Frontier fish story
Chico State friends live life on the edge for one eventful Alaskan salmon season
Brian and I cracked two Sockeye Ales to celebrate our near-arrival at fish camp. As we sipped the dripping bottles, a van stopped. We ditched the beers, christening our summer on the seas, where we hoped to net, not ditch, sockeyes for the next 60 days. The driver drove two miles and delivered us to the doorstep of our aurora dream.
Three years ago, I transferred from Chico State to the University of Alaska, Anchorage, bought an RV and spent the fall in my mobile and frozen home enwombed in a down blanket reading Spike Walker’s Working on the Edge—Surviving in the World’s Most Dangerous Profession: King Crab Fishing on Alaska’s High Seas.
Though that book nourished my dream to fish Alaska, by December I’d transferred home to Chico, where I graduated last year. But between final exams I landed a set-netting job and invited fellow Chico State graduate Brian Locher not just to work on a small commercial fishing crew, but also to live with me on the edge.
Two 26-year-old, blond-haired, blue-eyed Californians brought themselves to Alaska, and Alaska would give these greenhorns a truly fantastic fish story. We’d experience everything under the sun, literally. But we’d also discover unexpected limits—and that we weren’t the only Chico State graduates in our scrappy camp.
Brian and I had shot 2,500 miles northwest of the “lower 48,” dropped a hundred more south of Anchorage, rolled 11 long miles past Kenai (a sparse town crowded with spruces) and stopped at the edge of the Cook Inlet.
We’d live in a 10-by-10-foot bluff-side hut, one of several in the camp. Unlike the highly staffed, hydraulic mother ships Spike manned “on the edge,” we’d work from shore. Every few hours, we’d descend from our base-camp bluff, truck a quarter-mile down the beach and launch two agile 18-foot aluminum skiffs.
We’d work in intimate two- to four-man teams for a few rough and silent, or smooth and conversational, hours—motoring up to nets, hand-over-handing them across the bow, untangling salmon and flinging back the flounders. Nobody would get seasick, though Brian would come the closest.
We’d return ashore, hang our Grundens (wader-overalls) and gloves, “mug up” with coffee, and down humungous gourmet meals in the kitchen hut—the common ground where we’d lounge and overuse a DVD player that ran on a gas generator. We wouldn’t eat any salmon, except once to celebrate the Fourth of July.
Chris Tootle, 36, a tubby Texan and our new fish-mate, welcomed us to Humpy Point on June 17. He’d arrived a week earlier to help Bob Toll and Sue Steinbach, our bosses, prep their Kenai Peninsula site for the set-netting season.
We rustled franks and beans, offering a bit to Chris.
“One thing y’all’l learn about me,” he drawled, “is that I eat 24-7.” Brian promptly nicknamed him “Wells,” after the portly pitcher David Wells. The name stuck.
In fact, all of our six-man crew—plus Sue and Sunny, the camp Labrador retrievers—would be eating 24-7, it seemed. It was impossible to keep to a schedule. Fishing in Alaska, like the waves and summer sun, bears down all day and can kick up at any time.
A week before the season’s scheduled start, Troy Frost, 26, knocked on the door of our hut, which sat perched 50 feet above the beach on the bluff overlooking our fishing waters.
“We’re fishin’ tomorrow,” the good ol’ boy from Iowa said with the charm of a child. The season had never started so early, leaving our crew—the camp’s greenest ever—with little time to prepare. Troy was the only returner from the previous season, one of the most unprofitable in the site’s 30-year history. He itched to catch fish.
Our beach-side home stood in the black spruce woods engulfing Cook Inlet, producer of some of the world’s highest tides, which swing up to 21 feet every six hours, like a schizophrenic river. In these wily and frigid waters, we hoped to strain the succulent sockeye, the most prized of Pacific salmon, from 12 nets scattered in an area covering a mile of beach and extending a mile and a half out to sea. Waves beat a soundtrack below on the beach. Thirty miles across the inlet, the Aleutian mountain range towered.
“I couldn’t sleep,” Troy said the next morning, June 20. “Feels like Christmas Eve.”
