Alternative Homesteading: Fishing in Alaska

article image
The boat was built in 1920 and, at the time of purchase, had sunk to the bottom of the harbor. But with a bit of work, Leslie and Steve made their craft sea-worthy and joined their friends, fishing for salmon in the 'Freak Fleet'.

Good old Mother Earth is two-thirds water … and that’s where some of us are doin’ it.

I playfully call our group the Freak Fleet. Our 24 or so craft — all ages and sizes — work an area of southeast Alaska between Juneau, Sitka and Yakutat. We’re of various years, sexes and species (humans, cats, dogs, plants, etc.) but have in common — among many other things — a love for boats, the ocean and its creatures.

It all started for Steve and me when we over-amped on the city scene and began to look elsewhere. Living off the land took more money than we could get together, and we lacked the self-discipline to work a straight job for one, two or five years while we piled up cash enough to do what we really wanted to do. Then we thought of fishing.

That idea didn’t just come out of the blue. Some of our friends were already into the Pacific Northwest’s large fishing industry … and as long as we’d known them they’d kept saying, “Come on up to Alaska! It’s really far out.” So we did.

After a couple of months of hustling we got together $1,500 … a phenomenally small sum for a fishing boat. Among freaks, however, old craft kept alive solely by their bilge pumps were still around. As a matter of fact, our chosen vessel’s pump failed two weeks before we closed the deal, but we decided to go ahead anyway.

There lay our first boat, at the bottom of the harbor under a layer of ice. Steve dived down through the freezing water, tied 50-gallon oil drums to the craft and filled them with air … thus raising the sunken mass enough to tow it to a sand bar at high tide. What’s supposed to happen is: the tide goes out, the hull drains and is pumped dry, the tide comes in and she floats. It worked! The P.I. was waterborne. Steve immediately tried to start the engine … and she sputted, then purred.

Next began the cleaning and fixing up that’s perpetual on an old craft. Springtime at any fishing harbor is an orgy of hammering, sawing and scraping. We had more to do than some, though, because the P.l had been built in 1920, had never been rebuilt and even came with a hole in her bow. To Steve, all this was a challenge to be met by replacing planks and ribs, caulking and painting.

Finally, during the beginning of June, the P.I. and another member of the Freak Fleet chugged out of the harbor and into a new fishing venture. We broke out the charts and on the and day reached an island which we’d heard had tall, thin excellent for fishing poles.

During that brief encounter with shore — while the guys debated on the best trees — Naomi (from the other boat) and I hunted wild plants. For dinner that evening we had fiddleneck ferns and wild celery seasoned with wild parsley … a prelude to future delicious meals of salmon, halibut red snapper and king crab. Two days later we reached the rest of the fleet.

Since we’d never put our gear in the water, friends aboard and showed us how. The Freak Fleet’s boats are trollers (that is, we fish by trailing lures through the water). We two main poles — and sometimes another in the bow — to lines are attached and sunk with the aid of “leads” weighing between 20 and 40 pounds. Spreads (made up of flashers or “hoochies”, bait and, of course, hooks) are run off the lint, couple of fathoms apart.

Fishing has its own rhythm: Put the lines out. Troll around. Watch the poles. “Shaker on the starboard main!” Snap geardies into gear (we used an old Volvo transmission) take off the spreads as the line is drawn in … until you see the long silver flash of the fish. Reach down, hold the lead slowly pull in. Just as you haul the salmon’s nose above water strike with the club. Gaff the beauty and throw it aboard. Then put the line back out and immediately clean the catch to be iced down in the hold.

Adventures and challenges happen daily. I could go on story after story … just the way every fisherman is supposed to.

Ever feel an earthquake on the ocean? How about and anchoring in a small cove with a whale for company? Or watching a group of black whales chase a blue one right through the fishing grounds? It amazes me how the great creatures keep from surfacing under a boat. How about a school of porpoises playing tag with your bow? They’re the most beautiful animals ever seen, graceful yet powerful. Then there are the days when the fishing is really good and you’re in an especially benevolent mood … so you throw some fish eggs to the gulls that follow your boat and listen to their screams of delight. And, and …