Steel Team | Part Two: Troubles mount, but the crew goes fishing

Three Sheets Northwest contributor Mark Aberle was invited for a short stint of fishing in Southeast Alaska. As happens, the story would have some interesting challenges that needed to be surmounted before the “Steel Team” could get out on the water. In Part One, the crew is devastated by a fire aboard the seiner Julia Kae, but manages to get on the water after renting a new-to-them boat with a set of its own problems and quirks, the Defender. Here’s Part Two:

Soon after boarding the Defender in early July I met the crew, skiffman Nick Enloe, engineer Jordan Yungbauer, Raleigh Marsh and, working front deck, Craig Lott. The oldest of the four had just turned 22 two days before I boarded. With the exception of Jordan, all had fishing in their blood either by subsistence fishing in their youth or working on commercial boats.

This was a team of guys that would need to seize the moment and work together to get things done and get this boat out fishing. 

A new hatch arrived two flights after mine and the seiner fleet fishing Cape Alava had already left for the four hour run south. The opening was set for 5 a.m. and the seiners would fish in order with the first to arrive to have the first set near the beach — the best set. There were eight seiners already there. We would be the last to arrive.

Jordan disappeared into the fish hold with the new hatch. Minutes later epitaphs welled up from below. The long bolt on the hatch was too long. When in place, it hit the propeller shaft and the hatch wouldn’t seal. After a quick consult with Steve, a 4- inch angle grinder with a cut off wheel emerged. In a shower of sparks, the bolt was shortened. Defender was, once again, ready to fish.

We backed the boat out of the slip and began running south through Tongass Narrows. The wheel seemed sluggish then got worse. Steering fluid leak. Steve’s highest hope for the following two days was to avoid a mechanical failure that would end the fishing, and Jordan quickly remedied the steering fluid problem.

We made the run south while Raleigh cooked up teriyaki chicken and rice. Steve was served in the pilot house the rest of us dined down below. The layout of Defender had the pilothouse on top with the galley/salon to starboard below. Aft on the port side was the head, with the captains cabin just forward. The cabin opened up to the salon. Forward of both the salon and the captains cabin was a four-bunk crews’ quarters.   

Just shy of midnight we anchored with the rest of the fleet. The 500-pound anchor went down and scope was let out as Steve backed down to set the hook. We were there—last in line for the 5 a.m. opening. The crew had been up early, went to bed late and the next day’s 4:15 a.m. wake up call would come way too early. But the crew and boat were both ready.

The day did indeed start early and we took up our turn in the rotation.  This particular opening was for hatchery fish: Chum Salmon, which were released as fingerlings for the purpose of fishing.

Commercial fishing is heavily regulated. While openings are somewhat scheduled, it can be dynamic based on “escapement” — fish making it back to the rivers and streams. Too little escapement and the openings are curtailed. It’s all part of maintaining a sustainable resource. Many factors go into a healthy salmon run with habitat likely being chief among them. In any case, the crew on board along with the other seiners had from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. on this day to fish. Not before, not after.

A “set” describes the entire sequence of events from first laying out the net to closing it and bringing it back aboard, hopefully and preferably with fish. The sequence starts with the captain positioning the seiner. The power skiff and skiffman are towed behind the fishboat and are attached to the net.  If the set is for the middle area or the outer zone farthest from the beach, the captain waits until the seiner before him is just nearing the end of his run. With the seiners running parallel with each other we wait until the inboard seiner gets towards the end of his net. Just as the other seiners net plays out, Steve tells Nick, the skiffman, to “go!”.  Nick hits reverse then then pivots the skiff and throttles it up, dragging the quarter mile net off the seiner.

The seiner, headed in a straight line, continues and the crew on deck call out at specific intervals towards the end as the net plays out. “Yellow!” Jordan yells as the last of the corks begin to pay out, then “over the side!” when the yellow buoy attached towards the end flops into the water. Steve throttles down and in seconds the end of the net splashes in the water and the net, nearly in a straight line, is held taut by the seiner on one end and the skiff on the other.

Steve hits a set timer in the pilothouse for 20 minutes.  As the seiners all are coordinating their runs, each strings out their net for 20 minutes. Steve and Nick are in radio contact and Steve guides Nick on where to pull the net. When there’s a disturbance, a salmon’s natural instinct is to head for deeper water. Steve tries to put a slight hook in the net to snare more salmon into the purse.

The net is made up of two nets. About half the net simply hangs straight down — weighted by leadlines and kept afloat by cork. The other half has the “Purse”.  A net with large metal rings strung with a stout line through them. After 20 minutes, Steve tells Nick to “Close it”. Nick turns the power skiff towards the seiner and the net slowly forms a circle. As Nick approaches the seiner, he comes in close and throws a line attached to the end of the net to the deckhand on the seiner. When the line is secure he unclips the skiff and ducks under the portion of the net attached to the seiner.

By this point, Steve has put the seiner in neutral and makes his way aft to assist the crew.

Steve works the hydraulics to bring in the net using the power block hung high on the boom. Nick works the front part of the net while Raleigh handles the corks and Jordan handles the lead lines. It’s a team effort amongst the entire crew to bring in the net — something they’re getting used to at this point. As the net comes in, it’s Jordan who takes the brunt of whatever is in the net. Usually jellyfish. Jellyfish by the hundreds and jellyfish parts by the thousands rain down on Jordan along with water and other debris as he lays out the leaded bottom part of the net.

As the net comes in, Nick, the skiffman, has worked his way to the opposite side of the boat. In our case, the starboard side as the net is coming up over the port side. The seiner’s in neutral, the captain is on the deck and it’s up to Nick to snag a pre-arranged harness attached to Defender.  His role now is to keep the Seiner from drifting over the net.  So he effectively pulls the seiner sideways away from the net.

The net comes up through the power block and drops onto the deck. Raleigh, handling the corks, coils them so they don’t scramble on the next set. Jordan, handling the lead on the bottom of the net, does the same thing on the port side of the boat. Because the net rotates to that side of the boat, everything that can’t stick to the net rains down on Jordan. Mostly this means seawater and scrambled jellyfish. They don’t mind the clear ones because they don’t sting. The yellow ones tingle a bit, the red ones hurt a little more, but it’s the brown ones that really agitate the guys. They really sting.

Once the purse comes up with the fish, it gets more interesting. On the Defender, the power block wasn’t performing well and the corks would lag. Steve strives for perfection and efficiency and in his words, this unfamiliar setup just wasn’t tuned for efficiency. The crew, which I’ve dubbed the “Steel Team”, made up for it and each time was able to get all the salmon aboard without too much trouble.

Starting just after 5 a.m., we made 10 sets that day. We could have done two more, but the topping lift on the boom began to slip and finally we couldn’t get the boom up — which is critical for retrieving the net. Our day was over.  We were two sets shy on the first day, but the second day was lost as well.  The second day predictably would have been slower, so we had the better part of the better day, but still, crew moral took a hit. These guys wanted to fish and fish well.

Once again, they’d need to push on a persevere.

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