All posts by Sam Morstan

‘So You Want to be a Fisherman?’

Book Chronicles a Commerical Angler’s Coming-of-Age Experience

by Dave Atcheson

book excerpt coverLancer, June 1984
Who, in their earliest  20s, could be anything but unsure of themselves, yet so much less cautious about  taking a chance? That was me: New to Alaska, wide-eyed and willing to go anywhere life took me. So it was with barely a hesitation that I climbed into the car with Mark and The Quiet Man, and in a cloud of dust we took off toward the Seward boat harbor.

Dave Atcheson was a newbie when it came to commercial fishing and Alaska, which didn’t exactly make for a smooth transition into this tough as-nails world, but he was willing to go all-in as a deckhand on the Lancer. (DAVE ATCHESON)

Dave Atcheson was a newbie when it came to commercial fishing and Alaska, which didn’t exactly make for a smooth transition into this tough as-nails world, but he was willing to go all-in as a deckhand on the Lancer. (DAVE ATCHESON)

If I’d known anything whatsoever about the sea – about fishing, or about boats, the fact that the Lancer needed two deckhands – two greenhorn deckhands– just days before the season opened would have tipped me off and would have sent a bright red flare above the turbid sea of my brain, warning me of impending disaster. But I didn’t know the first thing about the sea, this boat, or about Mark, for that matter, and no warning flare was ever lit.

ON OUR WAY to the harbor we passed the vast, rusty array of blue and green cannery buildings, a corroded, self-contained village that had suddenly come to life with forklifts, cranes and a flotilla of boats gearing up for the approaching season. Following a quaint seaside street dotted with small gift shops, tour operators and charter fishing outfits, we passed boats held suspended in dry dock, perched high on rusty barrels and two-by-fours. These were either being diligently worked– sanded, caulked and painted in a frenzy– or sitting neglected, dilapidated and repossessed.
The smell of dreams filled the air, those of fiberglass and fresh paint mixing with the dry rot of those long forgotten. The ghosts of each passing season [hung] on the breeze, waiting  to be caught and resurrected by newcomers like us.
I looked at Mark sitting there. Though he had the air of a rough older brother, he could be, at the same time, trusting and somehow childlike. One minute a man of the world, the next asking me for something I thought everyone knew, like  helping him mail a package or make a transaction at the bank.
Either way, as we emerged from the car and headed to the docks, I was glad he was there, glad he’d be with me on this first giant leap into the unknown.

Atcheson says commercial ?shermen returning to the docks after a winter off fall into two camps: the successful, who return from the tropics “tanned and trim and full of sun and surf,” and the sourdoughs, “down and out and full of drink and despair” after poor ?shing the year before kept them close to port. (SARA POZONSKY)

Atcheson says commercial fishermen returning to the docks after a winter off fall into two camps: the successful, who return from the tropics “tanned and trim and full of sun and surf,” and the sourdoughs, “down and out and full of drink and despair” after poor fishing the year before kept them close to port. (SARA POZONSKY)

The Quiet Man took the lead, down a ramp and into the world of boats. I had no idea there could be so many. We walked past all kinds, sail and power boats owned mostly by businesspeople from the suburbs of Anchorage who would drive down for a weekend during summer to polish their teak and sip martinis on the back decks.
Perhaps they’d take their friends on a little trip around the  bay or an occasional troll for salmon. Then we passed the tour and charter boats: large 100-foot vessels, windowed water buses, fiberglass and utilitarian, their lines straight and not very pretty; or 25-foot aluminum-hulled speedsters set up for sport, halibut poles racked up like weaponry along the outside of their cabin walls.
We headed on to where the working boats were tied, a flurry of activity crossing each slip – men and a few women, tough looking and road-weary, coiling lines, stacking and mending nets, scraping last-minute paint and putty. I knew immediately these men and women lived much nearer to Mark’s world than mine; they all appeared to possess at least some of that same swagger, something I hoped might rub off on me.
“Hey, you guys got everything ready to go?” someone called from the deck of one of the boats.
“Yeah, you bet,” The Quiet Man called back, acknowledging a fellow sea dog with the first of his few words and a wave of his hand. He was clearly a part of the annual  hustle and drive that springs to life on the docks each year – fishermen and boat people emerging from the winter woodwork. The good ones and the lucky ones, who caught a lot of fish last year, returning from months on a beach in the South Pacific or Central America; those not so lucky, the sourdoughs – sour because they’re stuck in Alaska, with no dough to get out – back from a hard winter spent in the local bars or under the harsh city lights of Anchorage.
Whether tanned and trim and full of sun and surf, or down and out and full of drink and despair, they all knew The Quiet Man, who walked among the docks in every port town, as much a part of the annual transitory realm of the sea as the tides. It was a realm I saw through a landlubber’s eyes, rough, dirty, and untamed … and so unmistakably foreign.

