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Fish Fever or How I Got to Be This Way

My genes are contaminated. Going all the way back to Viking times, Norwegian fisher people have been mating and spawning in their boats and houses by the sea, passing on the fish lust gene with each new generation and it has landed in me. This sickness renders me unable to relax in sleepy tropical fishing villages that tourists generally find so pleasant; while my travel companions are able to simply appreciate the little dinghies that land full of fish on the beach around sunset every night as general ambiance, I sit there angrily sucking away at my drink, drowning in jealousy and lust over all of those fish in all of those boats, none of which were yanked out of the sea by me.

I am not the only one in my family with this problem. When I look back in the old family albums, there are the landlubbers and they are a grim looking lot with their frilly victorian shirts buttoned up tightly around their necks and a listless look in their eyes and then there are the fisherfolk. Here is my great-grandmother, Gertrude. She was a big strong woman with a big strong laugh. There she is up to her hips in the sea holding onto a fishing pole, her head is thrown up to the sky, and she is just laughing and laughing. Here is Gertrude with fishgut covered hands, looking real focused as she cleans her catch of the day. And of course, there are the countless pictures of her holding up her conquests. And it’s never just one little fish judging by the looks of the pictures.

Or take my grandfather. He liked to keep himself busy. Except when he was fishing. Then he was busy enough. We would get up at sunrise to hit the docks. And I, who was never a morning person, felt lucky, fortunate even, to be the one he chose to wake up for a 3 mile walk down to the docks where we would sit dangling our lines over the edge of the pier, full of hope.

I was born in Ketchikan, Alaska. My grandparents and great-grandparents flew all the way over from Montauk, Long Island to meet me. I can just picture them leaning over my crib, inspecting me to see if I had it. That fishy look in my eye.

It is a kind of a torture, fish fever. It doesn’t really matter what they’re paying for fish these days. Well, it does, because it might mean that you have to go get yourself some sort of other regular job, in order to pay for the fishing that you’re bound to spend most of your time and money on. But those people with fish fever, they’re worse than gamblers. They live where they live and do what they do in order to spend as much time as possible out on the water with their rods and nets, killing fish, getting dirty.

All of that life out there under the water. And some of it could be yours for the taking.

My cousin, Spencer, is the latest to be afflicted with this problem. And oh yes, he’s got it bad. When he was only three years old, I took him over to my friend Davey’s pond out in the country. It’s just a little hole in the ground and there’s a little creek that runs by it. But Davey mentioned offhandedly that there have been known to be big mouthed bass in that pond. That was the last we saw of Spencer for the day. He managed to immediately score a rod and some bait, and he didn’t leave the pond until nightfall. We got him into the house for dinner, but even then, he spent the meal staring distractedly out the kitchen window in the direction of the pond. Feeling the fish vibrations. There’s fish out there, you know.

My cousin, Cosmo, is happiest when he is in Mexico. My uncle has a place right on the beach just south of Zihuatanejo. I’ve never seen so many delicious looking fish in one place. You can see them swimming around in the bodies of almost every wave as they build and crash onto the beach. About once a day, the birds start diving bombing the waves right in front of the house. Cosmo spends his days in the hammock with a baited up pole at the ready by his side. The birds start sqwuaking and in one lithe movement he goes from complete stillness to a sprint down the beach, racing against the Mexicans and the birds to catch those fish. Most of his Mexico pictures feature him, redfaced and grunting, proud, under the weight of his kill. That’s Cosmo. He’s got it bad. Cosmo has a funky little dinghy that he takes out on the water in Mendocino during the summer when the salmon are running. It’s a sketchy situation, to get into a boat with Cosmo. He really knows how to savor an adventure. True adventures are rarely much fun while that they’re happening to you. They’re usually pretty uncomfortable at the time. But Cosmo grew up homesteading with a bunch of crazy hippies. So he’s used to discomfort and not being sure how it’s all going to turn out. He’s happiest when the fog rolls in and we lose sight of the land. The engine dies, and the only noise is the choppy water slapping against the leaky little boat, the compass is broken, the cell phone doesn’t work, our fish start to stink and we are an invisible little speck in a giant gray sea. That’s when Cosmo goes all caveman and gets this crazy look in his eye. We don’t have any food or anything to drink. I look over at my cousin. He is totally happy. If the boat weren’t rocking so much, he’d be strutting around and saying, “well, well, well!” That’s when Cosmo is in his element.

As a non-commercially licensed fisherwoman in California, I used to pay a lot of money to get on a party boat for just one day to troll a single hook through the ocean, hoping that something would bite, knowing that there was a dinner table full of people waiting hungrily back on land. When and if the fish started to hit, even if they were hitting like mad, we were only allowed to bring home a measly 2 fish. That’s the limit for pleasure fishers. For me, the best party boat trip ever, was the one when all three of my companions who I’d suckered into coming along were terribly seasick and I got to work all of their lines and catch all of their fish while they laid down below, miserable with mal de mer. I only landed 8 fish that day, but it was better than the usual two. I had so much fun that day.

