Caught by Danny Pettit
79 lbs. / 36kg.
Copper River King Salmon
Copper River Fishin'
Dawn breaks gray at low tide
cat and crow squabble outside
Eagle swoops by, grinning and sly
giving kitty that hungry eye
Night bear staged a garbage raid
Out in the yard a great mess was made
Cormorants diving for their morning meal
Ravens rummaging through garbage to steal
Down to the docks n’ throw on a slicker
loose the lines on the ol ‘ bowpicker
Bustin’ now through ocean spray
Fishin’s just a few hours away
Kaila Marie is first to leave the Cordova harbor, Fireweed follows in hot pursuit. Pat heads out over the shallows of Orca Inlet in Kaila, her 24’ “Loomis” jetboat, running a “460 Ford” gas burner. I swing wide staying in the deep water channel. Kaila disappears around Whitshed Point with the jetboat herd. Fireweed, my 26’ “Starvin’ Marvin” is passing tenders like they’re standing still with her new power package. A “Volvo Diesel” 200 hp. “Duo Prop.” This outfit is pushing her along real fine, cruising at 22 knots with extra power to spare. The two boats take their favorite routes to Egg Island from town. Kaila jumps up on step in the shallows but wallows laboriously in deep water.
Fireweed holds to the deep water, running “on step” in the “stick channel.” (A marked route for the larger vessels). I have a fifty-five gallon drum chock-a-block full of trashed propellers, the penalty for attempting to follow boats like the Kaila Marie. The two boats pass by the Egg Island anchorage, Fireweed catches up with Kaila Marie, who has been knocked off-step by the passing fleet and is plugging along at a painful 8 or 10 knots. Fireweed blasts by Kaila leaving her rocking in the wake.
I pull Fireweed up to the “Steamboat Markers” to wait for water at the “Racetrack.” The tide is flooding, but there is not enough water yet for Fireweed to take the channel. Kaila catches up with Fireweed, she is back up on step and going like a “bat outa’ Hell!” Fireweed is rocking wildly on her passing, “that was intentional!” “C’mon, stick it Pat!” “Oh, c’mon, puhleeeze...stick it!” If she slams that sand bar, I’ll beat her to our mutual favorite hole in Walhalla. “She’s blowin’ a ton a’ sand through that jet, she’s really shallow, c’mon baby, STICK IT!!”
Pat gives a wave and cuts neatly to port, across Fireweed’s bow; she knows exactly where she is. “That was a stunt and a taunt. Maybe even a shot across my bow!” She disappears down the Racetrack and I know within a few feet where she will drop the pick. The hole at the bottom of Walhalla channel.
The water rises, the other boats waiting with Fireweed begin firing up their engines. Anchors come up and the race is on! I can feel the lift from the shallow water. No room for mistakes in the Racetrack with the lower unit hanging down there. The little fleet of boats negotiates the channel at top speed. The faster boats pass the slower boats and pull away; forming their own little fleet and move off down channel at 30 knots or better.
Fireweed drops out of the Racetrack into P’dahl channel, she’s throttled down as she passes the fleet anchored at the markers, as a courtesy. Once clear she’s throttled back up, following boats down channel. The fleet begins to thin out as they stop to drop anchor on a spot they intend to begin fishing.
First set of the fishing period is a crapshoot today. Most of the fleet has spread out in the ocean or are still running further east. There have been a lot of fish caught on the eastern end of the Flats, reducing the number of boats substantially in this neck of the woods.
“Maybe I’ll go upstream, hang around and look for fish flooding in.” “Still got time to look around, might go back to P’dahl slough,” I didn’t see any jumpers when I came through, but it might be worth a look, could be some kings around, that’s why Pat’s in that hole.” Hmm...”Pettit” had his pick down in P’dahl. Danny’s one hell of a king fisherman, hmm.”
The helm is put down hard to starboard at full speed, Fireweed slides around, heeling sharply, in a tight one hundred eighty degree turn. This old “Starvin’ Marvin” is a real performer. Her design is, I believe, the predecessor of the mass produced Vietnam riverboats at the “Uniflite” factory in Bellingham, Washington.
A surprise at “Patty Point” as it had come to be known, (the fleet uses her for a turning buoy down here). Patty Point is vacant. “She’s gone!” I pull up short, then shut down the motor to drift, listen and watch.
Fish are a poppin’ up in P’Dahl gutter
An’ I hear that 460 beginin’ to putter
Ya, fish are poppin’ up in P’Dahl gutter
The tune of her 460 has my heart aflutter
I hear Pat’s motor idling upstream over in P’Dahl, “I guess she changed her mind.” I give her a call on the radio, asking if she had talked to her dad yet, she comes back with a “he wasn’t home.” “Ok, maybe later.” “The kids have arrived already.” “Ok, tell him happy birthday for me.” “Ok.” So now I know she didn’t see any sign of king salmon. Her dad’s name is “Rex.” She said “the kids have arrived already,” tells me she saw sockeye in P’Dahl. I drop the conversation, thinking, “Ya, somethins’ happnin.”
The motor is fired back up, the boat begins idling down channel. Fireweed drops out of Walhalla, headed to a random central point where the major drainages, P’Dahl, Walhalla, King Salmon, Gus Stevens & Castle converge. The motor is shut down where Fireweed has a clear 360 degree view of all the drainages and P’Dahl bar as well.
The bar is roiling on this flood tide. The seas are breaking across the channel, closing it off. Waves crash with authority on the inside beach. “Damn glad I didn’t go outside, that’s a hell of a swell runnin.” “It’s floodin’ hard, if there’s fish, I’m in ‘em.”
Up Castle slough sockeye are on the jump
Now that 460’s really startin’ to pump
Off the breaking beach Fireweed stands alone
Across the channel, Kaila’s anchored in foam
Kaila Marie is on the move again. She is running hard down the beach in the shallows, then turns toward Castle Slough where she hits deep water. She bogs down, making her way through the chop in the bar. “She’s gotta plan.” It’s obvious, she’s headed for the point at the bottom of Castle. “Good choice!” One of the best sets in the drainage on the flood. Played well, she can work that corner through most of the tide. “We both got damn good sets, if there’s any fish showin’ we’ll have a hell of a day.”
