My Fishing Community

We may not be worth millions of dollars, passing out our business cards at the Fishermen’s Expo each year, talking about what IFQs we have or how many pots,  coordinating with Icicle or AGS, or looking for quality deckhands, but we are just as fervent about our fish.

In every community, there are many little facets and sub-cultures that exist for those that are lucky enough to be a part of them. They can be born by happen stance, fluid and transient in nature. But that does not mean they are any less substantial or meaningful, as opposed to set groups and more formal alliances.

I love to compare humans to wildlife.

In Alaska, we are lucky enough to have two of the five very distinct types of killer whales for the northern hemisphere. We have the AT1 ‘transient‘ which are marine mammal hunters and actually genetically different (broke off about 700,000 years ago) than the ‘resident’ orca which are the fish eaters, but we don’t have or know much about the ‘offshore‘ orca or the two eastern north Atlantic (being that we are in the Pacific ocean). Having been a naturalist for about 10 years, look at the saddle patch (open or closed), eye patch (especially the shape by the eye and the slant at the opposite end), and shape of the dorsal fin (is it pointy or rounded, does it slop back or stand straight up) to see the main differences. Like many other animals, killer whales make noises to communicate. They use a combination of whistles, clicks, and pulsed calls. The combination of these sounds makes up their ‘discreet calls’. For our resident killers whales, they travel in pod – specifically a family unit – that is matriarchal like the elephants. Because these family groups stay together for their entire lives, they end up forming their own dialect, or their own set of discreet calls. Dropping a hydrophone and listening to them, AF5 and AF22 pods (split form the same pod) will sound different than the AJ or AG pod that is seen in Southeastern Alaska. Just like people from Boston will sound peculiar to people from Whichita.

The transient killer whales don’t travel in a pod, but instead form these dynamic hunting groups. Like people meeting up on the Pacific Coast Trail, they will come together randomly, travel and hunt together for a while, then split off and do their own thing later. There is no long-standing family lineage involved, and unlike the residents the transients actually speak a world language (don’t hate me for using the word ‘language’). Although a main difference from resident is that when hunting they go into super stealth mode and make almost no noise at all, as seals and other mammals will hear them and will get out of the water as fast as possible to avoid becoming lunch. It has been found that resident and transients do make distinctly different noises when they communicate, and the wildlife has learned this. Some transients over time have learned to specialize in killing certain types of mammals, such as the Dall’s porpoise or seals. In contrast, members of AG pod that swam with Dall’s porpoise for a while. We have one male transient that frequents our waters and he is a master at running down the Dall’s porpoise, and he is a force to be reckoned with. The notches in his dorsal fin make him very distinguishable even from a distance.

My little fishing community is just like the transient killer whales: we all come from different places, some of us have slightly different dialects, some of us are little family units, some people have specialized skills, and there are distinct personalities. And most importantly, we all come together for the common goal of hunting. From the dock we all cast in a consistent fashion, taking turns casting for those that need a little extra room. We will have pleasant conversations with each other, though we tend to be focused on the hunt more than simply a social gathering. We are all aware of the general movements of the members, as they change lures, walk to get something, or change casting spots. We also all jump in to help each member when they get a “fish on!”

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There is one gentleman in particular that is very good at, and extremely enjoys, netting fish. He is always the first there, with net in hand, and knows fish movement to get them before they dart under the dock. He is the fastest with a net, and he enjoys it the most. He says that it is his favorite part of fishing. I have yet to see him catch his own fish, keeping in mind I’m only there during my lunch hour, but he is always eager to help everyone else. Stewart is another strong personality. He is funny, happy, talkative but not chatty. He always shows up with a smile, and is always greeted on the dock by several people. For me personally, it seems that my casting always improves when I’m standing next to him!

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There are a few other people that are regulars on the dock, and we all give acknowledging head nods when we take our first casting spot of the day. Bob usually shows up in his chest waders, probably to keep the consistent fish death off his clothes. His little fishing buddy Michael that fishes with him is probably one of the best casters on the dock, and seeing as he is all of 15 years old, he gives us all something to aspire to. He casts his lure effortless twice the distance I can, but Bob assures me it’s probably the actual gear I’m using. He says that his wife had the same problem, got a different set up, and now she cats with ease.

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Today the older Asian gentleman that is always on the dock with slightly broken English but complete fishing attention caught a fish that was smaller than a king, and we decided it was an early pink. It was exceptionally bright, and put up a good fight. When new people show up, we readily offer up information, such as what fish are biting, for people that are from out of town what the regulations are, what lures we are using.

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We share stories from earlier in the day or week, and we are always eager to give the fish report; to encourage our comrades, or have us all settle in for a long day of fishing with little catching. When the bugs set their alarm for 0550 in the morning with no wind or rain to keep them at bay, we share the bug spray and joke about wishing the fish were biting as much as the bugs. We always watch the fat seal that cruises around the dock, as he has on at least one occasion swam up to the dock and stolen a king that was just about to be netted. We chuckle when eagles fly over, as one flew into a cast and got tangled, reeled back to the dock, untangled, and then flopped back into the water to awkwardly butter-fly stroke swim itself to shore to sulk on a rock properly as befitting such a regal diurnal apex predator.

We are a happy little community, and I feel special to be a part of it.

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About Courtney

Juneau, Alaska local.
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