At 6 a.m., Brian, Sue and I descended the dilapidated stairs, then jammed up and down the beach in rusty trucks, prepping nets. Each net extended 200 feet and draped 10 feet down. “Corks” held the tops afloat. Leads held the bottoms taut. Sandbags anchored the ends.
The nets had names such as “Rock,” after a rock Chris would later break a prop on; “Chase,” after our neighbors; “Far Yonder Net"; and “The Super,” because that’s how it fished. While the nets “soaked,” they snagged sockeyes, or “reds,” by their heads. We’d un-gill, or “pick,” the nets every six hours at slack tide.
Sue eyed her watch for the tick of 7 a.m., and our season began.
Matt Warn, 24, the youngest and most experienced under Bob, joined our crew last. The red-haired Irish-Minnesotan had survived Spike Walker’s “edge,” working as a bait-boy for that heinous three-day king crab season.
On the first pick, Matt worked the calm Cook Inlet frantically, as if in the wild Bering Sea. He moved lithe as a leprechaun, ripping fish until their heads freed or flew. Troy caught fire like a motor on the first yank, and I, with reluctance, followed.
“Boy, a lot of headless fish,” Sue said, clicking her bus driver’s clicker to keep count of each sockeye we pitched from our boat to the tote, a plastic bin measuring 5 feet square by 3 feet deep.
Bob’s fish flew sleek, silver and complete, reflecting the difference between Bob and Matt, our two skiff drivers for the season, and foreshadowing what would end our season early.
Matt’s two gears—drive and overdrive—pushed the expensive outboard motors and Bob’s precious patience all season. Both would crack.
Sue Steinbach—the 59-year-old will, wallet and voice box of fish camp—flooded Humpy Point with incessant speech and unending energy. The language she used tended to describe her as well as whatever she talked about. She was a “hoot.” She liked to move, and the crew to move, “lickedy split.” And she’d be first to point if you had “egg on your face,” though she often did, too, and wasn’t afraid to admit it. ("I just poured tapioca pudding on my pork chops,” she said one evening. “I thought it was gravy.")
Through the first weeks, the tide chart—our calendar and clock—told us when to fish. ("Tide” literally means “time” in Middle English.) And though hours of fishing made us tired, second helpings at dinner made our day. Mary, Bob’s sister, made the meals.
“Nobody ever cooks anymore,” she said, birthing a crispy rhubarb blueberry cobbler from the oven.
The first days seemed like a montage of meals and fishing.
In the cook cabin at 5 a.m.: fresh doughnuts, a fire, coffee, Bob asleep with binoculars in hand and Sue staring at the ground talking to nobody.
Out on the pick: I bail buckets of “gurry,” challenging Brian to drink a pint of the fish-slime soup.
Heavy breakfast at 8 a.m.: sausage soufflé, no sound but the clatter of silverware, clomp of Mary’s feet and clunk of oatmeal bowls.
Back from a pick: Brian and I run up the beach while the others drive, racing each other up the stairs.
A lunch at 2 p.m.: I grab grapes, a chocolate cookie, and sit over verde chicken fajitas and fresh strawberry rhubarb pie with ice cream, then scavenge the last of the still-hot fajita scraps and crumble the corner brownie into cookie-dough Dreyer’s.
Mending nets between picks: Matt tells stories from the edge, such as ones about “I-talians that been fishin’ the Bering Straight since antediluvian days, real Luigis and Vendettas,” he’d say, snapping a blood knot.
A dinner at 9 p.m.: fresh baked and buttered French bread; salad with bleu cheese, celery, sunflower seeds, tomato and olive oil; Balsamic chicken; brown rice; strawberry pie and slow-churned vanilla ice cream.
If on the job we gained respect for one another, at meals we gained a knowing of our subtler sides, sides that grew softer by the helping.
Mary made us a special Italian dinner of pasta with a homemade sausage marinara, garlic bread, and a bottle of wine.
“We’re getting along better than any crew I’ve had,” she said, adding perhaps prematurely that we were lucky not to have any drinkers.
Chris skulled his wine in one foul gulp.
Matt ate with a spaghetti stain on his arm and left to smoke on the bluff.
