The Nushagak District has been harvesting about 1 million fish every day for a week now, so what happens when you inexplicably miss out on that bounty? KDLG’s Austin Fast discovers that one key to fishing is to just keep plugging away.
Fourth of July is the traditional peak of salmon season for Nushagak Bay.
Typically, you can look over the side of the boat and see salmon stacked on top of each other riding the tide, but somebody forgot to tell the salmon this Independence Day at Coffee Point.
"This isn’t the way it is all the time," Matt Crimp apologized. "They can’t all be million fish days unfortunately."
Crimp, a 29-year-old medical student, has been set net fishing near Dillingham with his family since he was a kid.
Eager after those big days earlier this week, Crimp, his partner Galen Eggleston and crew member Piper Kurtz climbed into their aluminum skiff amid the crackle of kids’ bottle rockets at Kanakanak Beach Wednesday afternoon.
After a couple minutes at full throttle, Crimp killed the motor at a steep patch near Coffee Point where the mud slides down to meet the incoming tide.
"You kind of lease a spot of mud here," Crimp said. "If we’re not fishing here someone can come here and set a net out, but if we come up and say we want to fish here, they have to leave basically. So we’ve gotten to know this patch of mud here pretty well."
Both Crimp and Eggleston have permits, so this was the first of two nets they’d set on Wednesday. Kurtz, a 20-year-old economics student is in his second summer working for Crimp. He explained they hit a little snag with their tangled net.
"We pull the net up to this buoy up there and then once we clip on, we get in the boat and just pull the net out into the water. Today we’re probably going to have to stack the whole net on land, just to get it organized first," Kurtz said.
Crimp gunned the motor, pushing the skiff at an angle into the current so the 300-foot net drifted back perpendicular to shore to catch the maximum number of fish. Then they dropped an anchor overboard to hold it all in place.
One more net a few lease sites down the shore, and Crimp stepped back to evaluate.
"Hopefully, you would immediately see a lot of splashes in the net indicating that you were catching lots of fish. Unfortunately that is not happening currently, but give it some time," he said.
These fishermen have plenty of that to go around. Crimp says they kill time with scintillating conversation, word games, naps and food — but only a particular type.
"We've got some granola bars, sunflower seeds, Fig Newtons, chocolate, a sandwich," Crimp said. "My brother recently instituted a health food sort of thing so we used to have a lot of candy bars out here but now more protein bars that taste like sand."
"But we’re not bitter ..." Eggleston threw in.
There’s another option to kill time while waiting for those fish. Crimp realized they needed ice to keep the catch cold, so it was time for a visit to the 7-Eleven of the seas — the ship tenders that seafood processors station through the bay.
"Ice, gas, hot cocoa on a cold night. Great company," Crimp said, listing the F/V Fayette's offerings. "Randy used to do some really good spam musubi actually!"
Once the guys gassed up and shoved off the Fayette, it was finally time to check the nets, which were teeming with fish.
"Starry flounder," Crimp moaned. "The main bycatch of our setnet operation and our arch-nemesis."
Not a single salmon in that net, but plenty of bottom-feeders. As they heaved the net across the hydraulic roller and picked flounder out of the mesh, Eggleston offered this advice.
"Gravity’s always your friend. That way you don’t beat up your hands. The more gravity you use the longer your fingers can last," Eggleston said.
Crimp threw in that liberal use of “ibuprofen actually is the best practice for set nets.”
For this crew, the season has been switching between big bursts of salmon and super quiet days like the Fourth.
"If you’re not out here, you’re not catching fish obviously," Eggleston explained. "Sometimes it does pay off to get extra rest on a tide if there aren’t much fish and then be that much more aware and alert and have the physical strength to actually handle the big runs of fish when they get here."
Crimp added, "Often we do stick it out, but if it’s like this and there are absolutely no fish and it’s the Fourth of July, we might bag it a little early here."
Well, it was the Fourth of July, and the fish were like that ... plus, they had a barbecue and ice cream sundaes waiting for them back at camp. That's an easy choice on a holiday.
This trio didn’t get down on themselves for wasting time or gas, and Crimp said that optimism was key to fishing.
"Being able to be cheerful in unpleasant situations for long periods of time and keep a good attitude when you’re uncomfortable and might be cold and wet outside and gross — I think that having that good attitude counts for a lot," he said.
After picking three salmon from that first net and reeling it back into the bow, Crimp motored the skiff over to check the other net. It was better, but not by much.
“This might be the worst we’ve had all season,” Eggleston moaned.
Back at the tender, the crane hoisted their brailer bag from the fish bin to weigh its 10 sockeye. A measley 52 pounds of fish. As clouds dissipated and the breeze died down, Crimp theorized on what went wrong.
"There can be a million fish going up the Wood, but (if) they’re right smack in the middle, we’re not getting any of them. Sometimes you need a little weather to push them out here (to where we are)," he said.
By the time the guys arrived back at Kanakanak Beach, Dillingham’s kids had multiplied along the shore, armed to the gills with firecrackers.
"If you dock later, it’s like a war zone, all these fireworks coming at you," Eggleston said.
Crimp gave Kurtz some friendly advice on backing the truck through the sparks to drag the skiff from the water.
"Just don’t mess it up because all these people will be watching you," he teased.
"Oh, I thrive under pressure!" Kurtz retorted.
Kurtz handled the pickup like a champ, and the guys headed back to camp to celebrate America. That record haul can wait until tomorrow.