“Damn, no boats, hardly anyone around, they all went east. Probably’ll catch more fish, but the ocean boats will take a beating for it. The outside beaches are gonna be real big. Hope everyone stays safe.” “Inside Grass Island and Softuk there’s gonna be a ton of boats an’ they’ll probably knock hell out of them. When we get to town we’ll suffer the stories, the struttin’ an’ the shit-eatin’ grins.”
“Two minutes. Here we go.” I get out on deck, put Fireweed in gear and move out the bar where the boat may set the net close to the beach then lay it out to deep water. The swell is big, many of the waves are coming across the bar as combers, this only occurs with big seas outside.
Two minutes pass, but a big set is rolling in, I am in no hurry, I hold Fireweed’s position off the beach, just outside the breaker line. The occasional wave comes across, breaking behind me in the channel. I jam the boat into reverse, backing Fireweed over a comber and take a bath for it.
Looking downstream, I see Kaila’s buoy is out, still on the sand where she threw it. “I love that set.” A bit of jealousy here, I’ve caught a lot of fish there. It’s where I learned my first real fishing lesson on the Copper River Delta.
I was in my first year of salmon gillnetting on the Copper River, fishing the inside waters here in P’Dahl and doing poorly. Fishing was not bad, actually, it was damn good. I just couldn’t catch them.
I spent much of my time watching other boats, trying to figure out why they’re picking so many fish out of their nets. Sometimes it was a mass of heads ‘n tails from the boat all along the net to the end buoy. Kings and “reds” (sockeye). There was one boat, solid black in color, that I watched in particular. It never seemed to move. It was more like a marker than a boat. When boats would leave the area for the ocean, many of them would go around that boat to get outside through the surf.
It was driving me nuts. It was always there. I needed to catch fish, I had serious bills to pay and a balloon payment coming up. I made a desperate, dumb decision one night.
The light on the boat marks its position clearly, it had not moved. Almost all the boats are anchored with their nets on board. A few are fishing in the dark. I run Fireweed up Castle Slough quite a ways in the middle of an ebb tide. I roll all 150 fathoms of net off the boat and wait. I wait only a few minutes when the net lights up with splashes.
Fireweed is drifting downstream fast, I start pulling the gear back, working hard to get the fish untangled. A big wad of reds comes over the roller then a king is there, wrapped in the leadline, hitting the deck with a great “thuuwomp!”
There are a few minutes of exhilaration, the net is coming aboard fast, but as I watch the light on the boat at “the corner,” it is plain to see, I’m going to get sucked out the bar with a good part of the gear still out. This is a situation that has taken many lives on the river.
“Ebbing out the bar.” I had heard this repeatedly in conversations. I have some experience with breaking bars, my steering failed entering the Columbia River Bar a few years back. The Coast Guard arrived in force and worked all night to extricate the Freya from the “Graveyard of the Pacific,” but that’s another story for another time. (see note 1.)
The Copper River, from the all stories I had listened to, demands a high degree of respect. This night it is obvious, I have not heeded the warnings. There is no wind to speak of, but there is a swell running, the tide is receding fast, slamming into the seas. The waves roll in from the deep, hit the shallow water of the sand bars and build to become like rows of sharks teeth which will roll a bowpicker over and chew it to pieces in short order. This is what greets the hapless fisherman who’s boat is broke down or, like myself, is inexperienced on “the Copper.”
The “corner” is coming up fast, I had hoped Fireweed would ride the ebb straight out the bar, giving me time to get the net on board and make another set. That hope is long gone. Fireweed will sweep around the corner in a matter of minutes. Inexperience. The thought to cut away the gear has not even come to mind, I am still trying to “outpick” the certain catastrophic event I’m faced with at this moment.
Kings and wads of sockeye; the deck is filling fast with flopping reds and kings up to my knees. They have affected my thinking, I’m not. “I got ‘em! I really got ‘em! Gotta get these fish onboard” is powered by adrenaline. Not logic. The surf is pounding. I feel its reverberations underfoot as the boat draws closer. Thudding waves are deafening as they smash sand.
Fireweed picks up speed as she begins to sweep the corner with her net out. Still picking and not thinking properly to save myself, the black boat on the corner is there. The marker buoy, I will go around.
Then, I see him. Standing there, a statue in stone at his helm. In that instant there is a line around Fireweed’s cleat, and the mystery fisherman has his boat pulling hard in reverse. His engine at high RPM drowns out the ocean. Spray from his jet is a cloudburst over our decks as he backs into the hard running ebb tide. The net is coming aboard still filled with fish as this furious battle between jet boat and tide rages, where the Copper River greets the Gulf of Alaska.
Again, inexperience. At this point, I could have rolled the rest of the fish onto the reel, still in the net. I did not know that yet, the thought simply never comes to mind. I’m picking like a madman, tearing the fish out of the net, rolling Kings out of the lead line with my feet. A wad of reds and a couple of kings comes through the rollers, hopelessly wrapped and tangled.
Out comes the knife in a wild frenzy of slashing. Slicing through the hangings at the cork line and leadline the whole mess is cut away. That wad of fish was followed by the end buoy. The last of the gear has come aboard.
I yell a big thanks to the fisherman, cut him loose and we both got the hell out of there! The fellow had never allowed Fireweed to enter the breakers. I cannot say what this story would look like had he been unable to win this wrestling match with the ebb tide?
I headed Fireweed back to the Prince William, my tender, to deliver the load. Steve “Smitty” Smith looked at the fish with a wide grin, “ya finally got ‘em!” “Ya, got coffee on? I gotta tell ya a story.” I was shaking, my head hanging down, struggling to hold back the emotion.
When done relaying what had happened since he had seen me last, Smitty, a long time Copper River fisherman, looked me squarely in the eye saying simply “sounds like Bobby Weiss saved your life.” I broke. He then grabbed my shoulder, carefully prodding me to “get back on your boat. Make a few drifts from the marker and take low water here in Walhalla.”