We relaxed into the down time between picks.
Sue pored over a newspaper, verbally splashing us with the parts that snagged her attention. We waited to fish.
“Hhnn,” relaxed Troy on the couch with a cookie.
“Hmneah,” swallowed Chris with corn chips.
Bob stood at the window with binoculars.
Bob Toll, 53, became the calm ebb to the constant flood of Sue, eddy to her current. They’ve gilled reds and kings together for 27 years. We didn’t learn about Bob at meals, but we did while mending nets. He’d share dirty jokes and tales of his 21st-place finish in the 1984 Iditarod.
Brian and I told stories of our Chico careers and asked Bob where he’d gone to school.
“Chico State,” he said to our surprise, adding that he’d studied recreation. “I’m a little embarrassed.”
After a month, we found a routine. Fishing regulations allowed us to set our nets from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every Monday and Thursday, but regulators could “extend” these open hours at any time by cell phone, sometimes for days on end.
We’d wake every six hours, descend like dead men from our heavenly beds to the beach below, launch, and pick the nets at slack tide. Matt, Troy and I formed the “Hero Crew.” Bob, Brian and Chris made up the “A Team.” Each boat picked half the nets while Sue paced on the beach, waving dumb directions to her blissfully deaf crew in the distance. Bob refused to use radios, preferring the Sue-less silence while at sea.
Each net yielded from 10 to 100 six-pound reds and maybe one 50-pound king. After a pick, we’d transfer all the fish and crew to one skiff, moor the other, and charge the shore. As Bob steered in the stern, the bowman had to tie a knot in the bowline before we hit the beach at full throttle. We’d jump clear as Sue reversed and the bowman hitched his rope to Sue’s bumper. She’d gun it, dragging the skiff clear of the waves so she could slide alongside the skiff. We’d pitch fish into waiting totes. Sue then drove them to the buying station nearby.
Bob said set-netting remains one of Alaska’s oldest and toughest jobs. It’s hand-made and hands-on fishing, requiring one to push, drive, yank, lift and grunt. Yet one must know intricate knots and tie them with two-inch-thick sea-stiffened line or delicate net webbing. This ancient, simple, pure yet modern and competitive job became our lifestyle.
After the last pick before our weekly day off, we enjoyed a six-pack of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale that Mary treated us to. Then Bob, Sue and Mary disappeared to a land of electricity and showers. The rest of us relaxed into the tattered habits of our other interests.
Brian ran and did yoga on the bluff. I practiced karate and read. Chris recovered from his night at “The T,” the local pub, where our Southerner sought comfort in a bottle of “So-Co” he hoped would lead to the arms of a woman. Troy left camp with Sue’s daughter, Chrissie. Last year, she caught his eye. This year, he hooked her heart.
On days off, each of us sat on the bluff and wondered what the tides of time would bring to the shores of our lives. But we could predict no more of life than we could guess what critter we’d haul over the gunwale.
Within the reeling montage of picks we’d landed: a 70-pound king, flotillas of jellyfish, one halibut that Mary beer-battered, a hermit crab, starfish, dog sharks whose emerald eyes stared from sandpaper skin, spiny scullpins that buzzed when you squeezed them and flocks of flounder that skipped when you threw them.
Like most of what we accidentally caught in our nets, we too survived many snags. Matt dislocated his middle finger and didn’t complain. Chris fell overboard and Bob hauled him back (never telling Sue). Matt broke an outboard; Bob fixed it. Chris broke a prop; Bob fixed that, too.
And like the seals that dined on our netted reds, we also thrived. Mary’s niece made a cameo appearance on one pick. Brian promptly started dating the wide-eyed woman, to Chris’ and Mary’s vicarious joy. Chrissie told Troy she was pregnant. I collected agates until the weekly Sierra sixer and day off.
One of us never stopped.
Matt sat wearing a Kenai Wild cap and blue clothes. He smoked on the bluff, brooding like Bob, like a true fisherman.
“Southwest wind, 20 to 25 knots, 5-foot seas,” he said, seemingly to the sea. “Pretty fishy weather. Knockin’ somethin’ in, hopefully.”
