking season for us.

About twenty minutes out an ominous pounding banging sound built up from the engine.  We shut down to investigate, could find nothing obviously wrong and then fired up to return to the anchorage.

Feeling we were pushing our luck, Tom decided to return to Wrangell for a closer inspection.  A few of the other boats were heading back to unload catch, so we knew we could catch a tow if anything went seriously wrong.  Cruising at idle speed, pounding the engine the whole way we headed home. There were five sets along our route that we were able to pull as we went by, which just aggravated the situation.  We’d been averaging over two hundred pounds of processed tails a day, and these five sets had the biggest, prettiest prawns and the fullest pots we’d yet seen.  When we should have been pulling sets and moving them to this area, we were instead heading back to uncertainty.

Prawns, all headed and sorted by size.
Tom setting up on the next string of pots to pull.
Ten hours of pounding later, we pulled into Wrangell.  The local mechanic met us at the dock and quickly diagnosed that the crankshaft had snapped.   We had knocked the engine off it’s front mounts by the time we’d returned. However, we were felling quite lucky to have made it back. Our fishing season was over for the year.  We spent a day or two trying to lease a boat and work it out with Fish and Game but to no avail.  Five days into my first prawn open--a good one at that, I was headed back home.

Tom has since installed a new engine and is waiting for next year.  In the end, I had a great time and am ready to go back north again.  I’ve gained a new appreciation for Southeast Alaska.  The scenery, if a little wet is spectacular.  With a rifle, a toolbox and some hard work a person could build a pretty amazing life up there. I however, will just continue to visit.  I’m feeling a little to old to try that game now!

~ Jeff.

1 comment:

  1. The pictures are really amazing,just by seeing them i can guess that you must have had enjoyed your trip.Glad that you took out some time for yourself and enjoyed the most out of it!