By Jason Schreurs
I have pained memories and pangs of regret from those summers out on the rolling waters.
The happy version of this story would read that the ocean felt alive as its splendorous fruits were pulled into the boat off glimmering hooks the size of pulley reels.
But indefinitely hauling and clubbing slick fish felt like the worst job imaginable. We very quickly lost count of the 20-hour days.
The fish were bountiful and the money would be flowing once we were back on shore, but that was no consolation.
The sun cooked us raw and the constant motion of the waves made us stifle gags from time to time, especially after lunch.
Roll and swell, roll and swell, it was a never ending sway. The troller didn’t rock us like a fresh, newborn baby, it sprayed us with sea water and fish scales.
The salmon fishing season lasted several months, but we only lasted two. At 13 and 15, me two years older than my cousin, there had to be a tapout, and exactly 58 days was it. This was unilaterally decided by the boat’s skipper.
A rotund man, alternately furious and jolly, he led the ship with an iron fist. On his watch we stayed at our station until we couldn’t haul and club no more.
Lunch breaks were meager and our dinners were slapped together after dark, chewy, fatty meats with more gristle and bone than nourishment. Sloppy half-mashed potatoes, hard bread, something pale green.
Next morning at dawn we were back killing fish, hundreds of them went from sea to hook, to deck to freezer. With an unmerciful clubbing or three before their frigid resting place.
My brain numb with exhaustion and murder, I fell into deep thought about all of these fish. What kind of life was teeming underneath our boat as we sat anchored in the middle of the strait? And the salmon kept coming up on hooks, one by one like pop bottles on an assembly line.
At the end of our run we had more than 3,000 pounds of spring salmon in the hull. Our final job before returning home with blisters on hands and feet, and the beginnings of malnutrition, was to unload the thousands of fish carcasses from the hull.
This was another thankless task that finally brought my cousin and I to tears. Unbearably cold and enough lifting for several grown men, we broke down and apart before the last thousand fish.
Finally, granting ultimate mercy, the skipper called in a couple of ringers and relinquished us, two frozen boys who weren’t cut out for all of this.
Sea salt in wounds, we later found out we had been paid a third what the other deckhands were snagging.
Three decades later I asked my grandfather, the skipper, how the salmon fishery was holding out these days.
“Not many left out there. Not many at all,” he said.
I couldn’t tell if he was mournful, regretful or neither.
Jason Schreurs lives on the west coast of British Columbia, Canada, and can see the ocean from his writing desk. Jason loves seafood almost more than anything, but can’t eat it without thinking of carnage. He’s gone vegan three times in his life.