I began making quiet drifts as Steve had suggested. It came to me that these fishers on the Flats are here for each other when it counts. They are as sweet and wonderful as the Copper River is foreboding and treacherous, both are immeasurable.
A comber breaks, mushing out underneath Fireweed’s stern, snapping me out of the memory. I ease her into reverse and back over the waves, at half throttle. “That was the beginning of a smaller set,” I throw her into forward and hit the throttle, chasing the last wave to the beach. Taking her in as close as I dare, the end buoy is tossed, then bump her into reverse and hit full throttle. The “Duo-Prop” digs in, Fireweed responds, backing over the curler before she can be thrown to the beach like a driftwood log.
The five or six fathoms of net I had flaked in the bow flies neatly through the rollers, laying a line of corks snaking to the beach. The corkline comes taut, the reel complains with whines and whirs as it spins the gear off the boat. Fireweed backs off the beach, clear of the heavy breaks. The end of the net drops off the bow, a line from the port cleat is snapped in, taking the strain.
Fireweed’s stern is brought around, towing the end of the gear upstream, holding it somewhat perpendicular to the beach to catch incoming fish and sweep down on fish idling into, or running against the tide. The beach end of the gear moves much slower than the boat end in the deep part of the channel. The boat end, being towed upstream has a “fishy hook” where schools of fish become trapped, get confused and scatter. Some are caught in the hook.
Glassing up toward Castle, I see Pat is holding nicely in the eddy. “Ya, she’s got the set, she won’t budge now.” I watch my corkline intently for signs of fish, not a splash. Zip. I let Fireweed drift until she reaches P’Dahl channel then wind the “waterhaul” back onboard. I run her back upstream for a repeat of the same drift. There are still no boats on this beach where fortunes change with the tides.
I ease up on the throttle, watching the set of waves roll in. I start in, chasing a wave to the beach as before, toss the buoy and back down. More than half the net is out when I see a king salmon hit the corkline, flopping violently.
I am not about to lose this fish, not after I just had a waterhaul. I begin spooling the gear right back aboard to get to it. The king is caught in the corkline hangings, he will be gone in short order for sure. I go easy with the reel, letting the waves push me toward the fish to keep the net slack where he is hanging, If I stretch the corkline tight when bringing it aboard, the fish may free itself or be popped out of the gear and get away.
Into the wheel goes ten fathoms of net
I’m stuck in my set!
Round ‘n round Fireweed does spin
the breakers a poundin’ raisin’ such a din
Over in the foam
the Kaila does roam
Now there’s a dish
that’s really pickin’ fish!
Fireweed eases to within a few fathoms of the king. He is quiet now, the boat is quiet as well, idling in neutral; the moment is taken, with gaff hook in hand, to asses the situation. “I’m not going to lose this fish!” The shifter is bumped gently into forward, then right back to neutral, idling, so as not to disturb the resting king salmon.
A healthy wave rolls underfoot, “the sets are building.” “Gotta get this fish.” The shifter is bumped in and out of gear again, Fireweed coasts forward, toward the king, silently. Another wave, bigger, gives the boat a gentle toss. She is lying lazily in the trough, parallel to the beach. The trigger cord, running across the deck at my ankle controls the speed of the reel as I pull the gear in slowly, winding up only the slack corkline in front of the boat, careful not to put a strain on it. As long as the net is slack around the fish, he is most likely going to entangle himself, making escape almost impossible.
Still drifting just off the beach, a musher breaks at Fireweed’s stern, she takes another, more forceful broadside shove. The king thrashes wildly when the corkline comes taut, but there is web wrapping his tail now. “He’s not going anywhere.” I let the wave pass by, then take up the slack. This puts the fish right below the bow rollers, within reach of the gaff. The web has come off his tail and when our eyes meet, he thrashes wildly. “He’s going to get out!” The mind is oblivious to the ocean, it is locked on to this king salmon. I hit the trigger hard to haul him in straightaway. He is only a foot out of the water when he tears away from the gear, “Dammit!”
A great big wave smacks Fireweed with a waapp!
Damn near rolled her over that big slap
A mean spirited shove from yet another, much larger wave pushes Fireweed straight at the breaking beach, broadside. Self preservation has me drop to my knees, hanging on to the steering wheel and hooking the rail with the gaff.
Fireweed rides the wave at a steep angle then whipsnaps over the crest. I get to my feet as she slides down the backside, leaning over the rail, gaff at the ready. The king is still there, the wave was not his friend either, he is wrapped in web now.
Instinctively, I drop the gaff, my hand goes to the leadline and drapes it over the fish. This done, I hit the trigger hard, the king comes flying through the rollers, and he is mad. The thrashing is violent when the next wave takes Fireweed by her stern, The fish, the wave, whatever it was throws me into the controls. The engine whines at full throttle in neutral. I back the throttle down then hit the shifter in reverse and throttle up to back into the next wave. KUUTHUNK!! Game over.
I take the few steps to the cabin and get on the radio to Pat, “I got gear in the wheel, I need a tow off the beach!” I see Kaila break away from her net and make a beeline for Fireweed.
I jump back to the deck, clear the net from the king, reach in behind the gill plate and rip out a fistful of gills. The king, blood spurting profusely from the torn gills goes wild while I wrestle him into the hold; then I fire up the engine in neutral to get the hydraulics working. The rest of the net has a few fish, but I am drawing myself closer to the dangers as I spool it on. Fireweed lays broadside to the incoming waves, when the reel comes to a hard, torturous stop. The net is stretched rubber band tight from the reel through the bowrollers and back to the stern of the boat where it is wound up in the Duo-Prop.
The rest of the net, maybe a 50 fathom shackle, is still out and flagged downstream. Meanwhile, Kaila Marie is bogged down in her deep water slog, which is driving me nuts as Fireweed is about to be hurled onto the beach, helpless against the relentless march of breaking waves.
Into the surf pounds the Kaila Marie
that great lady’s a comin’ after me!
I get a line ‘round a cleat
hopin’ Kaila can do the feat
Fireweed is closing with the beach fast. She is wound up in her net, tossed by the breaks. White knuckled, hanging on to the helm, the mind is racing as the boat is going through wild gyrations at the wave crests. There is no time or need for a survival suit, jumping for bare sand is a real possibility. It is a matter of luck now whether or not a wave comes along, rolling Fireweed over, complicating a bad situation.