The first time I caught a big salmon, it was the fourth of July. I was heartbroken and numb, having been freshly dumped by my boyfriend. And holidays, you know, are the worst, when it comes to being freshly dumped. So I decided to leave land for the day, to get away from the festivities. I went fishing. It was 5 in the morning when I peddled down to the docks in Sausalito and looked around for the Lusty Lady. I didn’t know a thing about catching salmon then. I got on board the boat with a whole bunch of old men. Many of them were wearing waterproof camouflage outfits, which indicated that they were expecting to have an adventure. We set out, all those old men and me and we drank awful coffee with that fake powdered creamer stuff (another party boat ritual as Sausalito men are accustomed to imbibing organic freshly roasted beans on the other 364 days of the year) as we headed out. Now, I really didn’t know what I was doing, but being a girl, many of them were happy to share their fishhunting prowess with me or maybe just to get their paws on another rod without having to pay the additional rod fee, so they baited me up, attached the weight and lowered it down alongside their own. We sat there, rocking back and forth and looking at the coast and I mimicked them. They inspected their rods and I inspected mine. Mine looked different because it was bent over while theirs were still straight. I asked them if something was wrong and they all started screaming, “Fish on! Fish on!” and grabbed my rod and pushed me to the back of the boat and started chanting, “Reel! Reel! Reel!” And so I did. I didn’t know how to adjust the drag, which was probably a good thing, because that fish was very tired by the time I got it out of the water. It being a party boat and all, the first mate got to have all the fun of scooping the fish into a net, clobbering it over the head and cleaning it out. He swiftly and efficiently eviscerated the fish and handed me the heart, still beating. So there I was, numb and heartbroken, holding a beating fish heart in my hand.

When my boyfriend broke up with me, I was really devastated. It was a real surprise. My friend, she said to me, “The heart is a muscle, kat. It is strong and it will continue to go on in spite of itself.” I didn’t really hear her until I held that fish heart in my hands, insistent on beating, even outside of its host’s body. After a while, I got a little bit tired of holding the heart but it felt disrespectful to just drop it on the deck and walk around on it and I didn’t want to just throw it in the garbage. It felt too valuable to do that. I knew, I really should eat it. That’s what an Aztec warrior would do, after all. Instead, I tossed it into the sea with a little silent prayer of thanks. I tried to appear non-chalant as the old men were all around me and they hadn’t caught any fish themselves yet. Also, they had started acting all superstitious and weird around me, asking me if they could touch my rod and stuff.

I caught the first fish of the day, that day. Also, the biggest fish of the day and the most fish of the day. It was the best day I ever had on a party boat, but I was the one who had been hooked. The sickness had worsened.

I’d managed to forget for a few years how fishing felt. Soon after, I started working extra just so that I could go fishing as much as possible. Some days I did well, some days I got skunked. But since I wasn’t finding the fish or killing the fish, or even netting them most of the time, it felt like cheating. Nonetheless, the basic elements were all there – getting out on the water, catching something and converting it from an alive thing to a dead thing, and the triumphant return home, preferably with a fish under each arm, where dozens of friends awaited to gobble it all up.

Over the next few years, I fished in the Amazon, in Canada, in Mexico, and up and down the California coast.  I never got attached to rods or got sentimental about this lure or a certain kind of bait. I just liked being out there on the water killing fish. But that two fish limit was so awful and those salmon were so wonderful.

So I guess that’s why I needed to go fishing killing in Alaska this year. I needed to finally finally finally catch my fill of fish.

Not everyone who is a commercial fisherman has the fever. Some people just fish for the money. Some like the camaraderie. Some just do it to get away from their families for a while. As I walked around the yards in Dillingham, Alaska and talked to people, I started to figure out who had it. I didn’t know if it would be better to get on a boat with someone who had the fever or someone who didn’t.

I ended up going fishing with a guy named Opie and I still don’t know if he had it or not. Probably. He’s done some pretty crazy things in the name of fish and considering what they’re paying these days, he didn’t do all those things out there on the water just for the money. He told me once, after the boat was ready and we were finally out on the water that every year it was the same. He always dreaded leaving the land. Every year all of the other boats were already in the water and catching fish before his boat even got wet. He admitted that sometimes he even shoots himself in the foot almost on purpose when he’s getting ready, goes out and gets real drunk so he can’t function the next day, ‘accidentally‘ bashes through the bottom of his boat with a hammer and then has to mess around with fiberglass for a couple of days, but he can’t do that until the wind dies down and so on just to keep from the inevitable part when he has to be out there catching fish. But once he’s out there, he catches more fish than most. He knows how to find them and he knows how to bring them in and somehow he always finishes near the top of his group. He’s been fishing for so long that a single fish means nothing to him, as it did to a greenhorn like me. To me, every single salmon was a thing of beauty as I ripped its face off in an effort to free it from the net.

Oh! The excess and barbarics of it all! Nets clogged so full of fish that there’s no room in them to catch anymore! The waiting, the tension, and then the moment of reckoning when you bring it in and see what you’ve got! You forget that it is food when you’re up to your waist in it and need to get it from the deck into the holds, but you never forget that it is alive and yours because you caught it and now it will be dead because of you, too. Sometimes I wanted to keep all of the fish, but knowing that we’d catch thousands more just like them the next day and the day after that made it less painful to watch them get hoisted out of the holds and dropped into the big mysterious bellies of the tenders. And the days when we got skunked were bitter, bitter, bitter. The forced cheer at the tie ups between intermingling crews when they had killed it and you had been left in the lurch. It was more than Opie could bear. But I’ll tell you those stories another time. For now, suffice it to say that the fish fever has got me more firmly in its grip than ever. I am a sick woman. I hear they’re paying even less this year for fish. I hear it was a particularly bad year for jellyfish in Ketchikan. Gas prices are going up and limits are going down. And still, I can’t wait to go fishing again.