The night before I headed out on Puget Sound on the Miss Mae, I had drinks in Port Townsend with the boat's skipper, Sam Bain, and his friend and fellow fisherman Billie Delaney. Billie thought it was amusing that I was going to be writing a story about Sam's fishery (see the March 2014 issue of National Fisherman, page 24).
This is no "Deadliest Catch." There's hardly any waves, no turf wars (at least not on the water; there have been battles over catch allocation among commercial state, tribal and recreational fishermen). For me, the story was in how Sam found his niche in a small-boat, low-key fishery that allowed him to stay on the water for most of the year.
That doesn't mean there's no excitement. A day on the water is not the same as a day in the office. If I trip, I'd be a little bruised and more embarrassed than hurt. When Sam is out on the water he's usually alone. A slip could mean a splash.
One thing Sam must consider is where to put his pots. One area may be falling off, but if he moves his pots, he loses a day of crabbing. The new area may not turn to be as productive as hoped and may also be farther from the dock, which means the gas you use to get there could offset the bonus crabs.
There's also price. Dungeness is prized by Asian markets, which can mean a lot of fluctuations. Some crabbers will put their catch back in the water at the dock to wait for a better price, but that's a strategy that can backfire: I heard about one crabber who lost $10,000 this way.
It's interesting to watch fishermen work these equations, but no matter how much you crunch the numbers, there's always going to be uncertainty. This to me is the most exciting part of fishing (when the waters are calm). Even though my paycheck isn't tied to what's inside, I always feel a thrill when I watch the pulleys turn and ropes slide up as they retrieve the net or pot below. What's inside can either prove or disprove a fisherman's logic — or just be luck. Wild animals hidden under dark waves will never be completely predictable.
I took a short (under 2-minute) video on the trip of Sam hauling up a pot. It may not leave you on the edge of your seat but watching it and hearing the hum of the engine and the cries of the seagulls was a nice mental break from a dreary February day in the office.
That hum in the video reminded me of some other excitement. As you'll find out in the story, a problem with the hauler almost canceled the day. As a fisherman said to me on a previous trip, "That's fishing."