Six Days as a Deckhand

Six Days as a Deckhand

In the week I worked as a deckhand, I iced fish, made bait, cooked and cleaned, and steered the boat. I even had time to play the guitar! Drew Terhaar, who captains the F/V Mary Carl, hired me when he was between regular deckhands for the season.

I worked with Drew during the king salmon spring opener in mid-June. This was a break from my regular duties as a Salmon Shares intern and a departure from anything I’d experienced: I hadn’t ever fished before!

We caught anywhere from 35 to three salmon in a single day. On busier days we were moving regularly on the boat, always working on something. Some days, I woke up as early as 5 a.m. and we fished until 9 or 10 p.m. On the slower days we were able to sit back, talk, and observe the beautiful Alaskan wilderness.

Agreeing to deckhand wasn’t a difficult decision. I try to say yes to new experiences — especially in a place as unique as Alaska. I like learning about a place by doing things I wouldn’t be able to elsewhere, and deckhanding on a commercial boat was a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Being directly involved in the process of fishing was the best, most hands-on way I could learn about Sitka’s fisheries. We took two trips over a week and caught 85 king salmon total. I handled each one at some point. After Drew caught, bled, and cleaned the fish, they were rinsed before I put them in the fish hold.

The fish hold is a small room below the deck full of fresh ice where fish are stored until the end of a trip. When we caught more fish, I climbed into the ice hold with them, put them in rows, and filled their bellies and heads with the clean ice we put on the boat before leaving.

Learning how to handle salmon, seeing what processes are involved in commercial fishing, and getting a taste of what life is like living on a boat were some highlights of deckhanding. The experience was also a new way to see southeast Alaska. Often, I didn’t know where we were, but most nights we anchored in beautiful coves with views of the sunset, mountains, and forest. One night as I was getting ready for bed, a whale emerged just twenty feet from the boat.

Fishing is the biggest industry in Sitka. Fishermen land almost 90 million pounds of fish at the city’s docks. The industry directly employs 19% of the town. In one way or another, everyone here is involved in fishing. There seem to be as many boats as people in Sitka. Images of boats and fishermen line the walls of the town’s coffee shop, restaurants proudly serve freshly-caught local fish. “Don’t eat farmed fish” bumper stickers are on many cars in town.

Here in Sitka, it would be strange to have never fished. It’s perhaps the best evidence of me being an outsider. Everyone knows what I did as a deckhand before I can tell them. Many people grew up fishing and learned to drive boats before cars. Deckhanding gave me the opportunity to briefly become a part of the fishing industry and culture that pulses through the town.

Fishing is no easy task, I was fortunate to have smooth days on the water and wasn’t fishing for the most intense periods of the season. I didn’t get seasick at all. The days are long, the work is physical, and fishermen are away from many of the comforts they might find in town.

Despite its challenges, there is constant beauty out on the water, excitement each time a fish was caught, and few things nicer than falling asleep as the water gently rocks the boat after a day of difficult work.