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Like a conveyor belt of salmon: A Southeast fishing run to remember

  • Author: Brendan Jones
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published August 11, 2017

The chum salmon were iridescent fish — some dark, some bright, some hook-billed, the females rounder and more fluid. July 2017. (Brendan Jones)

SITKA — A few weeks ago, I began receiving satellite text messages from Eric Jordan aboard the troller IGotta, with detailed reports on daily chum poundages. Could I break free from obligations in Sitka and fly down to deckhand for a bit, catch some fish?

Your skipper doesn't offer to fly you down to Ketchikan if the fish aren't biting. And, for that matter, you don't offer to leave your wife and kids unless there's poundage to be had.

I should also mention that Eric Jordan, a second-generation fisherman (third if you count the time his grandfather hand trolled one summer in an open skiff in Chatham Strait) is widely known as a chum-trolling specialist. He fishes off a 1976 custom fiberglass troller purchased from his mother. As well as having a mystical ability to coax shimmering torpedoes aboard, he has served on the Alaska Board of Fisheries, the Alaska Trollers Association Board of Directors and is a founder of the Chum Trollers Association.

On July 18, I hopped on the 6 a.m. flight out of Sitka, changed planes in Juneau and dropped out of a bluebird sky into Ketchikan. And there was Eric, waiting behind the glass, chatting away with a TSA officer. He had replaced his glasses, thick enough to knock a fish out cold, as well as to put any Portland hipster to shame, with eyeglasses that gave him the mien of Ben Franklin. He is truly one of the greatest conversationalists I know.

"Good trip?"

"Good trip."

"Good. Let's get fishing."

Anyone familiar with Ketchikan's airport knows it has one redeeming quality: free popcorn. Aside from that, it's a bizarre labyrinth that exits onto a channel across from town. A ferry that resembles a floating space station takes you across. (Ketchikan grew notorious for the "Bridge to Nowhere," but the bridge was actually to their dang airport. It made all the sense in the world.)

In any case, this particular bizarreness worked to our advantage, as Eric tied his boat directly to the airport dock. We walked down the ramp, and there was Cathryn, his long-serving and intrepid deckhand, gathering her things from the fo'c's'le. Eric hugged her, and we all had a poetic moment as she untied the bow line, with me in the aft.

"She might be small, but you've got some big shoes to fill," he told me, watching her back as she climbed the ramp to the airport.

With that, he pointed the boat north, and we began the four-hour journey to the fishing grounds.

King concerns

That fish were biting at all down at Neets Bay came as a surprise. The 2017 year had started slow for Sitka trollers, and the notoriously grumpy fleet didn't expect it to get much better after the Alaska Department of Fish and Game shut down the spring fishery. Worried over streams (and hatcheries) having sufficient brood stock, they blocked commercial fishing.

There were concerns about the July king opener. Then, as if someone turned on the tap, fish began gathering at Cape Edgecumbe, pouring into Sitka Sound. I was teaching at the Sitka Fine Arts Camp and missed the opener, which was wildly frustrating because folks cleaned up. Karl, Eric's son, fishing with his brother Kris, had 142 fish in one day. Thirty thousand kings remain to be caught — which means, in all likelihood, a second opener in the middle of August.

Coho were also showing up around Sitka, as were the chum salmon in Neets Bay. Eric had been averaging about 300 fish a day, about 10 pounds each. Alaska General Seafoods, a Canadian company, was paying 95 cents a pound for troll-caught fish. That meant real money.

As we ran north, we passed a local bay, Marguerite, nicknamed Margaritaville. A good place to dock, Eric said, except that there are mice aplenty, and they get on the boat, which no one likes except the mice. Around the point we glimpsed a cluster of trollers. This was Football Beach, and the fish were hard up in there. We dropped in the gear at 1:34 p.m., having missed the productive morning (Karl already had more than 100 fish, and we'd be playing catch-up the remainder of the day), snapping the leaders onto the steel wire, one every fathom, keeping an eye on the polls for a clatter, an eye on the water for jumpers.

A perfect bay

Let me tell you off the bat two awesome things about the Neets Bay.

First, there's no weather. For a guy prone to seasickness, that's good news. The most you'll have to deal with is a little chop, perhaps some rain. But unlike most water around Sitka, which is situated directly on the North Pacific, Neets is protected.

Second, when you catch chum, you just need to drag a knife through their wine-colored gills, toss them in the slush and you're golden. No dressing, as with coho or kings. This meant no achy hands at day's end, no carpal tunnel.