Kaila is inching toward Fireweed. Should a wave catch her and throw her into my gear, she could suck the web into her jet and both boats will end up in a pile on the beach.
Patience pays off for Kaila, Pat hits the throttle on a wave, catches it, jet surfing straight at Fireweed. When she comes within throwing range, she slams the bucket down in reverse while at the same moment gives the line a toss with every thing she’s got. The line is uncoiling neatly in the air, arcing straight at my helm as the Kaila backs up, smashing into the crest of the wave she rode in on.
She disappears over the wave as the line drapes across my bow, a perfect toss. “That’s the ol’ cowgirl!” “Great shot!” I yell to the world. Falling on the line instantly, I take a whole bunch of hurried wraps on the bow cleat an instant before the line snaps taut, whipping Fireweed’s bow seaward.
The crest Kaila just broke through smashes Fireweed and sends me flying. I make a hard, off balance landing, bouncing off the reel then hitting the corks and web on deck. “UGH!” “That feels like a broken rib.” I had hit the reel hard on its edge. Every wave, as Pat is towing Fireweed away from the beach, shoots a familiar pain through my side. It hurts to laugh. That’s a sign of a broken rib.
Pain does not stop me from “whoo hooing” and laughing as Fireweed is pulled away from the beach, and out of the breaks. “Maybe it’s just a bruise” as the pain subsides in smooth water.
Kaila and Fireweed are now drifting upstream, motors off. I receive a thorough cussing out, before she yells for me to cut her loose, “I’ve got to get back to my f**n’ gear!”
“Pat’s pissed.” “At least I got a nice king out of it.” A weak attempt at consoling myself does not help much. The embarrassment of my unprofessional play on the beach is eating at me. “I’ll hear a lot more about this when we get home.” “That’s gonna be a big hole she’s gotta mend.” “Maybe I’ll stay out here this closure and anchor in Walhalla. I’ll just “koozey” up the hole. If I go to town, she’ll have two nets to mend while I sleep. That may not go so well.”
I toss the anchor, grab a wrench and a knife, then get back on the stern of the boat. In just a few minutes, the props are off, the net is cleared from the outdrive and the props replaced. The engine is fired up and the rest of the net is brought aboard. All set to fish again, I gaze around the boat at all the channels, my eye falls on a lone boat up P’Dahl channel. It’s Danny, still holding tight to his drift. “Wonder how he’s doin?”
I have a ton of respect for Danny’s abilities at catching kings, after all, he was generous in teaching me subtle techniques which over the years have paid off handsomely. “Might as well take turns, the whole channel is open, two boats can stay there and never interfere with each others fishing.”
Fireweed tears up P’Dahl channel, I slow way down before nearing the Big Ten Inch and get on the radio. “Hey Pettit, what’s happening?”
“Danny must be sleeping” The Big Ten Inch fires up, gives a little tug on the net and shuts down. “Well, he’s awake.” “How’s it goin’? I just picked up my third skunk on the bar, gonna take this flood across to Grass Island, join the fleet over there. The clean-up’s over, but maybe the boats will thin out if they can get out the bar. The ocean boats are quiet, could be they’re catching fish.” All lies.
Danny comes back, “I’m quittin’ after this set. Boat’s not running right and no fish, I’d be lucky to make it to Egg Island, gonna get a tow from Foxy Roxy. Got a few reds. That’s it. No kings. Gotta get this engine runnin’. I wanna go over to the Sound, I’m done with the Flats. Coghill fish will be showin’ up. I’ll start fishin’ at the north end of the Pass.” Thinking to myself, “a long string of lies, Danny ain’t goin’ anywhere.”
“Pat’s got fish, and I got a nice king on the bar, I ain’t goin’ nowhere either.” I’ve had enough excitement for one day, these lazy king drifts are more tempting than runnin’ aroun’ burnin’ fuel with the net on the boat. I hate that.”
I idle Fireweed up to the Big Ten Inch to have a chat off the radio and see what’s really going on here. “Hey Pettit, how’s it goin’? Ya, got the channel to yourself huh?” “Ya, gettin’ a few? Might be a good ebb comin’ up.” “I made a skunker, then got one floodin’ in on my next set, but then got the gear in the wheel. Pat got to me before I went up on the beach, she’s gettin’ some reds on the corner.” “Ya, I heard ya calling for her.” “I’m gettin’ a few.”
“OK! I gotta get this net in the water, see ya!” I run Fireweed way down channel and slap it out. I shut down the motor and lay in my bunk, Pettit style. The next thing I know, the Big Ten Inch is banging against Fireweed and Danny’s yellin’ “Hey Fireweed! Pick ‘er up!” “Tide’s gonna change.”
“Thanks Dan!” Big Ten inch roars off, heading for the markers where he’ll take the premium set at high water. “His engine sounds just fine” my first thought. Chuckling to myself, I jump out on deck, a glance at the gear tells me I got a few fish. Some sunk corks is a good sign, I crank up the “putt-putt” (a small gas engine running a secondary hydraulic pump) to haul the net without starting the motor. Squirreling around to keep the props clear of the net is not good when kings are around. Best is to keep the boat still and quiet.
That was nice of Pettit to wake me so I could take my sweet time pulling the net before the ebb starts, I’ll want my gear reset before the change.
As the net rolls onboard at a snails pace, I stare intently over the bow, gaff in hand. No reds are showing at the cork line, and the gear is coming up blank. The net, appearing from the brown water, mesmerizes. A chuckle again, Danny, ya gotta love a guy who walks his dog “Wingham” down main street with “Hawkeye,” his pet seagull riding on Wingham’s back.
I cannot help but thinking back on Danny and his “big king.” What a night it was. Danny and I had been jawing all night on the “CB.” He was giving me a lot of crap and kept inviting me over for a drink. I would have, but Pat was onboard; I didn’t want her to know what goes on when she’s not around.
