Life on an Alaska Fishing Boat

 Ernie Carlson spent a summer working on a gillnetter out of Homer.

To look for a job I just walked the docks in Homer and if I saw a captain or crew that weren’t doing much I’d stop and talk to them. Whenever I got a chance I’d offer to work, and while most captains said they didn’t have any work available, I did get some positive feedback and several further interviews. I finally met a skipper who didn’t hire me right away but asked if I could help out around the boat a little bit. I helped do some maintenance and repairs, and before I knew it I was hired to fish the sockeye season at the mouth of the Kenai River.

While we were on board my duty was to cast the net out and bring it back in. I also spent a lot of time working on the engine, because it constantly needs maintenance. I’m not too mechanically inclined but I did what I could. If you have any kind of mechanical experience at all, be sure to let the skipper know.

We would get up early in the morning, start up the boat, put on our fishing or rain gear and take off for the fishing site. Throwing out and bringing in the net took up a large share of our time. The gillnet consists of a really long net with a string of floating buoys attached to the top end and heavy rings attached to the bottom that hold the bottom of the net down. While the captain drove the boat, I would throw out the buoys while another crew member, a girl from Ireland, threw out the rings. There were a lot of other boats around sometimes and you’d have to be careful not to get in other people’s nets and territories. We would usually wait for 10-15 minutes and then reel in the net, take out the fish, and throw them in the hold. If the catch was good we’d keep fishing the same area most of the day, but if it was poor we would move to a new area. We fished as long as we possibly could each day. About the only thing that cut our hours short was if Fish and Game cut the permissible hours of fishing on certain days, or if we had mechanical problems or had damaged nets.

At the end of the day we would go over to the cannery where they scooped the fish out of our hold with a great big net. One of us would go up top and help count the fish so the cannery didn’t cheat us, and the other would start hosing down the hold and cleaning up the deck, which was a pretty big job.

I worked for a five percent crew share. I didn’t really have much free time, since we were usually anchored out in the mouth of the harbor and didn’t go ashore very often. When we did go into town it was usually to do laundry or pick up food and supplies. After hours we hung out in the boat and talked, read books, or played games. It got kind of tense at times because there were only three of us in a really small space and we got on each other’s nerves a little bit by the end. Still, we got along really well overall.

You can make a lot of money, but the first time you’re there it’s more difficult because you don’t know what kind of percentage you should get and you’re more desperate for a job. I would still recommend going, though, just because it’s such a unique experience and Alaska’s such a beautiful and wild place. It was one of the best things that ever happened to me – one of the real adventures in my life.

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