WHEN THE FISH ARE BITING,GO NORTH!
I had to make some money and I had been plotting all along to try and get some work on a boat. I was broke and I had to get some fast!
The Salmon season had begun and my acquaintance in Morro Bay “Danny” had advised me to head north if I wanted to get a job on a boat. It was April of 1975, and I had just turned nineteen.
My first stop was Bodega Bay, but people around the harbor told me that I had a better shot of getting something further north in Mendocino or Humboldt County. That is where the season was in full swing I was told. That’s where the fishing industry (along with logging)was everywhere.
It was all very manly, and macho up in Northern California. I would hopefully shed some of my green Horne skin that I was desperate to lose. I made it as far as a small fishing town called Fort Bragg. Off Highway one. On a long bridge entering Ft. Bragg down below was, a smallish circular harbor. A long stone jetty that stretched out to the ocean making perfect passage for a boat.
I descended the hillside to the harbor. I thought I’d just walk from boat to boat soliciting a job. I had been told by Danny that there wasn’t any other way unless you knew someone connected to a particular boat and you were a known commodity. So, it would be a cold opening and that was it. I scanned the dock that was chock full of boats, most of which had just returned from a few days’ worth of fishing and had dropped off their catch to the fishing co-ops. That’s how they got paid by the one they belonged to of which there were only two in Ft. Bragg.
I worked my way around from boat to boat and was met with mostly dismissive waves like I shouldn’t bother them, but a few gave helpful hints. I lacked experience and that was going to be a tough sell because the captains were not thrilled about teaching someone when the fish were really biting because there was no time.
I kept going persistently but was starting to be a little discouraged and thought about heading further north. As I was getting toward the last few boats at the dock when I came across an older fellow who was a little more willing to chat. He seemed like a guy that loved to chat, gossip, and give his opinion. He gave me a little info that might help he said
“ I happen to know for a fact that the captain of the Cape Blanco fired his boat puller yesterday! He’s always looking for help. He don’t mind if you’re green. He goes through a lot of boat pullers “
he said with a wink. He pointed down the row of boats
“It’s that big orange 46-footer over there. The Cape Blanco! “
I thanked him profusely and moseyed on down the line. I stood outside the Cape Blanco as the enormous Captain washed down the front of the boat with a hose. He was a big blond fellow who might have been 30 years old possibly younger. He was sort of scowling and I’m sure he must have been over 300 pounds. He looked like a giant baby, but he scared the hell out of me. I walked up to the boat and said,
“I heard you might be looking for a boat puller?”
I instantly regretted saying that because of course he snapped,
“Where’d you hear that?”
I started to stutter
“Um Uh Um some guy down the dock”
He dismissively said
“Probably Rusty. He doesn’t know when to shut up!”
He looked me over a minute and spoke
, “You ever work on a boat before?”
“No Sir,” I said.
He kept hosing down the boat like he wasn’t even listening for an answer. I stood there silent, but I wanted to try and sell myself when he finally said,
“I’m going out at 3:00 AM. If you’re here, You’re here.”
I was stunned! I think I got the job! But it was hard to tell if I had or not, but I was going to be there at 3:00 AM. I quickly went up to find a campsite and luckily there was a small park just over the hill that would work, and I set up camp for the night. I wouldn’t be staying long so I tried to get some sleep right away though my excitement was. Making that difficult.
I managed to doze off for a little bit, but it was nearly impossible. I went down to the dock and showed up a little before 3:00. I noticed the light on inside the boat so the captain was awake and getting situated. He saw me and grunted at me to get on board. I noticed he was drinking from a pint of blackberry brandy and eating fried chicken. He asked me my name again. He seemed like a completely humorless guy.
He started up the boat and showed me the lines that needed to be cast off. There was going to be no extraneous conversation with this guy, but he did say to me
“you’re not one of those guys that’s gonna chow down a lot are you?”
He followed up with
“Good. The last guy cleaned out my fridge.”
I thought about how I could see that food was really important to this big fella.
Next, he said,
“There’s a big lump out there today.”
He could see I didn’t know exactly what he meant. He clarified.
“ It’s gonna be a bumpy ride once we get past the break.”
And sure enough, it was. It seemed as though the boat was being fully lifted out of the water and splashing down hard. It wasn’t long before I was hanging over the side throwing my guts up. What little contents were in there because I had not eaten at all the day before. I clung to the side of the boat and was slapped by waves over and over. The lousy moccasins I had on were possibly the worst kind of shoe you could have on a boat. I had lost my boots a few days before by leaving them somewhere. The moccasins were the only spare I had.