We we’re having fun. Danny, such a sweet guy, and I know he had a bit of a thing for Pat ever since she cut his net in half on a beach over in the Esther district. She was good at net repair, but new at it and we had been partying on the beach when she agreed, after his incessant cajoling and prodding, to repair a hole in his net.
She was at it quite awhile, when she dropped her needle and came up to tell us, she got confused. “I cut two hundred meshes and there’s no lead line.” I thought she was gonna break down in tears. Danny’s net was only sixty meshes deep. She had made a huge job out of a small hole. It was hot, the mosquitoes and “no-seeums” were taking a terrible toll on her. Pat stuck it out, standing on that beach, working late into the evening. She made a good repair, winning Danny’s heart in the process.
“Danny’s big king!” Laughing out loud at the muddy water and empty meshes. The imagery is powerful, almost too much. I laugh even harder. I‘m still laughing when I see the slight change in the cork line right in front of me. I pull ever so lightly on the gear. I see the fish is laying heavily in the net, most likely not even caught by the gills. I get a hand on the leadline as before, and bring the fish up. The web is brought over the fish just before its nose breaks the surface; the trigger is hit hard, bringing the fish onboard without a fuss until he hits the deck. The king is quickly dealt with, then left on deck to bleed out before icing down.
I take up my station, gaff hook in hand, staring down at the muddy water and net again. Danny’s big king pops to mind. That was probably close to a thirty pound fish I just brought aboard. Danny’s king was more than twice that. I have to stop at the thought, the unforgettable image of Danny, so proud, standing there in his fish hold showing off a truly fine specimen.
Fireweed and the Big Ten Inch were filling their holds with kings and had been jawing about it over the CB. We both were bragging to the other, arguing who had the bigger fish. Danny was adamant he had the biggest fish, I was equally convinced, I had to have the biggest as I had some real beauties onboard. This went on until we met at the tender to offload.
Smitty is there to greet us, he had been monitoring our CB channel and was looking forward to this delivery. His eyes light up when we throw the hatches off our fish holds. Both boats are near full of kings. The two fishermen are bellowing back and forth as they had been all night, but now, Danny is obsessed with winning the argument.
He’s leaning over his hold, cigarette hanging out of his mouth pawing kings around and cussing up a storm. He’s not bothering with raingear, opting to work in his sweatpants and t-shirt.
Danny’s plumber’s butt shines bright under The Prince William’s deck lights. Steve is on deck busting a gut at the scene; two fishermen digging through their catch to find the big fish they’ve been going on about. Danny’s steals the show when he climbs into his hold and starts throwing fish everywhere.
His audience is losing it, I can hardly move fish I’m laughing so hard. I can hardly function, Steve is bent over, our eyes meet and we lose any composure we might still have had, going into uncontrollable fits, meanwhile, Pat has retreated to Fireweed’s cabin. Danny’s got us laughing so hard, I have to jump up on the rail, rip off my rain gear and drop my pants before I pee them!
“I got him!” He drags a fish up with two hands, one in each gill. With a bear hug, he hefts a truly big king out of the hold. Prince William’s lights shine down on the most hilarious comedy I ever saw on the Flats. Danny takes a pose with a big grin, bows to his audience in the boats lined up around the “PW,” then slides it gently into the waiting tote.
I can see at a glance, it beats anything I have in the hold. “Ya got me Danny! I might have a forty pounder or so, I got some nice big fish, but nuthin’ like that!” Steve brought the fish aboard the PW, it weighed in at seventy-nine pounds. By Copper River standards, that is better than double the average weight.
Pat and I anchored, rafting together for a late night dinner. I endured a thorough chewing out for my antics today, but was able to soften the lambasting when I compared my fish ticket with hers. P’Dahl was good to me. Pat had a good show of reds over in Castle, but my “Kboys” out weighed and out priced her reds, by a substantial margin on both counts.
A plan is made to fish the “Mousetrap” on the flood tide tomorrow. The “west end” seems to have been abandoned. Pat had been watching the Russian fleet beating east against the swells out in the ocean. The bottom of Castle provides a good view of what’s going on out there.
We're guessing the “Mousetrap” won’t have many boats working. Without the Russians crowding us out, the “Trap” should be fishable. It’s a good idea, the Mousetrap is on the way home and is one of the most productive spots on this end of the Flats.
Into the Mousetrap the two boats fly
There’s big King Salmon
an’ that’s the reason why!
Three a.m. Pat’s 460’ jars me awake, she’s taking off “across the top” to Egg Island while there is still plenty of water. I get up, make coffee, fry spuds and scramble up some eggs. Lots of time to catch up with Kaila, there’s plenty of deep water to slow her down once she gets to Egg Island.
After breakfast, the second cup of coffee is set up on the dashboard. I fire up the motor, jump out on deck, pull the pick and hop right back in my seat at the helm. Fireweed idles with the ebb down Walhalla channel; when the engine comes up to operating temp, she is throttled up, putting her on step.
Fireweed drops out of the channel, heading west out the bar. I pass the spot where Pat pulled me off the beach. I realize, this is the exact same spot my steering went out several years back. Unlike the previous day’s debacle, the tide was ebbing, not flooding, and the beach break was much bigger than what we dealt with yesterday.
Also, unlike yesterday, the channel was packed with boats. There was a sizable fleet outside as well, working the heavy swells in the ocean. The P’Dahl fishing was hot that day, inside the bar and out front in the “big O.” The bar was closed, as the seas were breaking across mid channel.
I pick up a set just before reaching the area where the breaks become dangerous. The ebb is running hard when the end buoy flies on board. “Perfect! Good set! Fish in the hold, net on, I’m outa here!” I throw Fireweed into reverse to back away from the beach. Standing at the outside helm, I steer her stern into the break. I make my usual move for the inside helm when the moment is right and go crashing straight to the deck, flat on my face. I was not aware a hydraulic steering hose under the forward helm had let go, Fireweed’s deck is covered with oil.
I struggle to get to the inside helm and the radios. My boots are thoroughly coated in oil and its like walking on glare ice in a carnival crazy house. You cannot. I end up on hands and knees crawling on deck then over the fish hold to get in the cabin door. Fireweed is completely out of control, thrashing violently, ebbing out the bar.