I'll add a third, and this might be just personal — it's a particularly visual fishery. You're calling out jumpers by the numbers of the clock, with the bow of the boat at noon. Chum fling their bodies out of the water ecstatically, seemingly for the pure hell of it, sometimes two at a time. (We witnessed a near collision of jumping fish, which was awesome.) Jumps mean schools, and you always want to be on top of schools.

Our first pull we had around 10 fish — big, bright fish, gnashing their hooked jaws, lashing out in anger at the J2300 purple bug lures. Other boats used gaff hooks to bring the fish aboard, conking them on the head, sticking them in the gills and swinging across the body. Eric, deeply into ergonomics on the boat, had strung a line encased in plastic tubing. It worked brilliantly, minimizing strain on our backs.

A gray boat worked the edge of Football Beach. I kept seeing flashes of fish as they came up. Eric changed course to check it out, which was no small thing.

Generally, other folks follow Eric. I've heard him called "fishy," perhaps the highest compliment you can give a fisherman in the fleet. In particular, one steel boat took to his tail, a troller fairly new whom Eric couldn't seem to shake. I privately considered it a good move, shadowing a veteran of the fleet.

That first night we anchored up in a little hidey-hole by Karl, encircled by spruce trees. The rocks draped with fronds of fucus seaweed beneath the tide line.

When we fish together around Sitka, Eric keeps a running dialogue of spots he's shot deer. He used to run a radio show called "Fin & Feather," a discussion of the subsistence lifestyle. "I shot a deer over on that ridge. Slaughter ridge. And down there, hiked up with John Franceschini in …" Sometimes I visualize the map of Sitka in his head, dotted with waypoints of animals killed. With a rock. Up there, the deer that faked dead. There, the deer he missed.

Around Neets, there was only the line where the hills had been logged years back, soft-looking alders waving in the briny evening breeze.

Conveyor belt of salmon

The following morning, wads of fish appeared on our screen. We threw in the gear, and the poles clattered — the bag lines, then the bow poles, attached to the "heavies," or the main lines. As the lines loaded up I shuffled a well-handled deck of cards with Ray Troll's "Spawn Till You Die" on one side, crossbones fashioned out of two sockeyes. Always keeping an eye out for jumpers, watching the tattle-tales, black bungees strung to the lines, which stretched and contracted as fish hit the bugs. We pulled the lines, a fish on every hook. As we passed a boat, Eric woofed.

"We're in 'em, partner!"

And we were. One by one, they came up from the depths, as if on a conveyor belt, these prehistoric, iridescent fish. Some dark, some bright, some hook-billed, the females rounder and more fluid.

We made peanut butter and jelly for lunch. In the cabin I overheard Eric talking on the radio to a fisherman who supplies gear to the fleet. "The purple bugs aren't working for me," he said, which struck me as strange because all we were fishing with was purple bugs. The gear-guy asked Eric if his electrical system was functioning correctly — in a particular type of voodoo, trollers emit a voltage through the water that supposedly attracts salmon.

"System's working fine," Eric said.

"Well then maybe you should change out your boat," the guy said. "Instead of selling gear maybe I should just be selling boats."

Eric chuckled. They yammered on a bit more, before Karl got on the radio to ask if flashers were being sold. An in-depth discussion on flashers and stickers and the pluses and minuses of super glue ensued, how Eric's previous deckhand Ellie was proficient at using it. When he finally ducked out of the conversation I asked Eric why he said the purple bugs weren't working. He only smiled.

This sort of competitiveness is rampant among trollers. They're such individualists, all working in tight circles. Special snowflakes, which occasionally choose to stick together. Eric has a good group, folks who exchange information freely and fluidly. He had a covert channel with Karl, and, between the two of them, they shared more than a century of fishing knowledge.

We were having a banner day, well over 300 fish, when the pump went out. Eric was searching for a new one when the autopilot malfunctioned and the boat turned in a tight circle and we ran over our own lines. Thus followed a flurry of motion, Eric cutting the wire, which had fouled around the prop. We spent the next hour untangling gear, a task made more difficult by fish continuing to bite as we worked. We took it as a signal that it was time to unload, and tied up to the tender Harmony, which asked if we were cookie or ice cream guys, and handed us three ice cream bars.

The following day was similar, and we loaded up good. A particular satisfaction was learning from the tender that we were consistent highliners. Eric won't say so, or maybe he will, but he loves beating his son — a rare occurrence, as far as I can tell. If fishing is in Eric's bones, it's in Karl's DNA.

Brendan Jones of Sitka is the author of the 2016 novel "The Alaskan Laundry," awarded the Alaskana Prize by the Alaska Library Association. He has also written for The New York Times, NPR and Smithsonian Magazine. 

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