This August evening at 11 p.m. in Alaska felt and looked like an April afternoon in Chico. The humid and hushed hand of a coming thunderstorm knocked at the screen door, seeming to call to Chris. He rose to answer.
“I haven’t smelled that smell since I left Texas,” Chris said, motioning us away from the Bull Durham DVD and the sight of Susan Sarandon’s legs. “Come smell this.”
“I love the anticipation a storm brings,” Matt said. “You don’t understand what a treat this is.”
Whenever Mary arrived at fish camp, we knew we’d be fishing within hours. She hadn’t come yet, but we felt the fish had.
Every year, a rush of fish fills nets for days or weeks. This run makes or breaks a season. The fish were overdue. Troy worried. We waited. Chris stroked his beard at the door.
“Incoming Mary,” he said, as she approached.
“It hasn’t happened three times in 30 years,” Mary said of the thunderstorm, adding that we’d open at 4 a.m.; ever on the edge.
The long, hard, exhausting workday—the day I’d read of and dreamed of experiencing—developed like a long song.
Matt missed the launch. He’d been mending a neighbor’s net he’d mowed over. He kicked rocks on shore, stuck with Sue. The rest of us rallied to free our Far Yonder Net from a 50-foot cottonwood tree, root ball and all. We tied on and tore it out, then circled to pick fat sockeyes webbed to the trunk.
At 7 p.m., Bob raised us from the dead of sleep for back-to-back picks in rain and raging tides. Matt full-throttled into the current to keep us still. Brian and I leaned into water that could freeze and sink a man in minutes, and has.
After hours of untangling sticks out of nets on shore, we headed back out. No jokes, no smokes, just silent men working in the rain.
Ashore again, Troy and I bundled the last net and wrapped up the hardest of days. It had been a thriller. We staggered up the stairs.
For dinner: chicken, salami, ham and cheddar pastries, salad dressed with blue cheese, and lemon cream cheese angel cake.
With the fish came extensions, those bonus times for fishing. The cyclic schedule and shortening Alaskan days made the season seem like one long day drawing now to evening. Darkness, an element I thought I’d left in Chico, began to dawn.
When the rain, wind and sticks had subsided and just the fish remained, I got greedy for two things. Alaska delivered both.
First, I wanted to know if we were doing a good job. Compliments came from Sue about as often as silence. But she surprised me one morning. I found Troy to share the news.
“Sue just said…”
“Yeah,” he said, having overheard, “that this is the hardest she’s seen a crew work.”
The second thing I yearned to have was a phenomenon that Troy had experienced the previous year when a seemingly random school of reds rammed into the nets, “plugging” them with hundreds of fish.
“I see the season in terms of a story, Troy,” I said, “and we haven’t had the surprise plugged net.”
Troy grinned, noticing the flaming but fading purple flowers of Alaska. “The season’s almost over. You can tell by the fireweed. It’ll start looking like a dandelion.”
We slept an hour before our pick. Matt and I skiffed alone. He’d been crazy with frustration earlier that morning. We picked two nets as quietly as the water was calm.
“Do you think you’ll set-net again?” he finally asked.
“No,” I said. “This is just an old dream I’m satisfying. I’m tired of punishing myself.”
“Don’t ever change,” he said looking me in the eyes.
We turned toward the hit-or-miss mile-and-a-half-long net. Salmon porpoised around us. We hit the net. I pulled the corks, looked and froze, stunned, like a lotto winner who’d just been paid in silver. I couldn’t lift them alone.
“Yes! Yes! Fish on,” Matt roared, yanking the net over the bow. We fell back in a slosh of sockeyes, realizing that the tide was turning and if we didn’t hustle we’d lose the catch. For 20 minutes, fueled by fear, we worked in a greedy frenzy as the current relaxed and fish began to hang free.
Then, to our starboard, a skiff of A-Teamers swooped in and saved the shorthanded Hero Crew. Chris heaved the last of our hoard aboard.
“That’s the most plugged I’ve ever seen a net,” Matt said, motoring the full-bellied boat as sated as I’d ever seen him. We’d found a way to slow him down—weigh down his skiff with 2,000 pounds of sockeye.
