Asleep, Captain Carrie McCann dreamed away when the alarm went off at 5 a.m., rolled over, hit the snooze, the alarm again called at 5:10 a.m., then again at 5:20. The Captain darted out of bed, with lunch made, grabbed her gear and by 5:58 was on the boat. Her crew was there prepping.
The resort bus showed up with 14 passengers. Many were return clients ready to fish, with the exception of a couple of wives who reluctantly agreed to board. There were a couple of active service men on R&R, a father, and his son with his own pole, and the rest were mostly retired military and family. All were ready to catch halibut and enjoy a day out at sea.
Good weather was reported on the radio. The Captain was on the Snow Bird and the two best deckhands a Captain could want were on board – Abbey & AJ. The day was looking good.
The Captain approached the fishing crew from the wheelhouse, as they settled in for the ride and asked boldly “what’s the most important thing we’re out here for?” Early morning silence, but finally one retired vet pipes up and said, “catch fish?”
The Captain, in a strong voice for a 5’4” woman, with 29 years of experience plying the waters of the Gulf of Alaska, replied back to the gang loudly, “ No, it’s be SAFE”. Turning to the 12 yr old, she asked “Son, how many people on board?” The kid did some quick math and said“17, Captain Carrie!” She then asked the kid “So, if you were Captain, how many would you want to return safely to the dock?” Without much hesitation, the young lad replied “17”. The Captain smiled.
Captain Carrie asked the next most important thing for the day. Still a quiet bunch, but once again the retired vet reluctantly replied “Catch fish?” Again, the Captain in a commanding voice said, “No, it’s to have fun!”
On her third and final question, the gang remained ever so quiet, after a slight pause she pointed to the vet and asked “what do you think?” He did not really want to be wrong again he whispered “catch fish?” The Captain showed a big smile said, “Yes, let’s go catch some fish!”
The deckhands secured everything on board, the Captain gave the order to cast the boat lines and all was good to go for a fishing adventure. They departed easily out of the calm harbor. Just before leaving the breakwater, a little dark grey head with big black eyes appeared just above the surface. The Captain spotted the harbor seal checking out the boat. It instantly slipped back beneath the surface too quickly to tell the fishing crew, but the wives with their cameras ready, caught the little guy and smiled.
Leaving the harbor, the engines revved up to cruising speed of around 18 knots. It was a gorgeous morning in the bay, too rare to not enjoy. It’s was a good hour run out of the bay into the gulf, and then two hours due east to the fishing grounds. Just out of the harbor, the local sea otter, Hermie as the Captain named him, was enjoying the morning. He was just lying on his back watching the boats go by. The two wives nudged their way to the rail and took a dozen pictures of the furry guy as they passed by. They were already happy to be aboard. The Captain joked, “I swear someone’s paying that otter to be there every morning.”
It was a good hour run with calm seas out of the bay into the Gulf. The Snow Bird steamed by Thumb Cove, then Humpy Cove and entered Eldorado Narrows, a scenic short cut to the gulf. Just after the boat entered the narrows mid way up the steep mountains, a couple of goats were spotted, white dots on the steep dark cliffs. Just a bit farther down the coast, sea lions were hauled out on their favorite rock. Again, the two women nudged their way to the rail for more pictures.
About two thirds the way through the narrows, the Captain focused on her GPS. Just ahead was the infamous Mary’s Rock. Word has it, Captain Mary wasn’t the first to hit that rock, but her name stuck. The Captain kept the Snow Bird well clear to avoid any change to the name of that rock.
As the boat approached Cape Resurrection, the seas built a little, as they normally do around most of the Capes. Not bad, just old rollers creating a confused sea. The two R&R boys were both back for a few weeks from a second tour in Iraq and had never been fishing, nor had they been on the ocean for that matter, and they were excited. They had decided to make the Seward Military Resort home for a week before heading back.
It was noted that one of the rules, and in no uncertain terms, highlighted at the morning briefing by the deckhands, no puking ‘IN’ the boat, period. ‘Take it outside’ were the orders. Upon reaching the Cape, the two young soldiers almost simultaneously headed for the cabin door. Following orders, the boys leaned over the rail. Chumming the water as it’s called, they did what needed to be done, and last night’s fun was now overboard. They remained out on deck to take in a bit of fresh air for a few minutes and then smiles came back to their faces. They were ready to fish.
