THE STRAIT WAS CALM; the weather was cooperating this year, he thought to himself as he aimed the skiff away from the dock. They’d already offloaded their first catch, taken their money in fuel and bait and a couple of ice cream bars – two apiece, to be exact. They’d watched as the tender crew put slings around the tails of the two biggest fish, 213 lbs and 265 lbs. It was a good first check, though after expenses it didn’t amount to much. It put them into the profit category for the remainder of the 48-hour opening, however, and Pete breathed a little easier. The winter had been a long one, and trapping hadn’t produced as much as he’d hoped. It was getting harder to get by, despite their frugality. He didn’t want to leave to take a job when fall rolled around; there was a lot he could get done if he could keep at it until the snow came.
At the mouth of the bay he saw the wind had kicked up in the strait. This morning it had been calm and easy, but a breeze had come up at tide change and though the chop wasn’t bad, he knew it wouldn’t let up for a couple of hours. By then the day would be late and evening would cool things down. They had a lot of hooks in the water and he hoped not to fight the weather to get them all back again.
He slowed as she reached with the gaff to pull in the buoy. He ran the line through the puller and pulled the cord. It cranked over and fired off immediately, and the line began to spool on the deck. Maggie quickly scooped it up and slid a garbage can beneath it, reaching in rhythmically to keep it coiling neatly. Within minutes the first fish appeared and they worked steadily for another hour, hauling in one fish after another. As the anchor came up, she made space for the can and placed an empty one beneath the spooler. Both buoys riding atop the line, the full can was pushed before the console and they were ready for another set.
The puller worked easily, pulling anchor line and anchor to the surface. She quickly stashed the float and rock out of the way, and turned to the line when she heard the little Honda strain. The boat listed to port as the line grew taut and he switched the puller to neutral as he stepped over the bench and started the outboard. Round and around they went in a circle, trying to untangle the line from whatever hangup it had encountered fathoms below. Gently, the line eased and he pointed the boat back into the current and took his place back at the puller.
“You drive,” he said, and leaned over the line. She quickly stepped behind him and put the boat in gear. She’d keep on it, the bow pointed into the current at idling speed to avoid slack line getting caught on logs or pinnacles on the ocean floor. It was an uneven place they’d chosen to make this set; the bottom wasn’t smooth like their other favorite spots. It was a good place to lose gear and they knew current had washed line and hooks onto bad ground. Time and again they fought to free the line, determined not to lose gear. Between circling and hauling, they managed to pull forty-seven fish before cutting the line and letting it fall free to the ocean floor. Quickly, she pointed the skiff toward the far buoy, where they’d grab and start working the set from the opposite end. It was trickier to do this, run up on the gear in the opposite direction. The tide wasn’t in their favor and she’d have to drive the boat until they got it all up. As long as the weather held, it would be just an inconvenience, but if the wind came up, the chop and swell could turn hard work into a long, unpleasant afternoon.
Maggie looked down and grinned to herself. She could be at the clinic, staring at a computer monitor, listening to doctors drone on about patients and lab tests and followup treatment. She could be in uncomfortable shoes and taking a lunch hour and wondering why she wasn’t doing exactly this – fighting with fish, drenched in saltwater and staring off at snow-covered mountains. It was exactly what she wanted to do and there was nothing she would regret for choosing this life. Maybe in twelve hours when she was exhausted, soaked to the skin and her teeth were chattering, she may wish for clean sheets instead of a sleeping bag, but it would be fleeting. She liked the way her bed smelled of forest and campfire, and she knew it would take but moments to fall asleep once her head hit the flannel. No, she had no regrets, and she would take all the hard work over the comforts and steady income, living day to day rather than paycheck to paycheck. The sun rises and the sun sets, and her world could spin a bit better for the choice she’d made.
