Notes from the Fishing Grounds

Joe Daniels recounts a fishing trip to the Fairweather Grounds

Notes from the Fishing Grounds

Joe Daniels captains the F/V Amnicon. A fisherman-owner, he catches king salmon, coho salmon, and lingcod for Sitka Salmon Shares.

On the afternoon of May 14, I sat uneasy and anxious on the Amnicon, still tied to the dock. Gearing up for our fishing trip, the forecast projected much of the same wonderful weather southeast Alaska had been enjoying for the past week: unusually warm and sunny, with little wind to speak of. Yet now, as my crew and I prepared to cast off and run west for 19 hours to the Fairweather Grounds for its annual 3-day lingcod opening, the marine forecast predicted southeast winds at 30 knots—a wind speed classified toward the upper end of “strong,” almost “gale-force.” Ordinarily, at 30 knots, my boat would still fish; if the weather turned, we’d haul up gear and head for a secure anchorage or harbor nearby. But the Fairweather Grounds is a reef 40 miles offshore, over 100 miles west of Sitka. Completely exposed to the elements, it offers no access to safety apart from a 6-hour run to Lituya Bay.

 (On a side note, Lituya bay is an amazing and mysterious place. I recommend reading this article about the events that occurred there in 1958.)

After several hours of contemplation, and against my better judgment, I decided to untie and head toward the fishing grounds. After running all night, we were greeted by flat seas and light winds, though I knew they were unlikely indicators of what was to come. At 3:30 am the following morning, I fired up the engine and turned to the weather station: SE Gale, 35 knots. As the storm neared, I knew we’d not be able to fish a full day. At 10 am: SE Gale, 40 knots, 15-foot seas. We methodically stacked our gear and secured the deck. I revved the engine to 1,400 rpm and headed toward Lituya Bay.

By the time we reached the bay, around 5 pm, the waves weren’t yet breaking at its entrance. (Entrances to bays of this kind are hazard zones for steep waves known as “standing waves,” an extremely treacherous condition). We waltzed in safely, but it was already gusting to 30 knots. I felt relief in the midst of my disappointment with our fishing prospects. I dropped the anchor and we waited, listening to it howl.

Thirteen other boats arrived into the evening. Two had broken rigging; another, windows punched out by waves. At 3 am, I woke to a mayday call on the VHF radio to the Coast Guard from a boat suffering the worst of the storm. With broken rigging and steering failure, it was requesting a helicopter rescue team, as the crew prepared to abandon ship in fear it would capsize. The last transmission I heard was from the captain, informing the chopper pilot that he and his crew were entering the water from his starboard stern. The last transmission I head on the radio was the captain informing the chopper pilot that he and his crew were entering the water from his starboard stern. The fishermen made it home home alive, but the boat was lost. I heard later the helicopter team reported 25-foot seas and 40-knot winds.

When the wind finally died down, we exited the bay and traveled 8 hours west again to fish lingcod. For the next three days, the weather was awful, but not dangerous. We finished our trip with good fortune, catching all we needed to deliver back to Sitka. I feel lucky. Fishing in the most remote places means taking big risks and hoping for the best. On this occasion, we avoided the storm. Next time that may not be the case.

One boat was lost at the Fairweather Grounds opening this year, but the fishermen all made it home safely. I can't say how tremendously I appreciate the Coast Guard who are always ready and standing by to assist vessels in distress. It's a big ocean out here and we all need to stick together!