As the Captain rounded Cape Resurrection they encountered hundreds of seabirds, probably a thousand. Some of the birds were flying, others just swimming in large rafts, paddling or diving. The Snow Bird slowed down to allow the crew to enjoy the incredible view. Equally as many birds were perched on the ledges of the Cape making the cliffs appear white. The combined sounds were incredible, way above the noise of the two diesel engines that powered the Snow Bird. Again, the two wives were ecstatic, and moved frantically from one side of the boat to the other, just amazed at the number of puffins, murres, kittywakes, auklets, and cormorants.
Once rounding the Cape, the seas returned to a “relative” calm along with a nice offshore north breeze. Everything settled down to a pleasant two hour ride across one of the most beautiful portions of the Gulf of Alaska coastline. The Snow Bird passed by some of the smaller fast “six pack” boats fishing at the mile 6 “secret” spot, then more at the mile 11 “secret” spot, then past the Cape Junken “secret “ spot. The smaller boats are faster but they can’t go as far safely as the larger boats.
Just past Cape Junken, someone yelled, “Whales at 2 o’clock. “ The Captain once again slowed the Snow Bird down to watch the humpback whales. Not far off the starboard bow, were fifteen whales bubble feeding in unison. Everyone was on the starboard side, the boat slightly listed, as the Captain killed the engine, thought about losing fishing time but this was a once in a lifetime experience for even a seasoned captain. Minutes went by enjoying the incredible sight, but then without notice, the whales disappeared. The Snow Bird once again steamed east.
As the Captain neared her favorite spot, she circled the area closely and watched the depth-finder. When satisfied, she gave the order to set the anchor and the engines went quiet. It was looking to be a good day for fishing with a pretty good current just west of Montague Island, but not rough like some days. The deckhands quickly got 13 lines baited and in the water. Fishing had begun.
The young boy with the light rod and blue reel that his uncle lent him was just standing there. He then unzipped his pocket and brought out a homemade halibut jig his uncle had given him. His dad, not really much of a fisherman, flagged AJ. He asked, “Is it okay for my son to fish with this gear? It’s kinda important to him.” AJ said, “Why not, it’s his day to fish.” AJ checked the line, 30-pound test at best, “But it’s the really good stuff”, he said. The boy tied the ugliest halibut jig to the line that AJ had ever seen. AJ then checked the drag and the knot the kid just tied, “Nice job” AJ remarked, and asked if he wanted some bait. The kid looked up and said “No, my uncle said I don’t need bait”.
The boy dropped the jig in the water and reached the bottom. As instructed, he reeled up a few feet and began the magic that his uncle taught him. Slowly raised the rod a foot or so and then quickly let the jig flutter down, letting it hit the bottom on occasion. He repeated this motion endlessly.
The tide change was only an hour away. ‘NICE’ the Captain said to herself. But, as the minutes passed by – nothing, no fish, nada. The Captain got nervous, but held out as moving was a pain and wasted valuable fishing time. She was betting on the tide change. Waited, waited.
The bet paid off and the “bite “was on. Fifteen- to 25-pound halibut were flopping on deck with a nice 40-pounder that led the pack. The Captain walked the deck with her bait bucket and helped where she could, but now left the heavy lifting to the young deckhands.
The kid ignored the success around him and kept working the pole. Captain stopped by and suggested he try another pole. The kid replied, “No, I’m fine. “ The Captain shrugged, then headed off to the wheelhouse only to reappear next to the kid and said “Try this lucky hat.” With no hesitation the hat was on.
Those around him smiled. The old timers were especially smiling. Normally that was the hat you wore when you were the last to catch your fish. The kid, now even more focused, worked the pole, thinking he now had the Captain’s lucky hat as well as his uncle’s jig. Nothing could be better.
Seconds later, something hit his jig big time. The kid instantly stretched out his right arm on the pole, left thumb on the spool, and gave it the best set he could muster. The pole barely moved. Bottom, he thought? No, with that fine line he felt the fish head slightly shake two hundred feet down. Dad quickly handed his pole off and had one very firm hand on his son and one on his brother’s favorite pole.
The Captain, always on alert, watched and thought the young lad had caught bottom, but as she studied the end of the pole carefully, it wasn’t bottom. It was a halibut, a big halibut. She moved the son and dad more amidships to avoid the anchor line. The fish then made her first run, hundreds of feet of line spinning off the blue reel, nearly clearing the spool. Then, the fish stopped. Carefully, the boy and his dad got the fish back heading towards the boat, but she was still hugging the bottom.
