King Crab Bonanza

OR: PUTTING YOUR WINTER MONEY IN YOUR ASS POCKET

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Note: I was a crewman on a king crab boat during the legendary king crab boom fishery of the 1970s, during which fortunes were made, but sadly, lives were also lost, as the fishery took place in the stormy Bering Sea and North Pacific Ocean. We had had a disappointing 1971 season, but finally, in mid October, when we thought that the big catches that we had always heard about would continue to elude us, found the mother lode. This is from my book, Bering Sea Blues, A Crabber’s Tale of Fear in The Icy North.

And then on the afternoon of the third day, after we all, to ourselves, had accepted that it was to be another pisser of trip, stacking and moving the heavy pots every day, George FT akutan 1found a large herd of crab. In deep, deep water, almost 1100 feet down. The 1200 feet of 5/8″ buoy line for each pot was a chest high coil. By dusk it was clear that this was the legendary fishing we had heard about but not yet seen. Around 5 came the first absolutely full pot we had seen all season, and we stood back, looking at it in amazement. It was so full that the nylon meshes were bulging out of the steel frame. The crab had literally jammed themselves into that pot, over 2,000 pounds from a single pot!  As we hauled and reset those amazingly full pots, it was apparent the herd was jammed into a tiny space on the bottom—two or three acres at the most—so we just set the gear closer and closer together. Pretty soon we had the pots as close together as we could physically set them without their buoys tangling when we hauled.

Walter & crabWind and flying spray, clouds pressing down upon the water. We worked in a little circle of heaving green-grey seas, hoods up, pucker strings pulled tight. Once, after daylight came on the fourth day, I was just standing up for a moment, working a kink out of my back, and a big sea, but not a comber, passed under us without breaking and on its back side, I could see almost all our buoys, a remarkable sight. All 70 plus pots (we’d lost a few “over their heads”) just in the distance—maybe 60-70 yards at the most— between the big seas. George had the gear set as close as he could get them to each other without tangling, and even then, I could tell it was a challenge for him to get some of the pots in the middle of the group without getting buoy lines from the others tangled in our propeller. Fortunately the current runs strongly through there, keeping the buoys line taut with no slack or bights to tangle with.

Now they came up, bag jammed full and meshes bulging, pot after pot. Heads down we worked, pulling crab out of the sorting bin, tossing them gently into the holds. If there was a break in the action, we’d grab a piece of the coffee cake through the porthole on the bulkhead, up under the overhang, stuff it in our mouths and keep going. Sometimes Bob would duck into the galley, and bring us all a cup of coffee and we’d stop for a moment, just savoring that we’d had got into them thick again. And if the wind wasn’t blowing too hard, and the spray flying, peer down into the dark water beside the rail.

And wonder, in amazement what it was like down there. How many feet thick the herd of crab was. How many were being crushed by our pots landing on them. We knew that the area that the herd covered wasn’t very big. We were constantly moving the pots that produced the least—40s and 50s—as close to the more productive middle of the herd as we could bring them. That such a volume of crab could come out of so small an area was almost eerie.

hair crab & friendTwo hours before dark, both holds were full and we were deck loading- just tossing the crab on deck, where their crawling and the motion of the boat would more or less distribute them evenly. Then when George felt like we had a full load, we would go up into the shelter of the land to get away from the wind and the seas, to open and pump down the hatches to try and fit the deck load in.

It was strange almost beyond imagining. Working in that brilliantly lit circle of sky and heaving hills of dark water, but with the wind howling and the spray flying and inky darkness beyond, and our entire deck covered deeper and deeper with this mass of slowly moving, crawling, grasping, big red spider-like crab. No science fiction movie I’d seen ever came with a scene as weird as our deck that black and windy night.

But, that, finally was what we had all come to Alaska and the Bering Sea and Aleutians for. Finding, somewhere in that desolate treeless, austere, land and seascape the crab and the money that would make what we had been through since leaving Seattle in February worth it. We were tired beyond words. Yet there was a grim satisfaction of seeing those pots come up bulging full, pot after pot. And this: we were fishing almost around the clock then, rarely stacking gear. When we came to the last pot, number 71, we’d just start again on number 1, probably 20 or 25 hours since we had last picked it. And it too, would be full, full, full!

deck ice

And so on those bleak and lonely few acres of ocean, with the distant smoke from the top of Shishaldin Volcano ripped sideways by the wind but clearly visible over the heaving seas, we began to finally make our season. We got enough out of that elusive herd of king crab, crawling slowly beneath us in absolute darkness, but found at last by our skipper, to finally put our winter money and more in our pocket.