I manage to slide open the door, get to the inside helm and lock the door. I get on VHF 16 and let the world know, I’m screwed.
The Coast Guard comes right back, the conversation is short. “We’ll be there with the chopper, hang on.” “Don’t bother, I’m ebbing out P’Dahl, you can’t get to me.” “Roger that.”
“Wimpy” (Glenn Ujioka) on the Kaila Marie breaks in on 16. “Hey Mac, I see ya, I’m right outside ya, I’ll try an’ get to ya.” In Fireweed’s cabin, all hell is breaking loose. I have a hand on the shifter and a hand on the throttle, the mike is swinging around me wildly on its spring cord. I cannot answer Glenn immediately, but I can see him, not far off, entering the break line.
I am at full throttle in reverse, the lower unit flops to starboard, Fireweed snaps around to meet the wave bow on. I slam the shifter into forward and back the throttle down as Fireweed blasts over the crest, grab the mike in that instant, getting in an “Ok, Wimp, if ya can.” The mike is dropped, the free hand goes right back to the throttle.
The unit flops from starboard to port, Fireweed spins, is slammed into reverse, taking the next wave stern on at full throttle. The unit flops to back to starboard, Fireweed spins again, the shifter is shoved into forward and full throttle is hit. Fireweed takes the wave bow on with everything she’s got.
Round ‘n round Fireweed does spin
the breakers a poundin’ raisin’ such a din
Oily deck an’ steering don’t work
Fireweed’s a buckin’ horse gone berserk
I get the occasional glimpse of Kaila’s cupola and her antenna’s, but that’s all. Popping over the crest, the throttle is backed down to prevent a dive into the front of the next wave. Should Fireweed shoot down the backside under full power, that will finish her.
Kaila’s in the thick of it now, I see her tossing and tumbling wildly in her effort to reach Fireweed. The radio’s have gone dead quiet. There is plenty of chatter on the other channels no doubt, a big fleet of boats is fishing while they witness the struggle.
I grab the mike, but no time for words, the hand goes right back to the throttle when the outdrive flops. Reverse is jammed in and the throttle is firewalled to greet the next wave stern on. The boat endures a heavy hit from the crest, the lower unit flops, the bow comes around, the shifter and full throttle are engaged to take on the next wave, bow on. There is only a matter of seconds between crests. I’m getting rattled, keeping up with this steady march of crashing waves.
At long last, Wimpy comes across on 16. “I can’t get to ya Dennis, I damn near lost my boat!” I cannot see Kaila anywhere now, “that’s o.k. Wimp, thanks for trying!”
No time for chit chat as the next breaker must be dealt with. Fireweed has this dance down solid. I’m gaining confidence as she negotiates each wave. First by bow then by stern, round and round. She is halfway out the bar, still managing to keep from being tossed up on the beach. Every wave that comes along is big, capable of turning this sideshow into a personal tragedy.
Over a mile down channel, P’Dahl spits Fireweed out. She ends up in foam on a flat behind a major break line at P’Dahl Point. A familiar voice comes across the radio; “Hey, Dennis, ya want me to come out an get ya?” That comforting, easy going drawl is easy to recognize, tears flood my eyes at the sound of his voice. I am barely able to choke out a “ya, if ya can Gary.” He comes back with a slow, confident, “Ok, I’ll be right out.”
I jump out on deck, slipping, sliding, falling, getting up, finally dragging myself along the rail to the anchor box. I toss the pick, tie it off and make my way back to the inside helm. The adrenalin has subsided, I’m shaking, expecting a wave to come along any moment and hurl Fireweed to her destiny.
That is what is filling my head when Gary Thorne comes out the bar. I see him crashing out, the Jennifer Lynn is attacking the surf like a wolverine on a brown bear. “He must be firewalled the way he’s coming off the crests with those twin jets,” she’s a boat possessed, charging for Fireweed.
When he closes with Fireweed, Jennifer Lynn comes off a wave and goes airborne, her stern clears the crest by a full three feet. Bobby Boatknight is on deck, ready to toss a line. He gets a perfect toss off to me an instant before Jennifer Lynn blasts into the top of the oncoming breaker, crushing its crest and blowing the top of the wave apart.
I am there to catch the line and take wraps while I watch Bobby dive for safety when the Jennifer Lynn’s mast snaps, her antenna tree crashing down on deck. Gary backs down on the throttles, I pull the hook and Jennifer Lynn tows Fireweed to deep water.
Once in deep water, Jeff Van Dyke and his brother on the Sarge take my towline. I wave a big thanks to Gary and Bobby. Fireweed and Sarge sets the course to Egg Island and take a wild ride through the combers on the bar.
I drop the pick and clean the deck with the washdown hose. A good repair is made on the ruptured hydraulic hose with a pencil. The hose is cut in two at the leak, a pencil is carved down, stuck in each end of the hose and clamped. This removes the outside helm from the system, leaving the inside helm operable when oil is added to the pump. Fireweed is up and running in a matter of minutes. I fired up and headed for town, that fishing period was over for me.
I see Kaila wallowing in deep water ahead of me, she had made good time “across the top.” I get on the horn, say a “good morning” and start telling lies about heading to Grass Island and such. Pat comes back across the CB when I pass her as she slogs along with “save some for me."
Note: Pat bought the Kaila Marie from Glenn Ujioka when she entered the fishery.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: The stories to this point are all true to the best of my recollections, notes and poems which have been gathered up, however, they are written creatively. This includes the "Ballad of Calypso" and "Copper River Fishin'..."to this point." The 6th installment here will continue with a reasonably truthful thread and where liberties are taken with said truth.
I will leave it to the reader to decide what's what!
I have nearly zero experience writing fiction, this attempt may be shortlived!
Into the Surf the two boats set nets
over the radio we‘re makin’ bets
I’ll have more by the end of this day
an’ if I don’t I’ll make you pay”
Fireweed comes across the CB, taunting Kaila Marie to get the ball rolling today. It’s a wonderful morning on the ocean in general and will be in the Trap, in particular. The weather is blue skies with no wind. The swell is down, the nets can be set close to the beach.