Captain and deck hands had more advice flying than the birds on the cape, but they all soon understood the complexity of handling a very large halibut on 30-pound test line. At that point and not sure who was more excited, the kid or the dad, as the fish tore off another hundred feet of line. Dad thought, “Where’s that brother when you need him?”
Captain’s quiet comment to the dad was “Don’t let her spool ya, make her break the line.” They carefully coached her back vertical to the boat each time. More advice came from the experts on board. After a short period, the son’s arms tired as did his dad’s and they reluctantly handed off the rod. First to a young officer, next was an older retired military man. The pole was passed on, one at a time, for anyone wanting the experience. Not once did the boy leave the rail, stared deeply into the water, and hoped to see the fish he caught. The strength of the fish was impressive, 200 pounds, maybe bigger, the deckhands guessed. Each time one would slowly raise the big fish off the bottom 20- to 30 feet, she’d head for the bottom and hold. First rule for each at the pole was not to jerk the rod. Piss her off and she’s gone, and, most importantly to the kid, along with the homemade jig.
The Captain took a turn, as did the deckhands, but time was running out. What seemed like hours was probably only 40- to 50 minutes or so, but the Captain had more fish to catch and was looking at her watch.
The situation was looking grim and the boy was probably going to lose the fish and his uncle’s jig. Captain immediately turned to the two R&R boys, both young and strong and gave them the pole. “Now or never”, or some such words were spoke, along with a few tips. She said “You guys would do great, give it a try”. They worked the pole together like on a mission overseas, one helping raise the rod, the other reeling quickly on the down stroke, switching turns. After a few missed gains, they got the fish’s head tilted up.
No sharp jerks, just a slow gentle climb up. Now it seemed possible. A little thumb pressure on the spool was allowed as the drag was set fairly loose, but if ‘she wanted to go, let her go’ were the instructions.
Again, what seemed forever was probably only a few long minutes, when there she was, a 6- to 7-foot halibut laying flat on the surface of the water along the boat. Pictures flashed, while everyone on board realized that they had a part in catching that fish. Deckhands were ready with the harpoon and gaff. Seconds later, the deckhands and Captain were talking; “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to let her go?” The 12 year-old hears this and turned to his dad, who already was on one knee. “Son, we should let her go” was all he said. “But why?” the boy asked. His dad quickly explained to him she would lay thousands, maybe zillions of eggs, to make many more fish. “Your uncle would be proud.”
This made sense to the kid as he wiped a tear from his eye and turned to the Captain who overheard the son/dad talk. With maybe the sternest look only a 12 year-old could give, he took a deep breath and said, “Captain Carrie we need to let her go. Can you save the jig?” Captain looks into to those hazel eyes of that 12 year-old and said, “I got an idea”. She took the rod from the two R& R boys, who were still beaming with their success, pulled the rod backwards and up ever so slowly until the fish was near vertical in the water, but not letting the nose of the fish break the surface. That would be instant disaster. Just as if planned, the fish opened her mouth wide, the jig just hanging in there. A couple gentle tugs and jiggles on the line and the hook released.
Barbless hook – nice choice of the uncle the Captain said to herself. As they watched, the giant fish slowly sank and began to swim back to the bottom, where one would suspect after wearing out a boat full of fishermen, she too could use a rest.
The boy watched the fish slowly descend, then saw the halibut jig rise above the water. As it hit the rail, he grabbed it with both hands with all his might. The Captain handed the pole to his dad. The kid stepped back a bit and sat on a bench, then asked Abbey to cut the line. He placed the jig in his pocket and zipped it up tightly. That was too close, he said to himself.
Excitement over, it was back to the business at hand on the deck. Lines back in the water, the “bite” was still on and in no time the limit was in the fish box and it was time to head home. South seas picked up a little. On the ride back the view of the clear skies and the snow capped mountains to the north were spectacular. Captain, back at the helm, enjoyed the easy ride back.
The 12 year-old napped on his dad’s lap. Even the deckhands took a turn to catch a few minutes of rest before the next surge of work. As the Captain steered a straight course back to Cape Resurrection all was quiet, when suddenly she saw a sooty shearwater flying just above the swells, darting up and down with precision, always the same distance off the water. The bird passed the bow and was gone in seconds. “NICE”, she said to herself, as you don’t see them often.
