Cross Sound trolling, in my opinion, is as wonderful and relaxing an experience as can be found commercial fishing for salmon. The days are early and consistent, as the night changes to day to try and get to the hooks in the water to catch the morning bite. When the fishing is good the work is as steady and hard as any fishery I have experienced. It may lack the brute strength of purse seining or gillnetting in Bristol Bay, but what it lacks in necessity of shear strength it makes up in spades in the finesse department. I jumped at the chance to run the gurdy and gaff salmon over the stern. The act of bringing a fish to the surface, stunning it and gaffing it aboard in one swift motion is as poetic a motion as a fisherman can make.
Power trolling for those who have never experienced it first hand, is as close as you can get to commercial fishing the old fashioned way of using a rod and reel. Which some fishermen still do with hand trolling permits, using rods and or gurdies to lower and raise their lines into the water by hand. The benefit of power trolling is that the gurdies are hydraulically driven and multiple leaders with hooks are run off an individual line, normally four lines are run at a time with a couple dozen hooks attached to each line with a huge weight at the end of each line. The lures are called spoons or hootchies, the later looks like a small squid, and comes in an assortment of crazy shapes, colors, and sizes. Every fisherman has his/her preferred spoons and hootchies to employ when a myriad of variables changes: location, weather, time of day, targeted species of salmon, etc… Some fishermen swear by a specific spoon or hootchie and won’t use anything else, others employ the carpet bombing method of giving the fish a buffet of hooks to choose from for their last meal.
My time trolling was spent aboard the F/V Imperial with Nelson Merrill and his crewmember Daniel, as well as on the F/V Keta with Ryland Bell and Holly Enderle. They were all extremely kind to let me photograph them as they met the tasks of each new day. Nelson had just returned from an extensive season of longlining around Alaska, and was enjoying his first season aboard the Imperial. Holly and Ryland both grew up trolling out of Elfin Cove and are an excellent team that shares the burdens of driving the boat and running the gear. We anchored up and rafted together each night and shared dinners, swapped stories, and took every opportunity to row ashore and beach comb. One of the more memorable evenings, both boats anchored behind Cape Spencer and the five of us jumped into a small inflatable raft and rowed between the last of Cape Spencer’s protective rocks with the goal of exploring the Cape Spencer Lighthouse.
Alaska has many historical lighthouses that dot its treacherous coastline. The Cape Spencer Lighthouse marks the entrance to Cross Sound and guides boats to the calmer inner waters of the north end of the Inside Passage as it spills towards the glacial silt laden waters of Icy Strait and the mouth Glacier Bay. The lighthouse was built at the doorstep of the Fairweather Mountain Range in 1925 and has stood testament to years of abuse of saltwater and winds born at the heart of the Pacific Ocean. The lighthouse was originally adorned with a piece of Parisian craftsmanship in the form of a fresnel lens that until 1974 illuminated the way to passing vessels. The lens, as much a piece of artwork as fine craftsmanship, can be found at the Alaska State Museum in Juneau. The lighthouse was manned until the same year the lens was removed, at which point it was fully automated, and now only receives the occasional visits by the coast guard, cellphone tower technicians, and a few adventurous fishermen.
We landed on the north side of the lighthouse, just beneath the remnants of an old crane, in a moderate trough that swelled in and out as we tried to perch the small raft on terra firma. We all made it ashore, hauled the raft above the high-water line, and scrambled our way up slippery rocks. The lighthouse is left open for anyone who finds themselves knocking at its door, and bears signs of warnings from the government to not touch any of the equipment. We explored the lighthouse from the very top of the lighthouse itself to the dark of the basement to try and find a rumored pool table. We found the pool table, but with no light to play by, we were forced to wander around the rest of eerily quiet complex of buildings. The lighthouse would suffice as an emergency shelter, but held little creature comforts for a long stay. With the sun setting over the distant rim of the Pacific Ocean, we departed the otherwise barren rock for the two anchored trollers and a warm meal.
After two weeks on the outer coast, I was reticent to leave the calming and wonderful surroundings of Cross Sound. I look forward to returning as soon as I can. I’m not sure a more pure and beautiful fishery exists. I’ll let you know if I find it.