Salmon Days

The first three days of fishing season in June are the hardest, Lindsay Layland ’13 explains, as her body gets back into the physical rigors of the work.

Setnetters are sometimes known as “mud people.” Receding tides expose a wide lip of mud along the beaches, and setnetters slog through sometimes knee-deep mud to anchor nets and get back to their skiffs. Layland and her crew wear chest waders to ward off the mud and ocean water, along with sturdy, rubberized fishing gloves to protect their hands.

But still, even through the gloves, “your hands are just getting trashed,” Layland says. Picking fish from nets  requires rapid, repetitive work for hours on end. Layland wakes up in the morning with her hands in a semi-claw. She soaks them in an Epsom salt bath and encourages her crew members to do the same. But it typically takes about 20 minutes of working to get her hands loosened up again.

On top of the physical challenges, sleep deprivation takes its toll. During the peak weeks of fishing, Layland and her crew work 18- or 24-hour shifts with only a few hours of sleep in between. And then they do that again and again. “You kind of learn that a little bit of sleep goes a long way, but a lot of sleep goes a really long way,” she says. Until recently, for as long as Layland could remember, the peak run of the season had lasted about a week. But the past few summers have seen record returns of salmon into Bristol Bay, and Layland and her crew have fished intensely with little sleep for about three weeks in a row. Those sleepless weeks make them feel groggy, cranky, and perpetually hungry. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, trail mix, and beef jerky help keep the crew going out in the skiff as they bring in up to 10,000 pounds of fish in a single day.

For Layland, anticipating a fishing season is like an adult version of waiting for Christmas morning. The “tickle of excitement,” as she calls it, is unlike anything else. She felt it again last spring during her first skiff ride out to her setnet site. She motored out of Dillingham’s harbor into the wide, muddy waters of the Nushagak River. On her starboard side, a wild coastline extended for thousands of miles. To the port, riverbanks rose in a muddy line. The moon-white bodies of belugas surfaced in the shallows where the whales were feeding on fish near the shore. And in front of her, sea blended with sky. She had done all of the prep work for the season; she had left the world of cellphones and computers. “There was this moment of peacefulness,” Layland explains, as the wind blew her hair behind her. “Everything else melted away and I had one purpose: to catch fish.”

 

By Miranda Weiss
Photo courtesy of Lindsay Layland ’13
Published Feb. 13, 2020