As the Snow Bird began rounding the Cape, the marine birds continued swimming and diving. Just off the port side, the Captain saw a pod of killer whales. Once again, she slowed down the Snow Bird and reported to the crew the sighting at 10 o’clock. They all rose and hit the deck. The two wives captured the whales passing by close on the stern – perfect.
They continued to make way to the harbor and soon the town was in sight. Just as things were settled back down and passing the mouth of Humpy Cove, headed straight for port, the porpoises appeared out of nowhere, crisscrossing the bow over and over again. The old regulars allowed the newbie’s the bow but still able to admire the porpoises mid-ships. Needless to say, the wives got even more great photos. The Captain smiled, thinking it was great day of sightseeing as well.
The boat fast to the dock, the tired but happy fishing crew departed the boat. As the 12 year-old passed by the Captain he handed her the lucky hat. The Captain replied, “No, it’s yours now.” He turns to his dad and he gave the kid a smile of approval. The fish were hauled to the cleaning station at the resort. Deckhands finished cleaning and prepping the boat for the next day and headed to camp to clean and process the days’ catch. The Captain remained on board for a bit, finished up the log and gavethe boat one last look.
As the Captain headed down the dock towards the ramp she paused for a moment just to ponder the wonderful day. She stopped at the resort to see how things were going. There were dozens of fisherman watching the cleaning process and admiring the catch. The Captain mingled with her group. One by one they thanked her.
As the Captain came upon the R&R boys, one of the men extended his arm out and shook her hand and smiled. The other, probably ignoring military protocol, stepped forward and gave her a big hug. Quickly stepping back he said “Captain Carrie, this was the first day in two years the war had not been on my mind.” They both thanked her again, apparently no protocol broken. Captain held back a tear and said, “Come back safe and let’s go fishing.”
Seeing all was going fine and about to leave the group, she noticed the quiet 12 yr old off to the side next to his dad still wearing the lucky hat. Then, presumably with a little nudge from dad, the shy young lad approached her, he announced in a very firm voice, “That was the best day ever of my entire life, thank you.” He extended his arm and shook her hand firmly. In quick response, she replied “Young man you are welcome on my ship anytime”. The lad turned back to his dad and realized he’d just been promoted from a kid to a young man and smiled.
The Captain began walking away from the resort and smiled. Though tired from yet another long day, one beer at the local harbor pub was in order to celebrate an incredible day. But before she could leave, once again the young lad appeared, “Captain Carrie I have something to give you.” He carefully unzipped his jacket pocket and pulled out the jig and with both hands he extended it out to her. She said, “I can’t accept your special lure.” He smiled boldly and looked up to his dad. He nodded and whispered, “His uncle can make him another one. You should meet him; he’s got a sailboat here, seems to always be puttering on it.”
Carrie arrived at the pub for her beer. It was packed with captains, crew, commercial fisherman, and of course, the local riff-raff. She made her way down the bar and smiled to all the regulars. She found an open stool at the bar and was promptly handed a beer by the bartender. She sat down looking out the window, sipped her beer and enjoyed the view across the bay, marveling at the day and then saw the snow duck, a sign of summer for the locals, as it made an annual appearance visible high in the mountain snow every year, some call it a merganser on floats.
Next to her was someone she’d seen before many times but never met. They made eye contact, smiled and both say hi. He apologized for all the dust he’s wearing, saying “I’ve been sanding on my boat all afternoon, I needed a beer break. I had hoped to have had her in the water yesterday to take my brother and his kid out fishing, but didn’t quite happen as planned. They took a charter out instead. Shoulda been a nice day on the water,” he said with a little disappointment in his voice. She looked in his eyes and smiled.
Someone stopped by to say hi, but before Carrie could say anything more the dusty sailor was up and gone. She finished her beer, made her way back up the bar, more hugs and smiles. She crossed the street to the parking lot, daydreaming about the day.
Suddenly the “oh shit” alarm goes off. No snooze, way loud, and well out of reach. She launched out of bed, running a little late as always. She arrived on the Snow Bird at 05:58. Her best crew had secured the boat. The mechanic Jay was on board, engines already checked and idling nicely. The seas were calm, a wonderful start of another day at sea.
Story dedicated to Captain Carrie McCann with 29 years of fishing experience and still going strong.