Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Wild catch — Fisherman in the middle of bear-shark tug-of-war

By Clark Fair
Redoubt Reporter

Commercial fisherman Bill Holt thought the shark was bad enough — and then the bear came along.

Holt later admitted he was somewhat amused by what transpired next, but mostly he was just irritated because he was losing precious fishing time.

In a world of 12-hour openings and limited resources, Holt didn’t appreciate wasting minutes when he could be netting salmon and making money.

“That’s the one thing about commercial fishing,” he said. “You can never rest on your laurels. As soon as something goes wrong, you’ve gotta be thinking about the next place to go because you have such a small window of opportunity to make it.”

Holt’s notions about taking advantage of limited time have been honed by years of experience. He has been drift fishing Cook Inlet for about 30 years. For nearly 20 of those years he fished the east side until the runs petered out, and then motored across to the west side to extend his season.

Typically, in mid- to late August, he would enter Chinitna Bay, just south of Mount Iliamna, to take advantage of the runs of silver salmon entering the streams there to spawn. At the head of the bay, he might jockey for position with other boats trying to corral schools of salmon headed for Clear Creek, but he preferred the more sedate opportunities along the bay’s northern shore, particularly in tiny Clam Cove, when the weather and the tides were right.

Holt, a local school board member who is the chief caretaker of the Tsalteshi Trails behind Skyview High School, entered Clam Cove one morning in August 1995 and set about preparing to fish the outgoing tide, as he had done many times before.

As water leaves the cove and enters the bay during an ebb tide, it is swept west to east toward the mouth of the bay and open inlet. So Holt fished the cove’s east-side beach, cognizant of the need to keep his fishing vessel inside the cove and not drift into the main tidal current, where it could be pulled eastward and trail his nets into the rocks on the point of the cove.

On this particular morning, Holt backed up his boat — a 34-foot fiberglass vessel named the Loujon — as close as he could to the sandy beach and dropped his 40-inch bright orange buoy right at the water’s edge. Fishing regulations state that a buoy, which marks the far end of a fisherman’s net, must be in the water at all times. Holt likes to tie his buoy close to the end of his net and place it just offshore to prevent salmon from skirting his mesh on that side.

He said he is careful not to place the buoy actually on the shore because he is “paranoid” about breaking the law and bringing down the wrath of fish cops. As the tide ebbs, he keeps enough tension on the boat end of the net to prevent the buoy from going dry.

“We always heard these stories about (former Fish and Game wardens) Dan France and Al Thompson, that they would be over there and they would hide in hollow tree trunks,” he said. “Whether that was true or not, I don’t know, but we always lived in fear of that.”

After dropping the buoy, he and his crew — his 12-year-old son, Galen, and a college graduate named Maggie, who was set to enter Harvard Medical School later that fall and had never fished commercially before — began feeding out the net in a series of small S-turns that Holt likes to call “lollygags.” The lollygags give him handling flexibility with a net three shackles (900 feet) long, and the turns in the net sometimes confound the fish and cause them to become more easily trapped.

“We were catching some fish,” Holt said. “And as the tide started leaving, I had to start pulling harder offshore. So pretty soon, essentially, I sort of had a straight net.

“And so we’re fishing, fishing, fishing — and all of a sudden the (first shackle of) net just goes completely underwater and starts thrashing around.”

The net began to bow outward slightly south toward open water.

“When I first saw it happen, my first thought was we’d just seen killer whales that morning going up the bay. But then I realized, no way; I would’ve seen them. The boat was in only 6 or 7 feet of water.

“And then we saw that it was a shark. You could see its ugly old shark nose and all that stuff. It went back down and started thrashing around.”

The salmon shark, which Holt estimated at 8 to 10 feet long and 250 to 300 pounds, became so entangled in the mesh that it could not escape. Holt’s crew was “pretty excited,” he said, but he was becoming concerned.

“I’m thinking, ‘Oh, man, here we go. It’s gonna wreck the net. It’s obviously gonna wreck the net.’ And I knew that to pull back and get the shark out would cause the buoy to pull too far offshore and then I’d have too much current.”

Then, as if the situation wasn’t bad enough, out of the mix of alders and spruce at the margin formed by the beach and the woods, came a large black bear that ambled down the incline to the water’s edge, apparently drawn by the jerking motions of the buoy.

“It just sat there like you’re sitting on a stool or a chair, sat there watching the buoy. Ten feet away from this buoy, just sitting there watching it.”

The bear didn’t sit still very long. Intrigued or irritated by the movement, it returned to all fours, walked determinedly down to the buoy, grabbed it with both paws, and bit it.

“Then it takes the buoy and starts backing up the beach with it. He pulled it up the beach a little ways to where it was actually on the sand. So he’s actually helping me fish,” Holt said. “And then he dropped the buoy, walked away and sat there, watching.

“And the shark’s still going at it, and pretty soon it starts pulling back off the beach again. Pretty soon the buoy’s back out in the water, so the bear comes down and grabs the buoy again and pulls it back up on the beach. And I think this happened three times.

“It was like a shark and a bear playing tug-of-war with each other, and I’m in there, too, trying to mediate the whole thing. Eventually, the bear quit pulling up, and the shark kept screwing around, and in order to keep things straight I ended up catching some current.”

As the bear disappeared back into the woods, Holt was forced to motor out into the current and around the point to steer clear of the rocks. As he drifted eastward, he used a hydraulic gillnet drum to winch in the net until the shark was free of the water. Once he had slashed at the net enough to liberate the shark, he was able to bring in the rest of the net and pick the fish he had caught. He was delighted to see that, despite his double predator seesaw struggles, he had 100 to 150 silvers in his hold.

The morning wasn’t off to such a bad start, after all.

But, as a true fisherman knows, time spent contemplating one’s fortunes or misfortunes is time lost, so Holt prepared to fish again. “By the time I got the net back in, I’d forgotten all about the incident and I was already trying to think about someplace else to go fish. And I was upset because this thing had taken some time out of my fishing day.

“We only needed two shackles of gear there, anyway,” he added. “What I did was cut all the floppy net out and restart the set. When you’re fishing, you don’t ever give up.”

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