THE LINE SPUN THROUGH the davit, spooling into the round green tote below. Unsnapping hooks as they came up, Pete clipped them to the rack on the console. He stood with feet apart, one hand on the davit and looking over the side, cigarette clenched in his teeth. Up the line came, hook after empty hook. He grabbed each one and snapped them onto the bar behind him. Occasionally he’d overreach and the hook would drop to the deck of the boat. He ignored the miss, intent on the line rising from the deep.
“Fish on,” he grunted, grabbing the gaff and swinging at the mass of white writhing on the line. With a solid thunk, the hook landed and he hauled back. Grabbing the line, Maggie snubbed it around the post while he took quick aim with the .357 and fired. The halibut stiffened and flexed, and they pulled it over the side. It landed in the bottom of the skiff to flop once or twice and lay still.
“A hundred, easy,” Pete grinned. She was already snapping the gangion to the stern post, slipping over the pile of fish in her way. It would get to the point that she crawled her way to the back of the boat, slime and blood and saltwater mixing to form a gurry nearly impossible to stand in. Once the load of fish leveled off at the gunwales, they’d buoy off and return to the bay where they’d offload their catch to the dock, clean and ice the fish, and head back out to finish pulling the set. The spring opening was one they worked hard every year. It meant groceries and fuel and bait after a long, lean winter, an all-out effort to get caught up and flush for the start of another season, but it didn’t always pay off as they hoped. Some years the first opening was hardscrabble due to weather or cash, but they looked forward to it eagerly despite the odds. It put winter behind them, brought spring in with sweat, sore muscles, long nights and generally a few thousand dollars, enough to fill fuel barrels, buy bait and ice-cream and remind them what it felt like to have a flush bank account again. Not that it lasted long, but it signaled the start of the money-making season and every fisherman understood that.
“Fish on!” Pete shouted, and grunted as the boat heaved to port. “Get to the other side, keep us down!” She scrambled to the starboard side and lay against the gunwale. The fish thrashed and bucked, Pete bent over the side with shark hook in hand. One good jerk and the halibut was secured, and she reached to grab the heavy line threaded through the gaping maw. She heard the gunshot before turning around to see the tail flip once and settle below the surface. This time it took the weight of both of them to pull the fish up, but it was too heavy to pull aboard so he dragged it alongside and left it to hang from the stern. By now the pile of fish had grown, the weight in the boat settling the freeboard to less than a foot.
“Let’s buoy off and head back to the dock. I don’t want to take on too much with the tide changing.” With that he’d cut the line, knotted the buoy onto the end, and turned the boat back toward the bay. She replaced the bat and gaff and settled onto the pile of fish, bracing her feet against the side to keep from slipping off the slimy mound. The boat sat low in the water, but made good speed. Behind them the buoy bobbed easily on the swell until it disappeared in the distance. She peeled off her gloves – heavy orange ones first, soaked and slimy white cotton liners next. Her fingers were prune-like but toughened from the saltwater, stiff and cold from the constant exposure of the morning. She pulled on dry gloves and awkwardly made her way to the middle of the skiff to even the load. With the heavy fish dragging off the stern the boat had a slight wallow, but at least the bow was out of the waves. She leaned back, watching him.
He sat easily on the bench, one arm on the steering wheel, the other elbow on the gunwale, cigarette between two fingers. He squinted easily into the sun and breeze, a faint smile on his face. She knew he loved doing this, fighting to best himself against nature, whatever form it took. Already he’d realized a good day of fishing, the short pull they’d made obviously would pay for fuel. He didn’t look at her, and she turned her gaze to the rocky shore. Here and there the beach opened up to grass flats. Occasionally, an early bear would show up or a deer would be down, but spring was mainly just rotten snow and rain and muddy tidelands so she stared without seeing, feeling the wind and gentle rise and fall of the skiff against the water. She closed her eyes and dozed, taking advantage of the short ride as green water slid passed them.