Kaila, being a jet boat, will get tighter to the sand than Fireweed. Thousands of vulnerable dollars hang off Fireweed’s stern, keeping her in deeper water.
There are only a half dozen boats spread out over a wide area; along the beach, off the beach, and another couple of boats way out deep. Not a single Russian has stayed put. This is unusual, even “Schultze” isn’t here. I know there was a big hit yesterday down east, but if Schultze’s not here, the fishing must really be dead. If he was even getting a few, he would “stick an’ stay an’ make it pay” as the old saying goes.
Fireweed blows by Kaila Marie, close, but not too close; I aim for the sweet spot that rocks the Kaila wildly to up the competitive ante this morning. “That’ll piss her off!” “Now, I’ll pull into the vacant spot where “Shultze” would be fishing.” A key set in the Trap, where a mob of Russians are normally crowding Rick out. I rarely fish here, only days similar to this, where I usually fish the drift one set off behind Rick. I try not to irritate him, he gets more than his share of grief when the Russian fleet is here.
Kaila Marie replies with a grin
“this is one bet I won’t let you win”
Pat comes rumbling in with her Kaila, runs along my gear to see if there are any fish in it then runs over the top of it, which was unnecessary except for the message it is intended to send. She could have gone around the end, politely.
Kaila cruises on down the beach a good distance, giving me plenty of room. I appreciate that, and mention it on the CB. She does not come back to me. I looked over, her net is out and she’s in the cabin. “She heard me, she ain’t talkin’. I’m getting mixed messages here, I have to conclude, she’s pissed!”
I think this is still about yesterday when her gear flagged out. While she was pulling me off the beach, Pete was in his favorite spot at the point above her and loaded up on the fish that swam by her net. “I’m still in the doghouse.” When we compared fish tickets last night, she was pleased we did well. This morning, it appears she had realized how much better we could have done, and there was a good chance she would have outfished me, had she not had to leave her gear. “Yep, can’t blame her for being mad I guess.”
“Jumper!” My reverie explodes when a sockeye shoots through a wave at the beach, I catch sight of the fish, it’s headed straight for my net. Pat sees it too. She had just picked up her gear and was squirreling around near the beach, getting ready to make another set.
“Here she comes!” Pat takes off like a shot, she has Kaila scooting along on the light beach break and in the foam, wringing excessive speed out of that flat bottom. Just yards before reaching my gear she slaps it out!
She runs straight into the beach, tosses her buoy on sand and backs down, rolling gear off the drum, never slowing down, never giving Fireweed a glance. Her net is ripping off the boat, never once getting a backlash, showing off an example of her net mending skill. I see this coming. As soon as she turned for the beach, I knew she was going to “cork me” for the fish. I started rolling an empty net aboard, picking up as she is laying out, she has my net totally cut off from any fish that might be moving our way.
Too close to Fireweed sets the Kaila Marie!
“Oh my Gawd, she’s a corkin’ me!”
What to do? Start a fight or resign to keep the peace? I crank on the gear as fast as my hydraulics will pull it in. Kaila’s laying out her gear like it’s a special opener, there is vengeance in the roar of that 460. “She’s trying to intimidate me!”
It’s working. When I factor in how tight the end of her net is with the beach in this weather and the fact that Glenn had installed a hefty hydraulic system. I know Fireweed’s puny setup is no match. “When we start rollin’ the drums, she’ll fish circles around me.” No doubt, I’ll be driven off the beach and most likely, out of the fish.
“Ha Ha” laughs the Kaila Marie
“These fish are mine, all you can do is whine!"
Pat has a couple hits, one of which is a king on the beach in her gear, well beyond my end buoy. I’m cut off, and she taunts me over the CB.
And as a matter of fact, not to be brass
I did save your sorry ass!
I roll up the rest of my gear, retaliation is hopeless. I take the best course of action, I bow out on the CB. Fighting over the same fish is counterproductive. It may well intensify and be “taken to the beach.” In my case, it will be taken to town, my netmender will go on strike until I beg! That seals it.
“I’m headed back to Egg, you can take this spot.” “Ok! Be careful not to tear up anymore gear, its already a big job.” “Roger that, I’ll see you in town!”
That was the right move, we’re on an even keel. “She’s gonna fix my net.” I turn for deep water, bring Fireweed up to cruising speed and head back east for Egg Island. There are an abundance of good fishing spots throughout the drainage. “I should scratch up a few on the end of this flood, maybe get a decent high water shot, then take the shortcuts home.”
I cruise in Egg Island bar, passing the buyer‘s “Tenders” and head for Alaganic slough. There are only a smattering of boats here in Egg while there seem to be more up Alaganic, this observation turns Fireweed away from Alaganic for a more private spot. Scanning the area, the eye cannot help falling on “Shotgun Gulch.”
I have spent many days fishing “Shotgun” in the Fall for coho salmon, but have never tried it at this time of year. “There could be some kings around, and there’s no one at the marker, might get high water slack there.” These idle thoughts turn Fireweed back toward the still visible point below the Shotgun markers.
She comes out of the deep water basin on step, jumps up on the flat and picks up speed when her hull gets the extra lift from pressure against the bottom. There is just enough water to let Fireweed perform beyond her normal capabilities. A look aft shows her sporting a flat, muddy wake, the prop only inches from the bottom.
Fireweed rounds the sandbar, drops into the gutter where she’s throttled back and pulled out of gear to drift. Shotgun, on a day such as this is as pleasant a spot as one might find on the Flats. I move the boat up to shore and dribble out a few fathoms of gear along the bar, behind the point. Put water on the stove for coffee, pull out a can of tamales for lunch and settle in. The current drags boat and net to the Fish & Game marker beyond which there is no fishing. I take my time, pulling in the small amount of net, then idle around, chasing sea otters off the beach and down channel. I don’t want otters getting tangled in the gear.
I run Fireweed back up channel to the point of sand below the markers and dribble out net, little by little. The net is holding against the slow moving current. I lay out the rest of the gear, toss off the end buoy, run upstream a short distance and drop the pick.
