National Fisherman


Salmon sabbatical

Father and son make a break for Bristol Bay as an old-timer and a first-timer

By Charlie Ess

We're standing near the skiff at the edge of an expansive mud flat. It's low tide, moments away from the season's first commercial salmon opener in Alaska's Bristol Bay Ugashik District. My quadriceps burn, and there's a sharp kink in muscles between my shoulders. We've just finished dragging the better half of a 50-fathom salmon gillnet from our skiff through the muck and have it tied off to a screw anchor that's been twisted six feet into the Earth. The other end of the net lies neatly piled in the stern of the skiff and tied to a 66-pound Bruce anchor.

We wait for the season to open. Though I've never fished Ugashik before, I find a haunting familiarity in the smell of wet lines, the mewling gulls, the fog burning off the sandy beach beyond.
"Let's go," says skipper Parker Sorenson, who's come back for his second season.

At the moment of the opener, we push the skiff offshore and into the gray water ahead. We all jump in over the gunwales when we reach enough depth to run the outboard. I drop it from tilt position, grab the starter cord, and the three-cylinder Yamaha roars to life. I twist the throttle up on the tiller handle. The 22-foot aluminum skiff surges into the waves and gillnet corks clank out over the fairleads. We finish making the set, toss out the anchor and chain. I lean against the gunwale and watch with reverence as the corkline comes tight against the flooding tide. The sound of water bubbling through the corks drives chills up and down my spine and tears at a part of me that has lain dormant since my wife, Cheryl, and I worked her setnet site at Ikatan, near False Pass, some 300 miles south of where I stand now.

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