by Corey Arnold
I've gotten a lot of mails in recent years from young adventurers, enthusiastic Deadliest Catch fans, and desperately broke people wanting to find a job on a fishing boat in Alaska. I'm happy to share a few secrets here and clear up some common misconceptions. I'll set this informative story to the tune of some recent snapshots from the 4 months I've spent working in Alaska since October... but I'll also throw in some from the "old days" when it all began. How does this apply to fecal face dot com you might be thinking? I'm not sure exactly. Most of the kids that have emailed me about jobs in Alaska are from small midwest towns and litter their myspace pages with pictures of nascar heros, guns, confederate flags and hot chicks laying in sand. Do any fecal readers own guns or watch motorsports? Well, maybe this is just another "you can do anything if you set your mind to it" story. You can apply these job finding techniques to dozens of other torturous jobs in the world that will bring you to incredible destinations while making decent money to pay off school debt. How about coal mining in Svalbard? or working on Oil Platforms in the North Sea?
This is the story of how I got started.
Me and a buddy decided we'd drive the Alaska highway from my hometown in Vista, California one summer in search of jobs in Alaska. We chose Homer (the halibut capital of the world) as our premier destination. I really didn't know if this was the right town to start in and we didn't do much research on what time of year is best to get a salmon job in that region of Alaska.
We had no connections to help us on our way, so we started walking the docks and talking to people. You just have to meet folks in person and be in the right place at the right time. I found it quite intimidating at first. These guys were the real deal... tough lifer fishermen. They mostly weren't interested in small talk. Many just gave us dirty looks and shook their heads no. I felt like a beggar and got no respect.
After a few days of exploring and walking the same docks over and over again, it became obvious that Homer was not thehappening place for work in late May. Homer was a big halibut fishing town, but the season wasn't on and everyone seemed to have regular crews.
On day three, we met a crab boat captain. He was a happy big bearded dude with oil permanently outlining his fingerprints. He ran a boat called the Norquest that docked in Homer for the summer. They wouldn't fish for a couple months, but he hired us for $7 an hour to do some shipyard work. We grinded out and repainted the crab tanks and mast. The work was toxic but we were eager and didn't complain. I coughed up rust for days after and lost millions of brain cells from painting a super toxic marine paint without a ventilator. We spent two weeks of shipyard work on the Norquest and asked a lot of questions about the industry. Afterwards, the skipper was impressed with our dedication and offered us both jobs as deckhands.
Looking back, it's not so surprising that this particular boat had jobs for us. It was a rusty creature of a boat. The electronics were all out of date, the cranes were primitive, the layout was inefficient. It was small and old, a dangerous boat. Only the desperate or inexperienced would subject themselves to the Bering Sea in such a boat.
Luckily we turned down the job. We would have had to put in months of tendering (delivering salmon for canneries) and at least a month of cod fishing for free before we could work the coveted red king crab season where we were told you could make about $15,000 in a few weeks. By then the summer would be over and I was going back to college in September in Arizona of all places.
Shortly after our painting job on the Norquest, a guy named Larry contacted me after spotting a note I tacked to a bulletin board offering myself as a deckhand. He ran a set gillnet operation for Sockeye salmon in Bristol Bay and his deckhand had flaked at the last minute. We met that same day. He gave me a good look up and down and asked if I got seasick, did any drugs, am I willing to work harder then my body will allow. I said no, no and yes and I was on the first flight in the morning to a remote beach near the Kvichak River.
It was my favorite fishing experience ever. Summertime in Alaska pulling full nets of salmon over the rail by hand. We lived in primitive shacks on a sparcely populated beach. On the days off, I'd explore the tundra on a 3 wheeler with a .44 Magnum strapped to my side for bear protection.
I could go on an on about salmon fishing. I did it for 5 years. Unfortunately, I never really made any money. Maybe a couple thousand in 6 weeks at the most, but at least it was an adventure. The big money talk about commercial fishing is an illusion. There are ways to make a good living if you are in it for the long haul. You can't expect to show up for a season, find a job and go home with a fistful of cash. You have to take major sacrifices in the beginning. A guy with no experience should be willing to work for free or partial share. They should do anything it takes to gain the knowledge so that you can "fake" your way onto better paying boats.
Having experience as a commercial salmon fisherman was helpful when looking for a higher risk, higher paid job. But there is a reason the career fishermen call the summertime fishermen from the lower 48 "salmon fags". It just doesn't approach the level of mundane drudgery that other fisheries in the icy waters of Alaska can dish out.
When I graduated from art school in SF earlier this decade, I decided to search for a fishing job that would help me out of debt. At the same time, I could fully engulf myself in my life project... photographing the modern fisherman.
I began the search this time in Seattle. It was as simple as posting a note on the bulletin board at fisherman's terminal: "Strong, responsible, experienced deckhand seeking work". I listed my references as a salmon fisherman for five years. Then i started walking the docks. This is really the only way to get a job if you have no connections. Just start talking to people. Offer to help them work on the gear for free. No resume is needed.
I was first offered a job by a guy named Cowboy. He was the skipper of a blackcod longliner headed out the next day for the Bering Sea. He was a crazy looking dude... All shaggy and crusty, but super nice. His boat looked like shit. He needed a half share deckhand/cook. I really didn't want to cook so I told him I'd think about it and come back tomorrow.
