The Salmon Killers - Part 9
Bob Lawless, Port Ludlow, WA
Let the Good Times Roll
When all the gear was set, it was time now to begin
catching anything that might have bitten while you
were putting out all the hooks (36 or so). You always
had to have a pattern for your eyes: first you looked
at the port pole's springs to check for even the most
remote of twitches. A tiny move that was not normal
could signal that one of the hooks had struck something,
maybe a weed or small fish, and was no longer fishing.
So your number of chances had now dropped to 35 or so
hooks. Pull it in and check everything.
Then your eyes went to the oil gauge. At all costs,
the oil pressure had to be normal.
If not, the engine would be immediately shut down. It
would be now a call for help to your friends. If none
answered, then you sent out a "Mayday." The Coast Guard
would now come. No oil pressure was a very serious event
and failure to take immediate and appropriate action
would result in the destruction of the engine.
Now your eyes moved to the starboard pole, again to
check for anything abnormal.
Then you looked around a bit, noticing the tack of other
boats. Was a collision eminent? If so, you had to knock
the auto pilot off and resume control manually of the
helm. Set a new tack; restart the pilot and return to
You now moved your eyes back to the port pole and repeated
all of the moves previously described: port pole, oil gauge,
starboard pole, look ahead, port pole and on and on all
day until too dark to fish.
If this sounds a bit monotonous, let me avow that it is;
it is monotony ad nauseum.
And when things would become no more eventful than your
simple eye drill, and it would continue for hours on end,
you became tired, bored, angry and confused all at the
same time. Sleep, if only you could sleep! But no, you
could cause a collision doing that, or, worse, you could
allow the boat to go upon the rocks. Not only would your
boat be lost but maybe your life as well.
I saw a boat do this once and it was smashed to small pieces.
Fortunately, the three man crew was spared.
To cause or be involved in a collision was a most terrible
thing. One time off Bodega Bay in California I had my marine
radio on (it was actually required to be on at all times
while fishing in case of an emergency) and I heard the
dreaded call, "MAYDAY."
It was made by a crewman whose captain was upon the deck
and had turned blue.
He didn't have a clue as to what to do. Apparently a collision
with another troller had occurred and the captain had gone
forward to attempt to work the boat free. This is often
almost impossible to do because of all the cables and
chains and booms. But you had to try. The captain had
tried but fell back with a heart attack.
"This is the Lee Ann Rose and the captain ain't movin
and he ain't breathin either," said the deckhand,
"what can I do?"
I could always tell when there was fear in the radio
because the voice would have that little quaver, even
a stutter sometimes. There was fear big time in the
voice I heard.
The Coast Guard has a practiced drill where they ask
the name of the vessel, its position, color, number
of people on board, the nature of the distress, and so on.
But I kept thinking, as these practiced questions were
being asked, shut up with this nonsense. There is man
on the deck who is not breathing. He has only four
minutes to live. Give the crewman some instructions
in CPR. Rescue this man!
But the guardsman who sounded like a kid kept on with
"What Should I do," repeated the crewman, "he don't
look too good. He's blue and cold. What should I do
for God's sakes."
The kid continued with asking about the color of the
boat, number of people on board and so forth.
The four minutes came and went. And then the deckhand
says, "I think he's dead. I don't hear no heart. I'm
scared. I don't like being on a boat with no deadman."
Hours later another fishing boat hauled the dead man's
boat ashore. There was an ambulance with lights flashing
waiting at the boat ramp.
I was very upset at all this. Damn, that man had some
loved ones somewhere and he had sacrificed his life trying
to catch these stinking fish. I definitely thought I should
quit. But how? You can't get out of the business easily.
And I am going to talk it about somewhere down the road
when it seems to fit better in this account of like as a
But it wasn't all fear and trembling; there were days so
exciting that I couldn't sleep that night thinking about
them. I would literally be shaking from all the stimulus.
Mainly these were days when the money rolled in like mad.
Days when a thousand dollar check might be your reward
were very few and far between. But they did happen.
There is a sea buoy about a mile off the Bodega head at
Bodega Bay, California.
For some reason unknown to me, a huge school of prime
Coho salmon had gathered there, apparently attracted
to the chain that held the buoy in place. Such objects
in the water would sometimes become a seething froth
of activity down below. You seldom had any idea what
was going on in the wilderness beneath you. But bait
might be attracted by all the worms that clung to the
chain. And where there is bait there are salmon.
My partner and I passed this buoy very closely and we
were rewarded with a nice Coho of about twelve pounds.
That's a nice Coho because, unlike Kings, they seldom
get much above 15 pounds. Our experience had taught us
that where there was one, there might be more. So we
came about, making a tight circle, and repassed the
chain. Wham! Another nice fish, a Coho of about 10
pounds. We now settled in for the kill. Pass after pass,
the salmon would strike. One of us would run the boat,
taking turns, while the other worked aft, gaffing,
resetting the hook and flasher, and then cleaning
the fish. Now you could take your turn at the helm
and get to sit down for a few minutes, but not for
long as the cry of, "Fish on!" would quickly ring out.
Time to swap duties.
Every pass of the buoy resulted in a fish worth anywhere
from 20 to 30 dollars. And so it went until we were too
tired to go on. Fish were everywhere, all over the deck,
on the bunks in the cutty cabin, everywhere. In fact we
had to walk carefully because you had to step between
dead salmon, and you could easily fall overboard in
your greed. Why we quit neither of us could later
understand. Why didn't we go until we dropped from
exhaustion? But I think there was a little voice
inside of us that said, "Enough is enough!"
We unloaded our fish at the Bodega dock, the buyer,
a big, fat man, paying us off in cash from a huge
roll of bills. $500 bucks each. We could hardly
believe it. Sadly, there was a fisheries biologist
watching the whole show. He stepped over to me and
politely asked where we had taken this big load of
prime fish. I told him they were out by the sea buoy
and we had laid into them. He turned slightly pale
and said, "Those fish would be from the Papermill
I read later that this run, heading toward a small
river not more than a few miles away, was nearly extinct.
To this day, I feel guilty about what happened. Even with
a pocket full of money, you could not be happy.
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