Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Alaska, Part II

My wife and I are back from Alaska, and someone seems to have sabotaged our house while we were away. Everything is swaying back and forth. My parents stayed with our boys for the week while we were away on our amazing adventure at a floating fishing lodge. When we returned I tried to ask my folks if they felt the swaying also, but they were too busy running out the door to listen to me, yelling over their shoulders something about being tricked and never spending an entire week with all three of our boys ever again. Hmm… they looked tired.

I just assumed our boys would behave better for their grandparents than they do for us. I guess I was wrong. I had all sorts of assumptions about our Alaska trip before we left, and they all turned out to be wrong, too. For instance, the fishing lodge we went to had very strict luggage limitations, complete with a pre-printed packing list. I had assumed that the reason they were only allowing me to bring two pairs of pants had something to do with weight limits on the float plane. I was wrong. I now understand that the lodge sets clothing limits because they are helpful and kind. They want to help minimize the amount of your wardrobe you will lose when you inevitably set fire to your luggage once you’re home.

Burning your clothes is the only proven method to eliminate the stench infused in them after five days of salmon fishing in an 18-foot boat. You see, fishing on the ocean in Alaska is brutal and messy. I assumed our once-in-a-lifetime trip would be a lot more like a relaxing vacation, but I was wrong. Our days were filled with slipping, slamming, flopping, cutting, bruising, stabbing, and bleeding. And that was just trying to get the bait on the hook. You should have seen what happened once a fish was actually in the boat!

I had also assumed, based on all the talk about how many fish we were sure to catch, that catching said fish would be easy. I was wrong. Before arriving, I just figured you would put the line in the water, move the boat forward, and fish from all over the surrounding ocean would come to you. Not so. It turns out you are supposed to know where they are, using something called “local knowledge,” and you have to actually take the boat to them, and you are supposed to know what they are thinking based on a whole host of considerations.

Factors that affect where the fish are and how and why they might eat your bait include, but are not limited to: tides, currents, water depth contours, kelp, lure color, spinning lure accessories, spinning lure accessory color, spinning lure accessory spin rate, bait freshness, whale activity, boat speed relative to current speed, and direction of boat travel. We were also told later in the week that it was important to make sure your bait and lures were actually underwater, down where the fish are, and not skipping across the top of the water while you eat a sandwich, drink a beer, and look for whales. So many technical considerations.

All the other people who were staying at the lodge seemed to know all this beforehand, but I was the fishing equivalent of a hunter all decked out in camouflage with a deer rifle, wandering around the inside of a Macy's department store wondering why he’s not seeing any big bucks.

After re-watching the lodge’s orientation video a few times, my wife and I finally figured it out and started catching a lot of salmon. (Unfortunately, it was on the last day of our trip.) Apart from salmon tips, the video also explained how to operate the harpoon when landing a halibut. I had assumed I would not need to harpoon anything while in Alaska, but again, I was wrong. Sort of. You see, I am male, so naturally I have wanted to harpoon something since I first heard the word harpoon as a small child. My interest in harpooning something grew exponentially when I found out what a harpoon actually was. However, since I didn’t grow up in a family of 16th century Dutch whalers, I never had too many opportunities. I did try to harpoon my older sister once with a full-sized shovel when I was five, but I only hit her in the thumb, and I forgot to attach a rope, so she got away.

On day three, exhausted from hearing everyone else’s amazing salmon catching stories, my wife and I tried halibut fishing. This required an entirely new set of considerations, mostly revolving around how to keep the boat over the same spot on the bottom while being pushed and blown all over the place by the tide and the wind up on top. Fortunately, the boat was equipped with about $10,000 worth of navigation and sonar equipment that proved to be absolutely no help with this task. We finally decided that the only way it would work was if I just drove the boat in reverse while she fished. I was fine with that though, because I knew if she did catch a halibut, I would be the one to get to harpoon it.

After about forty-five minutes of my wife questioning me on why I was unable to keep the boat in one place, and me trying to explain to her why the earth/moon azimuths were working against me, not to mention the severe tidal friction, she finally hooked into the big one. Two hundred feet straight down, Moby Halibut was on the other end of her line. She fought and reeled for what seemed like hours as I scrambled around the deck readying the harpoon. The harpoon’s detachable razor-sharp steel tip was attached to a sturdy rope, tied on the other end to an orange float buoy, in case the monster got away from you once harpooned, he wouldn’t be able to swim too far, just like when they attached the barrels to Jaws.

Up came the denizen from the deep, and in went the harpoon, just behind the pectoral fin, just as the video had shown. He thrashed and flipped and gnashed, but he was no match for the mighty seagoing duo of Mr. and Mrs. Alaska Tourism Board. We finally wrestled him into the boat, and after ten minutes or so of figuring out where we were, we raced back to the lodge to offload the beast. Back at the dock I was beaming with pride.

Me - “Did you see where I harpooned it? Just like the video, right? Nailed it!”
Johnny the deck hand – “Yeah. Good placement, but… uh… why did you harpoon it?”
Me – “I thought you were supposed to.”
Johnny – “No, not really. I mean, it’s fine, we just really only use the harpoon for the big ones.”
Me – “This isn’t a big one?”
(Sound of the entire Alaskan fishing lodge crew laughing)

Apparently, Moby Halibut was only seventeen pounds. A “harpoon-worthy” halibut in Alaska is closer to one hundred pounds. Basically, I harpooned a Fillet-O-Fish sandwich.

I don’t care. It was awesome.

Another assumption I had made was a long-standing one, and not related to the trip specifically. I had always assumed that my wife was a nice, kind-hearted person. No so. At least, not under certain circumstances in Alaska. When we were catching big Coho salmon, many fish were lost due to poorly set hooks. They fight and thrash like crazy, so getting them into the boat can be challenging, and given the high skill level required to actually find them and hook them in the first place, losing them was more than mildly defeating.

So there I was, happily living my life one sunny morning, smiling under the assumption that I knew my wife, until I accidentally missed netting one of her salmon, sending him jumping and thrashing away from the boat. He was still hooked, but my beautiful wife began swearing at me like an angry, drunken longshoreman. I tried to calm her down by pointing out that he was still hooked and we hadn’t lost him yet, and I even reminded her of how well I had harpooned the halibut, but she just told me to shut my #@!&* and %$#!@ and net her $@!#& fish this time. Alaska is no place for the tame. (Or for children, if you happen to miss netting one of my wife’s fish.)

Hmm… I really liked it up there, but I’m glad to be back on dry land, even if it is still moving around a little. My wife hardly ever swears at me here at home. Any assumptions I may have made about her being sweet, I surely had made the reverse assumptions when envisioning the staff of an Alaskan fishing lodge. Before arriving I had imagined a team of gruff, surly, smelly seadogs, barking orders and generally being salty, since all Alaskan fishermen are obviously like the crabbers on Deadliest Catch. I was wrong yet again.

The folks at the Sea Otter Sound Lodge are some of the nicest people on planet Earth.

At least I think they are. I never accidentally missed netting one of their fish. Who knows what they might be like then?

See you soon,


Copyright © 2014 Marc Schmatjen

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