We were worried that the fish might wait another year before coming back to the river due to the cold water temperatures, but the other day we had the biggest fishing day ever. It was my biggest single day and an old time Ugashik fisherman said it might have been the biggest day ever. On more than one occasion our 21-foot skiff was deck loaded (literally knee deep in salmon) and water poured in over the transom threatening to sink us. I had to tilt the outboard engine up to stop water from flooding it. When we motored forward the transom and splash box emptied of water so to stop from getting “pooped” by a wave (sunk by taking a wave over the stern), we had to motor around continuously. Thankfully it was not as rough as it could have been so we were able to get away with it. On a rough day that type of fishing isn’t possible—meaning you either sink, you fish much more conservatively and catch less, or you just don’t go fishing at all.
The real problem with so many fish is that we cannot find a tender (fish buyer) to take them. The tenders are full and constantly running 1-4 hours out to their mother ship to offload. Meanwhile, our nets are filling up with thousands of pounds of salmon as fast as we can pick them and our boat is filling up, making us unstable with nowhere to offload. This is how we found ourselves motoring around in the waves and growing darkness trying to keep above water waiting for the tender to come back. “Troy, I need to offload,” I said over the radio to the tender. “I’m sort of sinking.” Troy came back, “Don’t come out here, it rough. Wait for me to come to you.” We did end up waiting for him but the wait was a killer. We had a boat full of fish, we had a net a mile up the river sinking under yet more fish and the fishing period closed in two hours. I knew it would be half an hour before the tender was to us and our fish were offloaded, another hour to pick the net if we were lucky, then 15-20 minutes to pull the net into the boat. This left no margin of error. Leaving your net in the water for even 1 second beyond the legal fishing period will result in a fine that is often ruinous to ones season. These are staggering fines, and justly so.
Sometimes when a fishing period closes we see a plane fly the beach looking for nets still in the water. If your net is still in the water, the circle (you know your screwed at that point), land on the beach and write you a ticket. These tickets can cost you anywhere from a few hundred dollars to your entire season’s profit. We take the fishing periods seriously.
Needless to say, everything worked out and at the end of the day, wet and tired and cold in our cabin, we tallied the numbers and had landed the most fish we have ever caught in one day. This is part of the appeal and magic of Bristol Bay. The fish all come back at once making the fishing season shorter than most but also more intense. Many of the fishermen around me made ¼ to ½ their summer’s income in that one day. The stakes are high––engine, net or any other gear problems simply cannot happen on these days.
As the fishing period closed and we pulled our net into the boat just minutes before the fishing period ended, we could see thousands of salmon finning the surface in the murky light. Fishing had closed but hundreds of thousands more remained to find their way up the river. And that was just one day in Bristol Bay where the largest wild salmon run on earth still surges with staggering force and riots with life.
The view from our back window.
Some friends’ boat was swamped in a storm recently. The whole beach pitched in to help him get it out of the water and bail it out.