FISHING THE SOUTH LINE
Naknek River South Channel
When we finished our first half-day of fishing. Harry Jay Follman ordered the net reeled in, spun the Erika Lynn around and headed up the south channel of the Naknek River. The tide was ebbing, and I could just make out the sand and gravel bar that separated us from the town. We joined a small group of vessels seeking shelter behind South Naknek’s high cliffs and anchored up across from one of the canneries.
As I waited for Andy to prepare supper, I thought about how I came to be a deckhand aboard the Erika Lynn. I remembered watching the first season of The Deadliest Catch on TV and knowing I was hopelessly hooked. The show created a nagging desire to experience the same dangers and adrenalin highs these fishermen routinely encountered on the Bearing Sea. I was determined to one day earn my stripes as a Bad Ass, Bering Sea Fisherman before I left this world. When my longtime friend, Harry Jay Follman, called me a week ago, out of a clear blue sky and said, “Meet me in Naknek, we’re going fishing,” I was ecstatic. My dream had come true.
Andy had dinner ready a little before eleven, and we all dug in. Baked sockeye salmon, canned potatoes, and canned peas. When we were about halfway through eating, Mike, who had gulped his food down, abruptly disappeared below leaving the rest of us to enjoy our meal and the discussion of the next day’s adventure. Harry Jay Follman pulled a crumpled up notice out of his pocket which he got at the boatyard and tossed it on the table for all to read.
LOOKING FOR WORK.
He pointed at me, chuckled, and announced, “If you screw up, Full Share, this guy’s your replacement. Are you guys okay with that? The table erupted in laughter.
Kris said tomorrow’s marine weather forecast was for fair conditions in the morning, but we could expect thirty-knot winds and rain in the afternoon. When we prepared to hit the sack, Harry Jay Follman announced, “It looks like Mike’s asleep in your bunk, Full Share. Do you want me to toss his ass out of there, or you okay with sleeping on the floor?”
The little rascal had pulled a fast one on me. Mike knew there were only four berths and five of us. I realized the only thing I could do without alienating the crew was to suck it up and sleep on the floor in the main cabin.
“No! I’m the new guy, the floor works for me.”
It was then I realized why he shot me that brief hostile look at the D & D when we first met.
Andy was up preparing breakfast at five the next morning. He stepped over me twice and tripped over me once before I decided to get up. The smell of bacon and eggs frying, on the now working stove, woke up the rest of the crew. Harry Jay Follman demanded a cup of black coffee and fired up the engine. Mike went up to the bow, pulled the anchor and we headed back down the Naknek River. I was standing at the stern rail taking a leak, when Mike came down off the bow and confessed, “Sorry about last night, Full Share. I was just going to grab a quick nap, and I was out like a light. It won’t happen again.”
“It’s okay Bro, shit happens.”￼
Naknek and its Canneries
We left the relatively protected waters across from the Naknek canneries, entered the much rougher Kvichak Bay, and headed to the south line of the Naknek-Kvichak fishing district. Harry Jay Follman hollered, “Jake, come up here, I’m going to explain how this is going down today, and what we want you to do. The fish are coming up from the southwest, past Port Moller, Cold Bay, Ugashik, Egegik, and directly across the south line into the Naknek and Kvichak Rivers a few miles south of here.
Bristol Bay Districts – Courtesy of ADF&G
“We’ll be fishing the south line all through today’s opening. If we’re successful, and we will be, we stand to capture the lion’s share of the fish. The downside is, we will be competing with the most experienced and ruthless captains up here, in a dog eat dog competition for the fish. This is a serious and sometimes dangerous work, and I want you to know what to expect and what we expect of you. You’re our backup. You need to jump in there if someone gets hurt on deck, or needs a break. Stay alert, stay safe, and have fun.”
Kris overhead us and joined the conversation, “It takes nerves of steel and plenty of audacity to successfully fish the line. The Erica Lynn, Harry Jay Follman, and a dozen other boats, which are his dog pack, have been the top produces up here for nearly thirty years. The fleet knows this and respect this group of captains, but won’t cut them much slack.”
An hour later, Harry Jay Follman bullied his way into a prime position, directly onto the South line at Johnson Hill, along with his dog pack, which were skillfully fending off any intruding vessels. The morning flood tide opening was a few minutes away as Harry Jay Follman approached the spot he intended to drop the nets, and gently nosed another vessel out of his way. He put down his coffee cup and hollered, “Three minutes, Kris! Get ready and when I holler, drop the net.” The Erika Lynn was a few yards over the line as Harry Jay Follman prepared to make his first set, but there were no AF&G anywhere around to do anything about it.
At precisely eight o’clock, all hell broke loose on the south line. The sights and sounds of this big opening were mind-numbing. Four-hundred engines came to life simultaneously, and black clouds of diesel exhaust waifed across the fleet. The noise was deafening. It reminded me of the start of the Indy 500 or the Gold Cup hydroplane race.
Naknek South Line – Photo courtesy of YouTube.
We were fishing so close to each other that you could literally jump from boat to boat or net to net. I was speechless as I watched what was going on. Over fifty vessels, including the Erika Lynn, were fishing the face of the south line. As they jockeyed for position to set their hundred and fifty to three hundred fathoms long nets, they crashed into each other, ran over each other’s nets, and cursed one another.
Just as Kris dropped a hundred-fifty fathom of drift net in the water, Harry Jay Follman spotted the State Trooper’s helicopter off in the distance. He nudged me, “That son of a bitch is headed our way.”
I thought, Oh shit! We’re over the line, and he’s going to nail us. Jay gunned the engine, the Erika Lynn leaped forward and he turned sharply up river pushing a couple of other boats out of his way to drag his errant net back behind the line before the Helicopter spotted his illegal net and hit him with a huge fine. Erika Lynn nudging a vessel
By the time the Chopper reached us, we were just barely legal. Harry Jay Follman grinned up at the state trooper’s helicopter and gave it a friendly wave as it circled thirty-yards above. This wasn’t the first confrontation between the Erica Lynn and the AF&G, and the officer aboard the chopper was watching us with great interest. This was undoubtedly one of the most exciting events in my life.
State Trooper Chopper & below photos – courtesy of YouTube.
The next group of boats upriver from us was a nightmare of nearly three-hundred vessels, which were also jockeying for position and getting tangled up in each other’s gear. Some very angry fishermen lost a lot of time and valuable gear in the adrenal driven, macho insanity.
The third group of boats, even further up the river, were the more conservative vessels which were content, at least for now, to capture the fish that survived the mayhem and to watch the chaotic shenanigans down at the line.
We stayed on the line most of the four-hour opening, but for all the commotion and spent energy, we didn’t catch a lot of fish on the morning flood. When we returned to Naknek and approached Trident’s dock, Harry Jay Follman sent me up to handle the bowline. I was happy to be given an assignment and jumped to it. Trident Seafood off-loaded our embarrassingly small, five-thousand-pound catch, we found a spot to tie-up alongside several other boats and waited for the evening flood tide.