“Can you keep on the gear?!” Instantly, she pushed the throttle and the boat moved ahead. The wave action caused the boat to ride up and down on the line, the slack jerking taut with every rise. Moving ahead, the line straightened out and stayed that way, water spraying from the roller as the line sped through. Not good, she thought, and determined the daydreaming could wait.
“Hold up, fish on,” he said into the wind, his voice carrying past her and over the exhaust of the outboard. She eased back on the throttle until it clicked into neutral, watching the line come up. Not a large fish, he unsnapped the line and threw it into the boat. The line sped faster through the metal plates and into the garbage can, spilling over the sides. She reached to stave off the spillage and saw the rock anchor come up. The rest of the longline whipped through and into the boat, and she pushed the throttle forward as the buoy came aboard. He turned and stepped to the wheel, leaving her to lean back and throw her feet over the bench. Gunning it, he turned and headed for the bay, surfing over the growing waves as fast as he could do so safely with the load of fish they had aboard. He didn’t say anything, just squinted into the wind and pulled his stocking cap down around his ears. She turned her to face the stern and watched the trail of turbulent water they left behind as they made their way home. Hours of hard work lay ahead – gutting, cleaning, and icing fish, scrubbing the boat, hauling gear up and off the dock in the dark, then falling into bed and unconscious sleep for five hours.
At the tender, business was brisk as the crew hoisted and swung the day’s catch onto their deck and into the hold. Hydraulics squealed and slime dripped while weights and grade were called out. Pete sidled into the corner by the float plane dock. As Maggie grabbed the bullrail to tie up he switched off the engine and stepped onto the dock without a word, and she was left to follow him to the tenderman standing near the ice tote. The crewman nodded to her and looked over at their catch. “Not bad for first day and a short soak,” he commented. “They cleaned and ready to go?” “No, we’ll put everything on the dock and get to work. Need some ice to keep them cool once we get them laid out.” Pete was lighting another cigarette and motioned to her. “Push this tote over to the ice hose and we’ll fill up.” Maggie turned and walked over to the blue plastic box that stood chest high. She lifted the lid and saw a foot or so of hard ice in the bottom. “We can empty this first, right?” She looked at the tender crewman and he nodded. He hollered at the deck hand aboard and the hydraulics came down over the tote. They threaded the sling through two feet and the man at the controls lifted it enough to slide it over to the rail, where he continued lifting til the tote tipped and emptied. That done, he lowered and pulled the tote back near the ice hose to fill with flaked ice. Crab lights shone all around, illuminating the dock, busy with fishermen and loaded with fuel barrels, totes full of ice and fish. The sun was setting and darkness descended quickly and, with it, the damp cold of early spring on the water.
Covered in halibut slime, sleeves soaked with seawater and stiff with a slurry of fish blood, scales and bait, Maggie reeked. She turned to tell Pete she’d start on this end if he wanted the bigger fish, but he was gone. She looked up at the ramp and saw him heading to the boardwalk with one of the other fishermen, mug in hand. Stepping back into the skiff, she started transferring halibut to the dock. The larger ones she got the hoist man to winch up with a tail sling. Once she had them all laid out, she knelt and got to work cleaning. The small fish were fast and easy; twenty minutes later she was sweating and up to her armpits in the bellies of the larger fish. Reaching in and giving the gonads a quick twist, she pulled them out and tossed them into the black water. She stood and stretched and found Pete at the other end, working his way toward her. He looked up and got to his feet, pulling a cigarette out of a shirt pocket from beneath his sweatshirt, and walked toward her.
“Ready to do it again in the morning?” He teased. She looked down, knowing she wouldn’t stay mad at him. “Yeah, it’s all money. Who was that you went up the ramp with?” She pulled off a glove and shoved her hair back under her bandana. Her hand smelled like fish guts and blood. “Oh, that was Matt on the Ruthie D. He was telling me about a whole set he lost up the way. We almost got tangled up with his gear back where we had so much trouble.” He took a long drag off his cigarette and tossed it into the water. “Let’s get this finished up and sold, and go to bed.”