As Woody’s hands – “squat and leathery like a pair of old-time baseball mitts that hadn’t been oiled in decades and shy a few ?ngers” – attested, deckhanding on a commercial ?shing boat isn’t for those who aren’t prepared for a job with a high degree of physical labor. (DOUG KNUTH/WIKIMEDIA)

As Woody’s hands – “squat and leathery like a pair of old-time baseball mitts that hadn’t been oiled in decades and shy a few fingers” – attested, deckhanding on a commercial fishing boat isn’t for those who aren’t prepared for a job with a high degree of physical labor. (DOUG KNUTH/WIKIMEDIA)

TOO FAR IN to turn back now, I followed Mark and The Quiet Man deeper into uncharted territory, finally rounding the corner onto another finger of dock and ambling down a long row of vessels before spotting the one we were after. Its name, Lancer, was not written in some fancy Gothic script, like many of the boats we’d passed, or in carefully painted block letters, but stenciled haphazardly across its bow, the way the letters were scrawled on Mark’s fingers, as an afterthought or just another job to do.
That’s when I saw Woody on deck, old and weather-worn and engrossed in the intricate task of splicing two pieces of line into one. The old man looked a lot like the  Lancer – compact, tempered, yet battered and a bit rusty. Perhaps he’d been one of those spending a long winter in the bars of Seward.

And so began the education of a lifetime for Atcheson – a new life at sea in the Last Frontier with some of the toughest human beings in the work force. (WIKIMEDIA)

And so began the education of a lifetime for Atcheson – a new life at sea in the Last Frontier with some of the toughest human beings in the work force. (WIKIMEDIA)

He looked up as we approached, absently dropping the ball of line that had so absorbed him a moment earlier. He wore a sort of spotted, chocolate-brown cap that once must have been as white as his remaining hair but was now stained with what looked like years of diesel oil and grease. I couldn’t help but notice his hands; they were squat and leathery like a pair of old-time baseball mitts that hadn’t been oiled in decades and shy a few fingers.
“Woody,” Mark said, surprising me how sheepish his voice suddenly sounded, “this is my friend – the one I was telling you about.”
Something about the way he sized me up from the deck of his boat, his stance, his stabbing glare – a look that told me he and he alone was the boss, off shore and on – made me hesitate, even when he finally asked us in a gravelly voice to come aboard. But as we began to take that step over the rail and onto the boat he stopped short, turning abruptly to look me in the eye and catching just a glint of my momentary panic.
“So, you want to be a fisherman,” he said, more of a wager than a question.
Then, without waiting for a response he quickly turned, leading us into his kingdom, the beginning of my long and desultory alternative education. My introduction to the sea.

Editor’s note: Dave Atcheson is also the author of National Geographic’s
Hidden Alaska: Bristol Bay and Beyond and the guidebook Fishing Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. He has written for a variety of periodicals, from Outdoor Life to Boys’ Life, and is a frequent contributor to Alaska Magazine and past contributing editor for Fish Alaska Magazine. He lives in Sterling, Alaska. For more info, see daveatcheson.com.