The Fleet Departs

Bristol Bay salmon season officially opens on June 25th. On that day, each fisherman is required to have registered with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) which river district they will be fishing in. Egegik, Ugashik, Nushagak, or Naknek-Kvichak. In the weeks before what is known to us as “Blue Card Day” (in order to notify ADF&G of their chosen district, they fill out a form printed on blue paper), fishing is open but there is no registration requirement. Usually not enough fish to necessitate strict management. This week is known as “Free Week” and the early bird fishermen are usually in the water by around June 16th to get started. This year started out different though; last year “Free Week” brought huge runs of salmon come early to the bay on the heels of a hot, hot spring. The peak of the season came around June 26th, over a week early from the standard peak of July 4th. The numbers at the end of the 2013 season were generally disappointing and this early season was largely blamed. So this year, everyone came early.

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 At the dock

Everyone, that is, but the fish. After another hot spring that had everyone gearing up for a second early season, the weather turned to a more usual Bristol Bay summer… grey, cold, and rainy. The fish are coming in the usual Free Week dribs and drabs.

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Cap’n Reba hanging nets like a badass

And what happens when there are a lot of fishermen and no fish? Trouble. After some lackluster fishing last week, Fish and Game closed the districts for the weekend and everyone who had gone out came back to Naknek, joining the rest of the fleet that was still readying their boats for the season. I hid in my room Friday night, taking Theraflu at 9 p.m. and crashing out for a much needed full night of sleep. Saturday night was another BBQ at the house on Wolverine Lane, and there was a bit of the nasty and violent discontent in the air that I mentioned in the last post. We had a repeat dance party at Fisherman’s Bar and I stayed up until 3 a.m. again. There were fistfights, dislocated shoulders, and arrests, and that’s just amongst the folks I am personally close with. By the end of the night I was more than ready for the fleet to get. the. hell. out. of. town. and. go. FISH!

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Sunday was a bit sunny, if not warm, and there must have been 40 boats at our dock, all tied up to each other, fishermen hopping back and forth between decks, frantically tying on buoys and fixing engines in order to be ready for the afternoon tide as the water came in and lifted each one up out of the mud.  All day we had a steady stream of smiling and buoyant faces coming through the office to say goodbye, the hope and expectation of the as yet undiscovered season lighting up faces so that they all looked like teenage boys off to camp. As I said “Good luck and have fun out there!” to friend after friend I got a little choked up at the bittersweet excitement of it all. I’ll miss them but we are here, after all, for the fish.

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At 4:30 high tide we watched from the office windows as one by one they untied from each other and motored off down the river. Bon voyage, fisherfriends, go get ’em!

 

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