Anytime I moved I was in danger of sliding off the boat. The captain’s name was Doug. I don’t think he would have even thrown a life preserver if I went overboard anyway. He was a no-nonsense guy but, he did know about fish. He stayed in the cabin the whole time and didn’t come out until he found a spot where he wanted to start trolling which was about 10 miles out.
I could still see faint lights onshore and it was still dark. The sea had calmed and according to his Fish Finder, this was a good spot. The fish finder was an early type of computer that is infinitely more sophisticated these days. It’s basically sonar and would pick up large gatherings of fish and if you were a savvy fisherman you would know the spots combined with the fathometer (Or depth finder) you could make a pretty good guess where the fish were especially when they were migrating.
So, he spent his whole time calculating these things. He finally came out of the cabin. I would try and engage with him when he came out ,and ask questions about his methods. This seemed to perturb him so I dropped that quickly. He had given me small jobs to do like baiting hooks with herring. He had me help put out the stabilizers on either side of the boat. They of course keep the boat steady while traveling slowly and trolling.
I could tell he was very proud of his boat. It was a relatively recent purchase for him. He of course would add nothing else to the story, so I had no idea how he came to be a fisherman. Was it through family? Or did he get a job with someone who he apprenticed to?
No back-story. I was beginning to get why he went through so many boat pullers as Rusty had told me. He was Not a fun guy. He showed me how the systems worked for setting the hydraulic reels which were on either side of the boat. Also on either side were Jig poles, which spread the lines of cable out in a large half radial circumference.
Each line was made of strong, but thin wound cable. Each cable had a series of stops where you could clip a leader line with a hook on it that was about 10 feet long. The cable went out hundreds of feet.
As you let out one side of the boat’s hooks and bait you then switch over to the other side of the boat. By the time you finished baiting both sides with about 30 hooks and lines, it was time to bring the first side in.
He showed me how to do this, but never said more than a grunt. I just had to watch close and not miss a trick. So far so good. When we pulled in the first set of lines sure enough his estimation was right. It was full of King salmon. He unclipped the leader off the cable and swung the fish onboard in one swift move. It was about a twenty-pound fish and it flopped about madly and he whacked on the head with a gaff that is basically a bat with a hook-like nail sticking out.
He handed off the reel for me to bring in and I started to bring the fish in. He immediately gutted the fish and showed me how that was done. He said they had to be gutted right away because they would go bad quickly if left with the contents in their stomachs would start to affect the meat. He said it was because this kind of shrimp that they ate had too much iodine in it. I’m not sure what the deal was, but that’s what he told me, so I was gutting the fish right away.
Also, their gills had to be cut out as well and those were very sharp and would cut into your fingers. This fishing business was hard on your hands between all the gutting of fish and the baiting of hooks. This process went on all day without a word spoken between us. If he did speak to me it was usually to brace me about some dumb rookie mistake I made, but I was determined to make this work.
Once in a while I would lift my head up and take in the vast sea before me and think about my travels. Mostly I was working so fast and bringing in fish and occasionally I would bring one in that was thirty or forty pounds.
It was nearly impossible to get it on board he would come over and Gaff the giant right in the eye and we would simultaneously swing it on the boat. Later I would get good enough to gaff them in the eye on my own and swing them on to be gutted and by now I was covered in fish guts and blood.
I asked him approximately how many days at a time would a boat stay out. He grimaced and said,
“As long as my ice lasts”
I couldn’t really work out what that meant, but it was clear that I shouldn’t ask much more. We worked this way, or should I say I worked this way for about twelve hours straight. He just stayed in the cabin and drove the boat to the fish. We stopped at one point as he put it
to “Chow Down”
which amounted to a Spam sandwich and some water. After a few more hours and it got dark the second phase of the job kicked in. We had been throwing the catch down below in the hold and it became clear what the ice was about.
We went down in the hold and he showed me how every fish had to be stuffed with ice where it had been gutted and laid out in nice neat layers and covered with ice in each layer. It was a deep hold and it held hundreds of fish, so I spent many hours down there stuffing and stacking the fish.
Much later that night he told me to get some sleep in the Foc’sle. The Forecastle is the front bottom of the boat and on the Cape Blanco that was right next to the engine that was belching diesel fumes. I collapsed in the dirty foam rubber scrap that was there only to be awoken a few hours later to hit the deck again and set the lines.