Tomorrow was too late and the position was already filled. It had been over two weeks and this was my only offer and I blew it.
The next offer was a guy that drove out from Westport Washington just to find a deckhand in Seattle. I took the job and spent a week in Westport preparing to fish halibut for 4 months aboard the Ocean Challenger. Perhaps it was luck for me that I quit before we even left port. I had a bad feeling about the boat and was certain that I would get swindled out of fair pay.
Last October the Ocean Challenger rolled over in heavy seas and killed all but one of its crew. You might have witnessed the dramatic rescue of the only survivor caught on Discovery Channel's Deadliest Catch last month. Even weirder, Cowboy, the super cool captain that offered me the other blackcod job, perished as the captain of the Ocean Challenger.
Eventually, after a whole depressing rainy March in Seattle, I recieved a phone call from Eric Nyhammer. He saw my note on the bulletin board and offered me a job jigging for cod in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea aboard the 43 foot f/v Two Bears. He also mentioned something on the phone about owning a scallop boat, salmon boat, and skippering a beautiful crab boat called the Rollo. I took the job and he flew me out to a remote village on the Alaska Penninsula.
Eric was a fantastic skipper, a tough and creative cross breed. It was fun, I saw the biggest waves of my life, drank lots of booze in a town called King Cove, and only made $2500 after two months of hard labor.
He thought I worked hard, I stuck it out to the end even though we weren't making any money. So one tipsy night after drinking at Carl's he offered me a job on the Rollo as a full share crabber.
The full share part didn't pan out when we were sober, but I got the job. These are pictures of Matt (by the way).
I like crab fishing sometimes but most often I feel like jumping over the side. I told myself i'd quit after two years and move on to the next fishery but now it's been 5 years. Maybe I'm just addicted to the scenery.
We come across some odd creatures.
Here is a nice whale carcass.
here is an Opilio Crab (not so weird)
Here is a red gilled scorpion cobra viper sculpin.
Here is another Opilio Crab
Here is a homeless Bairdi crab with genital barnicles. He was very much alive as a blind quadruple amputee. Some sort of sea sponge type thing has decided to be his hat. We see lots of these little french hats out there. I always giggle.
Last King Crab I salvaged a nice kitty from the pound hours before we left Seattle. She prostituted herself to all 5 of us and bounced from bunk to bunk on a weekly basis.
She would run out on the deck during the fiercest storms and attack injured seabirds.
She enjoyed eating king crab on a daily basis. Her fur is soft.
Offloading was party time for Kitty. She lived on the edge.
I love her and she loves wide open.
In November after King Crab... me, Matt and Eric jumped back on the Two bears and did some long lining for halibut.
Matt was having a hard time not being at home with his new girlfriend.
There was about a two hour time lapse between when I shot the two previous pictures.
Kitty is always all up in our shit.
Halibut gonads can be a real blast.
Opilio season was sloppy but not this day.
Our sister ship, the Arctic Hunter ran aground and nearly sunk so we fished their quota. The season lasted from January 4 til March 15th. It was gruelling
Stuffing the tanks full of Opies.
I forgot to mention my lousy injury. I somehow managed to drop a bucket full of engine degreaser that ejected itself into my open eyeballs. I damn near blinded myself. This is me with full bug eyes doped up on Vicadin after medivac to Anchorage. It would've been way cooler to lose a pinky finger to a king crab claw but I don't think that's ever happened.
Well my story began as a how to and ends a blog. Hope you don't mind. But wait, right here I'll list just a few more tips to keep in the "How to" spirit.
1. If you live in San Francisco, well hot dog, there are lots of fishing jobs right under your noses. I lived there for 6 years and it never occurred to me that fishermans wharf houses a bunch of legit fishermen. There is an out of the way dock more over by Giradelli square that docks most of the boats. SF also has a big herring fishery in the bay during winter and a thriving salmon trolling industry. Go to the delievery plants in the wharf or Sausalito. Many of those guys also have boats in Alaska.
2. Get a Job in a processing plant. You will be paid shittily but they might fly you somewhere interesting where you can make your escape shortly after arrival. Here are some names of processors in Alaska: Trident Seafoods, Westward Seafoods, Icicle Seafoods, Peter Pan Seafoods, Norquest Seafoods, American Seafoods. Find their info online and call em up. They might put you on a trawler/ processor like the one below:
3. Go to Seattle in May and walk the docks. This is when boats gear up for salmon.
4. Go to Dutch Harbor anytime. There is always something going on. The plane ticket will cost you $800 one way. There is no escaping that. It's far cheaper to fly to China then the Aleutians. Don't expect to land a crab job. There are way too many experienced crabbers out of work these days. Last season, the place was swarming with wannabe crab fisherman because of Deadliest Catch. I didn't hear of any landing good jobs. Most just milled around for months.
5. Don't try to act overly tough. Skippers want to hire smart guys with endurance.
6. Don't expect to make any money, just consider it an adventure and have fun.
I had a nice time sharing my story. Now I'm going to bed. Good night.
By the way, I'm having a solo exhibition at Richard Heller Gallery in Santa Monica Opening Saturday May 12 from 5-7 and running
until June 9th, hope to see you there!
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