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A Hell Of A Fight

A Hell Of A Fight

The fisherman who saved us from ourselves
By Katharine Sandiford
Aug 29
2018
From the July/August 2018 Issue

A week into the two-week sea-kayaking trip everyone was falling apart. It had rained non-stop since leaving Sitka, Alaska and almost all of our gear was soaked through. At the end of each arduous day of paddling the ocean swells, we’d crawl into camp only to find the wood too wet to light. We had no dry clothes left in the dry bags and only rehydrated rice and lentil dhal to swallow down before tucking into damp sleeping bags. We shivered ourselves to sleep. Our skin was growing a suspicious green film—algae or fungus or the beginnings of fish scales—where it never dried and was forced into cold, wet neoprene every morning. We’d seen the sun a total of five minutes the whole trip.

Our dehydrated vegetarian meals were not providing enough calories to get us over the 10-foot swells, and through the driving headwinds and the never-ending, icy rain. We were slowly starving ourselves.

My friend Graham started lagging behind the group. Out of the eight of us attempting to sea-kayak the outer coast of Southeast Alaska’s Chicagof Island, I would not have pegged Graham—with his gymnast’s physique, the energy of a Jack Russell Terrier and an outdoor adventure resume that would rival Marco Polo’s—as the dawdler.

It turns out he was fishing.

Using a hand line thrown over his shoulder, he hooked an assortment of multi-coloured fish that he neatly displayed under his boat’s bungee shock cords. There was quillback rockfish, black-eyed rockfish, lingcod, and three varieties of salmon—enough every night to really fill us up. He would stop fishing only when he had amassed enough protein to feed the whole group. I’m not fishing for fun, I’m fishing for supper, he told us. Did we realize what we’d look like—and how we might be treating each other—had we not dined on fish each night, he asked.

On our very last night, camped on a sodden, bear-scat-littered beach in Tenakee Inlet, Graham and his now-wife Michelle—who continuously surprised the group with her fresh highbush blueberry pies and seaweed salads—set off in their kayaks into the drizzle to try to provide us with one final farewell fish.

To fish for halibut off a tiny, tippy kayak was gutsy. Even Graham, an experienced ocean fisherman, had never tried it before. Using a bit of rotten pink salmon with a squid lure at the end of a salmon rod, he jigged for almost half an hour before landing a nice “chicken.” (That’s fish-speak for a small, 15-pound halibut.) Easy enough, he thought, so he dropped his line again. It wasn’t long before he had another bite, but this time, it was no chicken. The line started to peel. He looked at Michelle: “There’s no way I’m going to be able bring this in.” As he attempted to reel it in, he got a glimpse of its massive shadow before it plunged 100 feet down.

With Michelle holding on to the side of Graham’s boat, the halibut dragged the pair of kayaks half a kilometre off shore and down the bay, zigzagging this way and that.

An hour later, it slowed down. Michelle stabilized Graham’s boat by reaching across his spraydeck with her arms and Graham began reeling in the fish. The rod snapped—echoing across the bay. He switched to hand-reeling. The big, broad fish came into view, thrashing its mighty weight as it came closer and closer. With his heart thumping and hands trembling, Graham reached for his fishing knife and made a move, grabbing the heavy fish by the gills, yanking it up on the sprayskirt and slashing it so he could feed a line through its body. Then, to quell the violent thrashing, he sliced off the fish’s tail.

That night, as darkness consumed the grey skies, the hungry group ate up every last scrap of the first halibut, the 15-pounder, battered in pancake mix and fried to crisp perfection in butter. It was the first night I slept warmly and soundly.

Riding the ferry the next day, to begin our journey back home to Whitehorse, everyone was happily stuffed, maybe even a little plump. And Graham and Michelle had a year’s worth of halibut air-sealed and packed on ice.