My romantic version of working on the sea had quickly evaporated. I was disappointed that I was having such a hard time keeping up. I wanted to work and be the best possible fisherman and boat puller, but I was soft and I was caving in under the weight of the work. I had never worked so hard in my life. At first, I thought that maybe this guy was trying to teach me a hard lesson and that maybe I’d start to get the hang of it and he would approve, but then again he seemed like a hard dude and an unhappy one at that. I think that all he had was that boat, and didn’t care about anything else.
This is fair enough if that is your calling, but I was beginning to see that it wasn’t mine. I had been accused of being lazy my entire life. From family, teachers, bosses, and the like. There was a part of me that had a real aversion to manual labor, but the problem was I was not suited to anything else. I was unskilled and uneducated, so I had loads of menial jobs like holding up a rake in some landscaping gig or loading trucks always to figure another way of getting ahead or just making enough dough to move on.
So, life on the boat was hard and getting harder. I noticed that morning that my hands appeared swollen. I didn’t pay it much mind because I had worked so hard with them the first day that I was not surprised. The lines and the cable had sliced into my fingers and the gills from the salmon perforated my hands as well. They had been immersed in saltwater all day so I figured that kept them less likely to get infected, but I was wrong.
I limped around for the rest of the day on my slippery moccasins and did the best I could under the circumstances. I tried to imagine what it would be like to get a wad of cash when we went to shore. I thought money would make it all seem worthwhile and maybe now that I had a little experience I could get a gig on a better boat with less of a strange enigma of a captain, or maybe they were all like this.
I remember I woke up in the diesel fumes and went straight to work. No coffee no nothing. Maybe this was part of his hard guy schooling technique. I made it through another day on just spam sand which and after icing down the fish I crashed for the night. Strange bumping noises would hit the side of the boat and kind of freak me out a little as though we were scraping against rocks or being bumped into by killer Whales? Turns out it was neither. I found out later it was compressed bales of floating fish bones that had been thrown overboard by Russian factory boats that came into the area to fish for Hake and processed them right on board. Hake is a very boney fish that is often used in feed for cows and such.
The noises kept me awake, but I finally drifted off but was awoken a short while later to go back to set the reels. When I got there I saw that my hands were really infected now and I couldn’t close them and make a fist. I tried working for a while, but I just couldn’t get my hands to work for me. They were so swollen that they were beginning to look like catcher’s mitts.
Doug looked them over and said they’ll be fine just keep working. I tried for a while longer and I had slowed down considerably to the point when Doug came back out he said
“ Well this ain’t gonna work.”
I simply acted as though I would keep trying. He told me to pull the reels in and went back to his cabin. He pulled in the stabilizers and gunned the boat toward land. I could see him inside the cabin just steaming. I was embarrassed and felt like a pussy, but my hands were bizarre-looking. I wondered if this was a common occurrence with fishermen or was an allergic reaction I was having?
We pulled into a harbor after about half of an hour and it was Eureka, Calif. Doug was pissed off and told me to get my stuff. I lamely asked would I be paid for the days I worked and he scoffed at me.
“Do you know how much money you cost me just by bringing you back here?”
I weakly said,
“But I don’t have any money and I worked for you for two full days.”
It looked like that pissed him off even more, but he dug in his pocket and gave me a twenty-dollar bill and said,
“I shouldn’t even give you this!”
He got back on the boat and took right off. There I was on the dock feeling ashamed and dizzy. I couldn’t make the fisherman’s dream work. I was sad and felt like crying, but another part of me was so glad to be off that boat and away from that captain.
I took my twenty dollars and headed for a café. Once inside I ordered breakfast and an old waitress came over to me and said
“Did you just get off a boat?”
Yes, I said remorsefully. She said
“PU” Buddy you stink like fish!”
she in a motherly way told me that I could get a shower if I went up to Humboldt college just up the road and go into the Gymnasium. She told me all the fella’s from the boats go up there to get a shower. I quickly ate my meal and went to the road to hitch a ride to the college.
A man picked me up and drove about twenty feet and stopped the car and said
“I’m sorry buddy, but you smell so bad you’re going have to walk up there”
He chuckled and I didn’t blame him one bit. I was covered with fish guts and there are no shower facilities on working boats, so I walked to the college, and slowly started to come back to life through my hands were still huge! I went to a free clinic in Eureka and they said that I might have had an allergic reaction to the fish oil and they treated my infections. I hung out in Eureka for a couple of days and tried to formulate my next move.