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Basking in Southeast Alaska’s king salmon euphoria

Brendan Jones

SITKA -- There is no clear line between the mood in town and the mood on the fishing grounds here. Here in the Earth’s largest temperate rainforest, in the sun-shadow along the outside coast of Baranof Island, seasons are determined by salmon runs and the kind of fishing boats at work. Among the different gear types (gillnetters, longliners, seiners), it’s trollers that make up the heart of the fleet. And thus, since 1992, when the pulp mill closed, fishing has been the beating heart of this town.

Who could miss the euphoria on the streets following the largest and most successful July 1 chinook summer troll opening since 1985, when the Pacific Salmon Treaty was put into place? The Alaska Department of Fish and Game set a target catch of 171,300 kings, the highest quota ever, and the fleet took about a week to mop that up -- Fish and Game had predicted the opener would continue without interruption for two to three weeks. But ye olde fish forecasters underestimated the power of a big quota to attract permit holders, of which there are about a thousand.

And indeed the town received an influx of visitors eager to fish the opener. I worked as a deckhand, so I had front-row seats. A troll permit is the least expensive of the various fisheries permits; you can get into hand-trolling for around $11,000 dollars, compared to more than $100,000 for a gillnet permit. Power trolling permits have gone up lately to around $43,000 -- but nothing close to a gillnet or seine permit.

This availability of a troll permit gives the fishery an everyman feel. You’ve got retirees fitting out their sailboats with troll poles, captains from the Alaska Marine Highway trying their hand at the art of the drag, young bucks hitting it hard, comparing their “scores” for the day -- and, of course, Sitka residents skippering boats to put food on their tables.

As the sun rose over Arrowhead Mountain July 1, there was that feeling of giddiness you get at a party that starts small, but grows at an alarming rate. Hundreds of boats, troll poles spread ride, like ministers at a church revival preaching to the congregations of fish. As the opener continued, routines developed -- run gear until dark around 11 p.m., clean up, drop anchor, eat some pasta, drink a beer, sleep, then get back up at 3 a.m. But the giddiness only increased. Perhaps folks were becoming a little drunk with radioactivity from all the Japanese tsunami debris -- buoys, plastic stroller wheels, a bat of some sort -- or punch-drunk from lack of sleep. But more likely, it was the warm sun, good prices at the dock ($4.25 a pound) and the fleet averaging up to 25,000 king salmon a day, up more than 60 percent from a year ago.

By midnight July 7, the opener closed. Temperatures dropped, the rain returned. But the high continued. How could it not?

What a way to make a living -- gaffing these black-lipped, speckle-tailed, burnished torpedoes of muscle. Sawing out the red accordion of gills. Scooping out the guts. Scraping jellied blood from the spine. Swiping loose the heart, still beating, hanging by a thread in the dark of the throat. The heart which, if you cup it in your palms, feels like a small frog, breathing in time, wet, and alive.

Brendan Jones of Sitka is currently a Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford University. He is the author of the novel “The Alaskan Laundry,” forthcoming with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the fall 2015.