The fishing was good...

by Tia (Deckhand) on July 3rd, 2012

...it was the catching that was bad. –A.K. Best

What a great start to the day! The weather had lightened up and the new engine purred as Captain Wes put it through it's paces, alternating RPMs to break it in. Everything was as it should be...Bonnie was back, the heater in the cabin was fixed, and the weather was pleasant. We had a feeling we'd be picking fish like crazy today! I managed to grab a couple nice shots of the morning as we cruised out of Kachemak Bay into the inlet.
 
Captain Wes guided the boat towards the Southern Boundary, a latitudinal designation of the most southernly point we are allowed to fish. The Alaska Department of Fish & Game monitors vessels via boat and plane and will fine vessels that do not follow the regulations. When fishing near the "line," boats must be aware of the tides and how that affects the speed at which they drift. On July 2nd, the tide was ebbing until around 10:30 am. That meant, if we set just above the line, we could very likely drift past the line in very little time.
Cook Inlet is bordered on the west side by the Aleutian Volcanic Arc. Visible from the inlet are four volcanoes, Douglas, Augustine, Illiamna, and Redoubt. In this picture you can see Illiamna in the distance.
Our first set was above the line; when we picked the net up we had one fish. Okay, not the best start. On the other hand, we still hadn't scored a water haul (zero fish)! I am eternally optimistic...I knew the next set would be better. Captain Wes knows what he's doing and would find the fish. We set again in some streaky water (tide rips and color changes in the water are areas that fish will travel) and netted eight fish. We picked up pretty quickly so as not to pass the "line." 

Captain Wes networks with a group of other drift net fisherman out of Homer. They communicate about where they are, what they see, and what they catch. The chatter on the radio was less than optimistic. Many in the group had successive water hauls and no one seemed to be "on" the fish. Uh oh!

Of course, the tide was ebbing. This is a strong factor in drift net fishing. As the tide ebbs and moves towards as low tide, the fish do not travel up the inlet like they do when the tide floods. It wouldn't be until after 11 am that the tide would slack and then begin to flood. Also the sun was pretty bright and the water very clear. This drives the fish deeper. Sometimes, we would run the net and see nothing but pull it up and pick a handful.

So, we continue to set. Six fish...ten fish...seven fish. (Sounds like Dr. Seuss!). We moved around, trying the usual sweet spots. Despite the low numbers, we still managed to avoid a water haul.
We bleed the fish so the fillets are clean when processed. After bleeding, the fish are deposited in a ice and salt water slurry that chills them until we return to the port of Homer where they are offloaded and processed.
We waited optimistically for the flood. We had a couple sets of 30-40 fish towards the later part of the day and moved much farther west than we had the previous two openers, setting the net across a tide rip. Salmon travel in tide rips...so does seaweed, kelp, driftwood, and other debris. Setting in a clean tide rip is great. Setting in a tide rip full of seaweed is a nightmare; the plants get entangled in the meshes in the net and you must pick it out by hand because a dirty net doesn't catch fish. Fortunately, the spot Captain Wes had picked had limited amounts of seaweed and a couple smooth logs that rolled over the net in spots but didn't get hung up. We heard on the radio that others were so desparate to find fish that they had set in rips full of seaweed and were now picking hundreds of pounds of it out of their nets.

In this picture, you can see the end of the net. It is attached to the boat and we are towing on it. This keeps the net from bunching up. Also, we can move the net, ever so slowly, to better position it in a tide rip.
The end of the period approached and we had about 120 fish on board. We were sitting on a set in the same tide rip as before and it was looking good. We noticed that the bilge pump lights were flashing. This is not necessarily a good or bad sign. Just means that there is water on the boat that needs to pumped out. The lights continued to flash, despite pumping the bilge a couple of times. About 30 minutes later, the old engine on the port side, stopped working. An assessment by Captain Wes (which include some choice verbage, let me assure you) discovered water in the engine hold, which caused that engine to die. We dried it up as best we could and Captain Wes got her running again. Why the fuss? Don't we have a two inboard engines? Let me explain why this was potentially devastating...
While the new engine had been installed in time for the opener today, there had not been time to also connect the hydraulics to the new engine. The only hydraulics we had available to us were integrated into the old engine. That meant that the net we had fully deployed could not be pulled up via hydraulics unless the old engine was running. AHHHH! Pulling up a net by hand is not something we hope to ever experience! Fortunately, Captain Wes was able to get the engine running. We pulled the net up as quickly as we could, picking about 38 fish for the best set of the afternoon.

The engine continued to run while we were motoring and we made our way back to the port of Homer. Whatever was wrong with the engine proved to make the boat difficult to steer and that began to frustrate Captain Wes as the seas in the inlet picked up.

After we offloaded and cleaned up, Captain Wes decided it was in the best interest of the boat to have it pulled out of the water for repair. Again, we are hoping to have everything up and running before the next opener on Thursday.
While the fishing was slow and we experienced more technically difficulties, we managed to return home safely and should be on the water Thursday. Here is a video from Monday's adventures.


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