Sue “gave” us the night off. “Everyone’s pretty beat,” she said, frustrating us because we felt fresh and ready.
While the boys went to the bars, I took a sponge bath, washing away weeks of grime and dried slime. Then, redressed in the clothes I’d worn for two months, I stared out our window as if at a flat-screen television showing the sunset like a movie, rife with all the elements of life on the edge.
The next day, Matt pushed a second outboard past its limit, and with it went Bob’s patience. Bob towed his self-defeated Hero Crew ashore and went back out to pick our nets. On the beach, Troy tried to look busy. I stretched. Matt smoked and steamed.
“This might be the end of our season,” I said to Troy, who paced.
“I hope you’re not right,” he said, not having thought of that. “Don’t expect a bonus.”
Bob rammed the skiff on the beach where we’d positioned the trucks to trailer the disabled skiff.
Bob reproached Matt about the way he drove skiffs, fast and fuming.
“I don’t know what to tell you, Matt. You just can’t drive these skiffs hard. It doesn’t work in this business. You just can’t. And you don’t need to. It’s dangerous. They’ll break. You’ll just have to change. Change the way you drive. I’ve seen you rev them way up, not in gear, and then jam it in and blast from one net to the other. These engines can’t take it.”
His volatile anger flooded. He sputtered to a stop. We all drove back to eat. Matt walked, carrying an empty gas can back to a tense and tired camp.
“I don’t know,” Sue said staring at the ground as if to sea and ebbing and flowing with her feet. “We’re all supposed to be still learning something, but the older you get you just get tireder and tireder and beat and worn down and just give up.”
Bob reentered, continuing his rant.
“Twenty years—one outboard. One year—two outboards,” he said. “A green crew.”
He calmed. Then the fridge broke. Bob fixed it.
We slinked off to mend nets. But we could do no right. Brian went for a run, ran too far, and missed a pick. I beat off tension with karate kicks. Bob felled the trees I’d practiced among. Matt blew off steam by axing them to pieces, adding reality to Sue’s pessimistic nickname for our site: “Camp Deadwood.”
We gathered Sue’s stashes of random, rank flotsam from two months of netting. We buried the writhing piles of maggoty flounder carcasses. I helped Troy with a resume for his next job.
The inlet calmed to a mirror millpond for our last pick. We rose again as if from graves for the final descent down the stairs. I staggered, swallowed a sip of coffee. Matt requested I play guitar. I shrugged him off. “Little Red,” one of the trusty trucks, died.
“Pull Super Net,” Bob said. “Pull the south line,” he added, ending our season days early.
Hero Crew and A-Team formed for the last time. And for that magical pick, the inlet gleamed and the fish came back. We improved from three fish per net to a delightful 50.
“Pick like you got something to prove,” Matt yelled, flinging flounder.
On the beach I pitched the last few reds with Matt. While “stacking” the last net, I raced to free a final salmon. A charging Troy beat me to it. With the nets stacked and packed, we whipped our last clove knots tight, trailered the skiffs, parked the trucks and shut the lid of our last tote-load of salmon.
I found an amber agate and showed it to Sue.
“Oh,” she said. “It’s a symbol.” We were finished and free.
While scampering back to camp, I threw fish heads at seagulls. Sunny chased them. I chased Sunny. Then, catching Troy’s attention, I pointed to my watch for one more race up the stairs. Matt and Brian joined the competition. Bob and Chris didn’t.
As we waited together for Sue to return from the buying station with our season totals, we rested our nets at the spot they’d been dumped the year before—that sub-par year of 90,000 pounds. Sue returned. We’d caught 130,000 pounds of sockeye and king salmon; at $1 a pound, that put our share at $5,000 each. We shook hands. Brian and I embraced in a knot of camaraderie, cinched by the season, and left the nets where they’d be dragged from next year.
The edge had called me. It called Brian, and the others. And we answered by casting ourselves from the comfortable shores of home onto our personal frontiers. We caught a dream, a true fish story, and though Chico reeled us back in, we were freed from our work, and released into a life, ever on the edge.
Photos by Daniel Penner and Brian Locher