SITKA -- The winter troll line in Sitka extends from Point Woodhouse on Biorka Island to Cape Edgecumbe, just off the volcano. The season continues from Oct. 11 to April 30 -- or until the quota is filled, whichever comes first.
According to Fish and Game, there are about 9,000 left to catch in 2016. I've been out a few days this winter, short days, town and the surrounding mountains appearing coated in a layer of ash.
It's quieter on the docks, where I live on a World War II tugboat with my wife and 8-month-old daughter. No shouts of seiners, or the hip-hop beat from deck speakers. Slight lift of the chin as you pass another. All that will start to change in the coming weeks, as seiners for the sac roe fishery begin arriving.
On the water, the king salmon are fickle, a deeper chrome flashing in the low sun, stretching leaders taut, seawater exploding from troll wire as it spools back onto the gurdeys, a hydraulic drum used to bring lines back aboard.
Winter kings are logey, reedy, with fat veins thick as a belt buckle. Ten legal fish is a magnificent day. We were getting them quick in the fall, like the rest of the fleet. Then things slowed. Of course, with the slowing comes the rising price per pound, hovering at about $9 today. Winter kings taste good.
In the morning hours, pulling the starboard main line, then the bag line, cleaning a fish as the Styrofoam float sloshes in. In the troll pit, rollers rock you to sleep. Yesterday the marine forecast reported a small-craft advisory on coastal waters, then a gale warning, wind coming from southeast, like a big dog blown sideways. The other day my friend Darren Heath limped in on the Solour when his fuel tanks gave him trouble, probably sediment jogged up by foul weather clogging the lines, but who really knows?
Whales hammer the herring at six-mile rock, sea otters scour the bottom clean, popping up from their hard work like a whack-a-mole, fur slicked back like the Fonz. This sea universe offers glimpses of its inner workings with a small piece of itself.
Baby-proofing the boat
In a few days my skipper will be back from Reno, where his knee was being rebuilt. I spend the days working on the tugboat, chopping wood, building a float to work on the planking, re-tiling the shower. When it blows, my wife Rachel adjusts pictures on the wall. Wind from the southeast backs the tug up on its hawsers. Each morning, waking, I peer out the portholes to make sure the dock is beneath and not above us.
Our daughter, who we've nicknamed Chou-chou, thrills in the wind. Arms pinned to her sides, head raised, she's like some Viking bowsprit driving headlong into the elements. When she cackles, we exchange parental glances. Never did I think I'd encourage fear in a child. But here on the docks, where minutes in the water shut your hands, then your legs, trunk and organs down, I think about how there are no beginner's lessons in life, even though I would very much like to give her one.
Mewls of a cat from the St. Sophia, a decommissioned Allen Marine tour boat made mostly of glass with a wood hull, catch Chou-chou's attention as we walk. Maybe not. Maybe the cat's actually on the Stella Marie. It's hard to tell in the swirling wind. The Stella was recently purchased by a South African and his wife, who has eyes like the late David Bowie. Now I can't stop thinking of that scene in "Labyrinth" when Bowie with his blond hair spiked and teeth crooked held the baby aloft above his head.
Baby-proofing a boat built for war is no easy task.
Thankfully, the cabinets already have spring-loaded solid brass locks long oxidized green by the sea air and the refrigerator fastened shut for stormy weather with a hook and eye. The other day we decided the galley was just as cold as the darn fridge and the fridge, with the deer antler I'd epoxied on as a handle when the plastic one broke, had a compressor working too hard. So now the beast lies on deck, in exchange for a freezer my skipper's son traded me for an extra-large hunting jacket I've been trying for ages to sell on Sitka for Sale.
Now we have a very nice chest freezer with a drawer and an oak pantry with a head of cabbage and a wooden box I picked up from a gas station doubling as an antique shop in South Dakota with the name "Harvey" carved into it serving as our buttery. Milk and cheese and apples cool inside.
At night, the baby lies out on my lap and we read "Katy and the Big Snow" about a red crawler tractor who pushes a snowplow through a blizzard to restore municipal services to the city of Geopolis. Chug chug chug. Hot water bottle in bed beneath Christmas lights, the little squirmer in your lap. Even if you do live on a rickety wooden boat, life is good just then. Wind chimes hang over our bed, red ribbon looped at the end so Chou-chou can hook a finger and work percussion. Get the kid to sleep, get the kid to sleep. Rachel and I push at each other's feet, jockey for position on the fleece of the hot water bottle. (Rachel has called our discovery of the German-made bottle a victory, one that has shifted the balance of her internal debate over living on the boat forever in the direction of yes.)
When the baby won't close her eyes, we walk around the wood-clad exhaust stack like threshing horses, Chou-chou clutched to our chests, pausing at the mirror to see if she's asleep yet. Some nights when it's quiet we hear Leroy, the ghost who lives in the bow, charging around the engine room checking oil pressure and PSI. That and the faintest sound of a radio, old-timey music. A few times I've tried to Shazam it.
Better than you ever imagined
In the morning, prisms of ice sparkle beneath the sodium dock lights. Shape of a loon bobbing in the waves. As I pee off the side over the rail of the tug, an otter claps.
Knowing how far to run before tacking back to land, toward the comfort of having someone waiting for you, a warm bed and food ready and fresh and warm, is a skill I don't think I'll ever have. The winter line is a good thing. Say it. It sounds better than you ever imagined: your own bed, your beautiful woman, who wears this gold band to say to the world it's so, she's yours, and yours only.
Salmon cough when you heave them on deck. Short of breath, these fish that have traveled all night and day for years since leaving their native streams to be here, on your hook, drawn by a pyrotechnic leopard-spotted Day-Glo spoon. Flip the fish over in the V-shaped tray and the salmon huffs as you angle your knife to open the stomach. The gill rakers, the purple of plums, spitting blood when nicked, undone from the skull with a swipe of the knife tip. Scraping a file down the blade, seven swipes on each side until you can slice an arm hair clean off.
Back on the docks, milled nailheads beneath the dock lamps make a path back to the tug. The thud of neighbors chopping wood, a dog jumps back as a boat discharges water. Fishing bibs rigor-mortised with frost hanging from a hoist. That cat again, that poor cat, howling away. Eight thousand more fish before the season's over.
Stack 'em, boys. It's time to go home.
Brendan Jones of Sitka is currently a Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford University. He is the author of the novel "The Alaskan Laundry," just published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.