Alaska Fish Tales (a true story)

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A fishing journal entry — by Mark Maricich

My uncle, Roy Maricich, has been a highliner salmon fisherman in Alaska for the past 50 years. He claims that his success is a result of hard work, luck, and learning from past mistakes. I’m convinced that his abilities are derived from more of a natural origin. As if he was born from Mother Nature herself and placed on this earth to fish. Roy’s instinct is ever so apparent when the odds are against him. Like the most wild of animals, his will to survive is a driving force in his life. One thing’s for sure, he’ll never quit, no matter how bad things look.

It was the summer of ’92, and the fishing at Afognak Island, Alaska was poor. Roy decided that we’d seen enough. We tightened up the rigging of the Lady Lyla, and traveled to the mainland. The trip across the Shelikof Straits was a bumpy one, the seas were building to more than 15 feet.

Not only was the weather crappy when we’d reached the fishing grounds off of Dakavak, but Roy’s worst nightmare had came true. While we’d wasted an entire day sifting water at Afognak, boats were catching 1,000 to 2,500 red salmon a haul in Dakavak. Some boats had grossed $50,000 boat stocks in the time that we’d been piddling around in the wrong area — equating to about $5,000 per each deck hand on those boats, for only a day’s work. Roy was chewing toothpicks like a fiend, a habit he only partook when the odds weren’t in his favor. It was getting late in the day, but we had time to make one haul. While the net was in the water, the nightmare got worse. The engine in our power skiff died. Without it, we couldn’t fish…

…Our engineer, Jim Coger, pulled the valve covers off the old diesel engine and found the problem. Its push rods were severely bent. We recently had some work done at the cannery and the mechanics had made an error during the engine’s assembly. All odds were against us. It was the hottest salmon run of the season… maybe the decade, we got there late and we had no skiff. To top things off, the parts we needed to fix it were only available in Kodiak city, which was 12 hours away.

It looked like we were going to have to quit and travel to Kodiak. I should have known better. If there’s one word that Roy didn’t have in his vocabulary it was “quit”. Before we knew it, Roy was eyeing a small, green dinghy that was tied up floating behind the tender. Our cook, Matt Castle, and I looked at each other in disbelief. “Uncle Roy couldn’t actually be considering using that little boat as our skiff, could he?” we thought. — It looked like something that you might jig for bluegill in a lake somewhere… but certainly not something you’d picture yourself using to fight williwaws and peeling waves, fishing salmon off Mainland Alaska.

Roy, however, had complete confidence in his and his crew’s ability — and the fishability of that sketchy dinghy. And before our skiff man, Chad Leese, knew it, he was sitting in his new skiff. We swapped it for the old one. It was a puke green colored, 10 foot, plastic, trout fishing boat, complete with Styrofoam insulation for maximum flotation. There was a good chance he’d need it. The only thing it was missing was oars, which were probably included with it when it was new, about 50 years earlier. Several hours later, we awoke, picked the anchor and got ready for fishing. Matt and I said the “Hail Mary” to Chad. We laughed as he bailed a foot of water from his leaky skiff.

An overturned five-gallon, Delo 400 oil bucket made an excellent seat as Chad started up his low-horsepower, circa 1945 Evinrude outboard engine. Chad just laughed with a crazed look in his eye. A smoldering Marlboro hung in the corner of his mouth as he listened to the powerless putt, putt, putt of our substitute skiff. We attempted to set, but our new skiff, nicknamed the Green Machine, didn’t have enough power to pull our net off the deck. Matt and I grabbed the bunt of our seine with full arms and manhandled it into the water.

We thought everything was fine until, suddenly, the skiff was nearly flipped over by the tow-line! Chad came close to swimming, but luckily had enough experience to escape the situation and corrected the problem. Chad was O.K., but our stand-in skiff wasn’t; the outboard motor broke down. The sheer pin had snapped and disabled the propeller from spinning. We pulled 50 fathoms of our heavy net with skiff attached back to the boat by hand. There were jellyfish splattering everywhere and Uncle Roy was screaming. It wasn’t a pretty scene. Chad just sat in the dinghy with a wet cigarette in his mouth.

It looked like we we’re out of luck and would most certainly have to gimp back to Kodiak with a broken skiff. It wasn’t a good time for this to happen. Some boats were catching 500 a haul, which meant another hot day of fishing that we’d miss. With pure ingenuity, Coger managed to McGiver a sheer pin out of an old welding rod. He made some extras too, just in case we’d need them later, and we would. It worked just fine and we were able to fish.

Then Roy got that look in his eye, the look of anger and perseverance. He couldn’t be defeated. We wouldn’t quit. Roy carefully set his net and used his natural instinct to catch fish. Our replacement skiff lacked basic power and pulling ability, but Roy’s perseverance and ability guided us to success. Roy was able to harness the forces of the wind and tides to fill our net with salmon.

We fished rather well the rest of the day. The sheer pin broke every hour or so, and Chad would stop everything, take apart the outboard motor, and fix it, so that we could continue fishing. The day ended when the tide drifted us over a king crab pot and ripped a 150 fathom hole through our net. We weren’t too upset though, we’d managed to catch over 15,000 pounds of beautiful, blue-backed sockeyes for an overall excellent day of fishing — representing about $2,000 for each of our crew for a hard day’s work. If it weren’t for Roy’s persistence we would’ve caught nothing.

We were creatures of nature with the will to survive. Our skiff had no power, so we used the wind and tides to shape our net. Our desire to buck the tides of failure was earthly. Yet, the inner force that helped us reach our goal was spiritual. The natural embrace of our animal and spirit was inspired by the sea.

A bald eagle flew in the distance, hunting for hours on end with extreme patience. It would glide with the wind and then fly against it. Eventually it spotted an unsuspecting salmon which it would grab with its fierce talons and bring back to its nest. Roy once told me that if he were any animal besides human, he’d want to be an eagle. At Dakavak, and everywhere else he fished, he spread his wings, and soared as a highliner.

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