What It's Like to Fish for Salmon in Alaska as a Greenhorn
Adventure photographer James Barkman trades his famous VW bus for a fishing boat for a summer of salmon chasing
For years I romanticized and dreamed about commercial salmon fishing in Alaska. I’ve rubbed shoulders with enough grisly fishermen and old salts who told stories of terrible weather, abominable crew, world record hangovers, and huge paychecks that the idea became an itch I had to scratch. From experience I knew I was virtually immune to sea sickness, and with a summer free of concrete plans—not to mention a barren bank account after my 18 month motorcycle trip from Alaska to Patagonia—the time was perfect. What did I have to lose? There was only one way to find out.
A good friend of mine, Micheal Hand, was a seasoned skipper and invited me aboard his seiner, the (mighty) F/V Bounty. As a greenhorn, it’s not always easy finding work in an Alaskan fishery. The fishing community is pretty tight knit and most people are only hired through word of mouth. A captain doesn’t want to spend three months at sea with somebody he knows nothing about, but thanks to Micheal I was able to skip the initiatory process of “walking the docks”—essentially cold calling fishing crews and attempting to convince them to hire a greenhorn such as myself.
So I bought a one way plane ticket to the tiny port town of Cordova in the Prince William Sound, and stepped off the plane onto hollowed ground in the last frontier, Alaska.
For the record, I come from a family of hunters, not fishermen, and I knew about as little as anyone when it came to commercial salmon fishing. Luckily, I’m an eager learner.
If you want to sum up commercial salmon fishing, my skipper said it best. “Fishermen are gamblers. If you’re a good gambler, you’ll catch a lot of fish.” You can fish hard all day and get skunked, while the boat beside you “deck loads,” a term that refers to a boat that has overfilled their fish hold and loaded the deck. It happens, but if you don’t gamble, it may never be your day to deck load.
"When the fishing is good, you can end up working back-to-back 18 hour days for weeks."
There are generally two different ways to fish salmon commercially—gill netting and seining. In the latter, one end of a huge net—called a seine—is attached to a skiff and stretched out in a big horseshoe. The seine has floats on top and weights, or leads, on the bottom. After letting the seine out and holding it for about 20 minutes, the net is closed and the bottom of the seine is pursed, or synched up, trapping the salmon which are then brought onto the deck and stored in the fish hold.
The deckhands need to carefully stack the net as it’s brought onto the boat so it doesn’t tangle, and immediately prepare to do another set and repeat it all over again. It’s grueling work, and even when the weather's sweltering it’s essential to be completely covered with rain gear lest you get stung by jellyfish also caught in the net, acquiring what feels like an instant sunburn for the rest of the day.
When the fishing is good, you can end up working back-to-back 18 hour days for weeks on end. Early mornings, late nights, and rough seas are happily endured as the crew members share wages rise with every haul.
When the fishing is slow, off days can be a welcome break from the grindstone or a frustrating and unwanted time out. Dampened spirits however, are easily lifted with baked biscuits, brownies, and cookies. And of course, floating in one of the most beautiful areas of Alaska, the Prince William Sound, isn’t the worst thing.
The Chugach Mountain range rises a staggering 13,000 feet straight from sea level, draining enormous glaciers and spilling thousands of icebergs large and small into the sound. Bears patrol the creeks and streams, ambushing the spawning salmon that clog river mouths. Bald eagles are nearly as plentiful as seagulls, and pods of orcas are often sighted. Salmon berries, blueberries, and mushrooms are in full bloom during the summer months too, and deer season always supplies plenty of venison.
Bonfires on the beach and community salmon dinners shared between boats are always a highlight, as is the occasional supply trip to town (aka the local tavern). As the salmon run nears the end of its cycle, the season slowly winds down and boats begin to head back to Cordova. After one last hurrah at the local bar, boats are cleaned and winterized to take on many months of bitter cold to come.
Living on a boat for three months is both an adventure and a challenge. It’s not the easiest summer job you’ll ever have, but it certainly isn’t the worst. I didn't really “find myself”—if anything I think I lost a bit of myself one morning during the gnarliest hangover of my life—but I did go home with a stash of cash, and almost more importantly, a summer of rich memories aboard the mighty Bounty in the Prince William Sound.