As the six foot waves crashed against the boat, green water shot into the air. The howling wind tore it into spray, hurling it in sheets across the windows. Broadside to the fifty-knot gale and white-capped seas, Hardtack’s list was alarming! The silverware drawer bounced open, spilling its contents onto the walkway. Books, salt shakers, whetstones, pens, tablets, and coffee cups were flung across the table onto the floor! The teakettle bounced off the stove and spilled hot water over the rest of the items rolling around the aisle; an empty bucket clattered about on the deck.
Dry-mouthed, with an iron grip on the wheel, I held the rudder hard over as the Perkins diesel roared at full power. Slowly—ever so slowly—the bow faced into the six foot combers and shrieking wind. Finally, Hardtack, my forty-foot troller, assumed a more level attitude. Pounding into the deep, close-together waves and strong wind was not comfortable—but far safer. I quickly dropped to half throttle and engaged the ComNav autopilot. When I saw it could maintain a fairly straight course, I cautiously made my way through the mess on the floor to the deck.
I had difficulty keeping my balance as the boat reared and plunged through the angry seas. I had to get the stabilizers into the water. Without those twenty-four-inch triangular steel plates pulling down on each troller pole, turning Hardtack’s side to the white-topped, curling waves and fifty-knot wind would be extremely dangerous. Staggering around the unsteady deck, I untangled the tie-up ropes from the stabilizer cable on the port side. I picked up the awkward, forty-pound stabe and heaved it over the side. Then, crouching low, keeping a handhold on anything solid, I teetered over to the starboard side, cleared ropes and cable, and dropped that stabe overboard. The twenty-five-foot cables grew as taut as bars of steel when the stabilizers dug into the water. Attached halfway out on each forty-foot trolling pole, those wonderful inventions dramatically reduced Hardtack’s erratic motion.
Thoroughly drenched from the stinging rain and flying spray, I gingerly made my way across the littered deck to the steering wheel. With one hand on the throttle and the other on the wheel, I disengaged the autopilot. I waited for a hissing, froth-topped comber to pass and then spun the wheel and fire-walled the throttle! Sideways on the crest of the next wave, the boat started listing, but the resistance of the stabilizers kept the hull from leaning dangerously. With the turn completed, my stern was going with the seas and wind; this was much better. Hardtack lay over occasionally from wind gusts and slightly quartering waves, but the stabilizers kept the boat riding comfortably. Spray flew as the fiberglass bow dropped into some of the bigger troughs, but that caused no real problem. With each turn of the propeller, conditions were getting better. Elephant’s Nose, the northern tip of Woronkofski Island, was only twenty minutes away. With the wind and waves pushing, I was traveling at a respectable seven knots. Shortly, I passed by the Nose, which put the large island between me and the storm-tossed waters astern. There was a stiff breeze and two foot chop, which, by comparison, were of little concern.
I mentally cussed myself. With thirty years of fishing experience, I had violated an elementary survival rule, which was: “Always listen to the weather forecast before leaving a dock or anchorage.” When I was six miles from the dock, a dark streak materialized in the sky ahead of me and a breeze sprung up, prompting me to tune in the weather channel. A high wind warning was in effect for the Wrangell area. In the few minutes it took to listen to the forecast, the wind rose from a breeze to fifty knots, and I was caught unprepared. Fishing so close to home, I had let my guard down and paid the price.
My jangled nerves began to relax. The diesel rumbled confidently along beneath my feet. Wrangell and my slip were only four miles away. Pilot engaged, I stripped off my wet sweater, grabbed a towel, dried off, and put on a sweatshirt. I picked up the articles strewn about on the floor and went out on deck to make ready tie-up lines and bumpers. I would pull in the stabes and poles closer to the harbor. With thirty minutes to sit, I began to think about how many similar situations I had been through in the last thirty years of trolling and how I got into such a business in the first place.
Of all the commercial fishing methods I could have chosen, such as gill netting, seining, shrimping, long-lining, or crabbing, I picked trolling. Compared to other methods of catching things, it is the least efficient and lowest paying. On the other hand, it is also the most sporting and entertaining way of fishing. When people in other fisheries want to have fun, they pick up a sport rod and troll a herring or an artificial lure through the water, hoping to hear the screeching of a reel clicker and see the rod tip bouncing with a salmon or halibut on the other end.
Commercial trolling is essentially the same thing except for dragging more fish-enticing things through the water. Instead of trolling one or two lures, a troller may have thirty to sixty wiggling along behind him. His weights or sinkers may weigh twenty to sixty pounds. Sport fishermen use one-ounce to twelve-pound leads, but the technique and goal are the same: to pull herring, plugs, or spoons through the water so they look appetizing and tasty to a fish.
A sport fisherman’s boat with a couple of rods poked out the side dragging lures along is really doing the same thing as a commercial troller—but on a less complicated scale. A trolling craft has long poles with many lines attached to them. When not fishing, the poles are in a vertical position; when fishing, the poles are splayed out horizontally in an arc of about forty-five degrees. This spreads the gear out, preventing tangles. The spider web of ropes and smaller lines are “tattletales,” (lines to show a bite) “stays” (cables to stabilize the poles), and “tag” lines, which take the trolling wire out to the pole ends or bring the wire into the side of the boat. There it is attached to a “gurdy,” a hydraulically- or hand-operated spool, which brings in the trolling wire. The thousand-pound-test wire, is normally marked at intervals of two fathoms. At each twelve-foot spacing are two brass sleeves or wire wrappings separated by a four-inch space, where a removable trolling snap can be clipped on, carrying a six- to twenty-four-foot leader that has an artificial lure or bait at the end. The brass or wire spacers won’t allow the leader snap to go up or down the wire, thus preventing leaders from tangling. If the wire was marked with two-fathom spacers, every twelve feet could hold a leader snap and lure. With ten fathoms of wire out, one could put on five lures. A hand troller is, by regulation, allowed two main wire lines and must use only muscle power to operate the gurdies. A power troller is allowed four main lines and uses hydraulic power to reel in the wire.
A troller’s lifestyle is similar to that of the old buffalo hunters. He roams free as a gypsy over the trolling grounds, which extend from Cape Spencer to Dixon Entrance. He is always searching for the largest concentration of salmon. He may fish where there is not another boat or person within fifty miles. A troller generally travels alone and depends on no one but himself and his craft. Many have “running partners” or friends who travel to the same places at the same time, but most are loners. As one old troller told me, “Your running partner is usually the boat disappearing over the horizon while you go the opposite direction.” Some trollers stay in the same area throughout the season, but most are roamers. They might be seen fishing a given area one day and then be a hundred miles up or down the coast the next day.
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