Flat calm, the sun is warm, the corks are bowed out and lying still with the tide; not a wiggle. This is where the gillnetter’s mind begins to wander. These peaceful sets where one may just sit quietly, gazing at the magnificence surrounding Fireweed. One never tires of these moments.
This is the sort of fishing I grew up with in my youth. I would get on my bike with a pole and ride to “Picnic Point” down on Puget Sound. There is a small fresh water lake with both wild and stocked trout, where one could spend hours lying in the sun on the bank, day dreaming.
An eagle lands on the beach near Fireweed, and in that innocent moment “Vulture!” flashes before me like a lightning bolt. “That’s it!!”
I had been wanting to tell a tale, poetically, at the “FisherPoets Gathering” In Astoria, Oregon. “Next year, I’ll have it!” I had been wrestling with a way to rhyme up a poem about this storied gutter, and tell a tale that had been smoldering for a couple years.
Staring at the corks, the channel, quiet as a duck pond; no seals, no otters, no fish, no worries. Ya, I’m that daydreaming kid again and there, big as life, the answer!
Ballad of Shotgun Gulch
Hardly ever any fish in this slime hole
But one of these days
I’m gonna’ get a pretty good show
‘cause I’m a Shotgun Gulcher
a Silver Salmon Vulture!
A few years back
Fireweed came under attack
Russians invaded this little gutter
gonna steal my Bread and Butter
Cordova’s fishing fleet includes a contingent of Alaskan Russians, and, until this particular night, consisted solely of heavily built fiberglass “sternpickers.” Their boats are well suited to the tough conditions of ocean fishing, however, they are severely limited within the confines of the Delta. The five or six foot draft of their boats keeps them in deep water channels, which are few and far between. Additionally, the channels are often crowded with the more efficient bowpickers with jets and outdrives.
This particular night in September is clear, cold and quite normal as Coho fishing goes. Nothing out of the ordinary. Shotgun had the usual suspects lined up on their sets. T-Bone and Al at the markers, Patrick the first boat down from the marker sets, then Fireweed, the third set from the line.
This has been the line-up over the past few years. Change comes slow in these gutters. We have our occasional battles, but for the most part, give each other a fair show.
One of the more memorable nights where chaos erupted in the “Gulch” was when the Big Ten Inch cruises into the neighborhood, not having bothered to switch nets from his deep, one hundred-fifty mesh chum salmon net used in Prince William Sound, to a sixty mesh Copper River net.
The tide slowed down, the anchors came up and our little fleet sets their nets in unison; as normal and uneventful as so many previous Coho fishing openers. Then Danny comes idling up the channel, crosses my net, then Patrick’s. It is too dark see him when he got to the markers, so I cannot say for certain the details of what took place, I just heard their three voices screaming and swearing.
Only the combatants know what actually went on, but the result for Fireweed was a wonderfully loaded boat. A full hold and fish up to my knees on deck. I left the gutter “plowing” to the tenders.
Somehow, when that big net got dumped on T-Bone and Al, the hordes of fish got by the mess and escaped downstream, almost. The next two boats in line were there to catch them. Patrick showed up at the tender while I was unloading, his boat also plugged with fish. He’s grinning and shaking his head. “We got Danny to thank for this load!”
The “battle of Shotgun Gulch,” as I usually refer to it, was one where Fireweed found herself on the front line. She, with her outdrive, that debilitating appendage limiting her maneuverability in the shallows and around nets, faced the Russian juggernaut.
Actually, this was the first sortie to my knowledge, behind the lines. Not a major invasion force, more, an irritating, information gathering probe with a two boat incursion. Nets were set, some fish were getting caught, it was very early on the ebb, but the nets were already holding, not being drug downstream.
Two jet boats roar onto the scene, jumping nets as they head upstream. One jumps my net and heads over to the beach above me. Even in the dark, I recognize the boat. I have seen it being pieced together on the beach over the last weeks of summer. I pegged it as the first Russian jet bowpicker. A twenty-six foot “Loomis,” exactly the same boat as the Kaila Marie.
They stage a raid in the black of night
Fireweed got corked, left and right
Three boats in a mudhole, black as pitch
trouble’s brewin’ in this little ditch
Fireweed cuts loose from her gear
for this encroachment, Boris will pay dear Upstream, Fireweed idled
a horse, soon to come unbridled
Immediate action is demanded, I break Fireweed away from her net and idle quietly toward the offender across the channel. He is very close to Fireweed’s end buoy, his back is turned as he is watching the gear begin to roll off his boat; Fireweed eases towards him, quiet as a mouse. With his jet running, the insurgent has no idea I am there, or what is about to happen.
Boris hadn’t a clue what he was in for
as he backed his net out at the far shore
His bowpicker’s layin’ broadside to the beach
Unaware the lesson, Vulture’s about to teach
Fireweed creeps in stealth mode
then all her power she does unload
Shoving broadside Boris ashore
an’ I start wavin’ that 44
Fireweed’s bow is aimed directly at the Loomis, which is laying broadside to the sand bar. Ten yards, just enough to get up some good speed, I firewall Fireweed, striking the offender, dead center. The sound of crunching fiberglass and plywood can be heard across the gutters on this end of the Flats. VHF Channels come alive and I hear Al on the CB asking T-Bone “what’s goin’ on down there?”
Fireweed does not let up, rather she continues to shove with full power while the captain picks himself up off the deck where he landed. He starts to scream but comes up short when he sees the Vulture at the helm of Fireweed, “44” in hand. A weakish “you crazy bastard” dribbled out of a pasty white face.
Fireweed holds Boris against the beach
‘till the water, his boat it could not reach
Broadside Boris is dancin’ up and down
The Vulture’s singin’ “Bad Bad Leroy Brown”
I drop Fireweed into reverse, the water level is falling fast and Boris is already stuck. I need to get off the shallows, this fight is just getting started. If I don’t, I’ll go dry as well and be married to this guy until daylight. There we’ll be, my bow jammed against his boat amidships. That situation may well devolve to fisticuffs on the beach, which I have no time for. Fishing always comes first.
Fireweed squirms her stern violently in reverse at full throttle. I can hear jabbering in Russian on the offender’s radios, his have come alive as well. News travels like greased lightning on the Flats.