Game Dinner

Went to Wrangell to go king salmon fishing with Dave last weekend. Took the ferry down and back. I more and more enjoy taking the ferry in winter. All locals. Kids going to school event – sports and activities. Grownups to Board of Fish meetings or to watch their kids in the school events.

I often get to see people I know but rarely see or talk to. Teh ferry gives you time to really talk over coffee with nothing but time to kill. It’s 8 hours from Juneau to Petersburg, so nobody has to get back to work or pick their kid up. Discussions go from here to there, politics to fishing to trapping to hunting. your talks run their course, then you go take a nap or read a book or another friend comes by and the first one leaves.

I dropped Paul off a gift in Petersburg. When I was down there a few weeks ago he took me to fly model airplanes, a hobby he’s had since childhood. He has mostly rubberband-driven planes with a few motor driven remote control ones. I saw a supercub w/wheels and floats on Craigslist in Juneau, and the seller was right down the street. I picked up the plane and extra floats and knew it would be easier to and safer to take the big box on the ferry then on the jet.

Paul me me at the ferry terminal in Petersburg for the short 30 min layover. We went to the van I bought him a few weeks earlier, where PBR’s were waiting. Paul asked some questions about the van, which I can mostly answer since we have the same model. We finished our beers and I got back on the ferry to Wrangell, knowing I’d see Paul on the return trip north as well.

Dave is the son of Norweigen parents. His dad a shipwright who came to Wrangell. Dave grew up to be a shipwright, too. His dad worked with wood and Dave with aluminum. He went to community college down in Washington after high school, and was out on his own not long after making boats, only in his mid-twenties.

My brother in law and his siblings grew up with Dave. My buddy Bob in Sitka is a best friend of Dave from the time Bob worked in Wrangell. Dave had been to our house a few weeks earlier to watch his grandson play basketball and made the mistake of telling me to come down “anytime” to go king salmon fishing in the winter. I picked my next open weekend and after a few texts sent back and forth, a fishing trip was settled. He mentioned something about a “Game Dinner”, which I thought would be fun. And it was. More on that later.

We fished the first day on a boat he built for his grandson to to commercially fish for crab. I thought it would be awkward fishing off a bow picker with the rods and downriggers so far forward, rather than the traditional spot in the stern. Turns out it was just the opposite. We did get a line in the prop once. But it was great having the rods in the same viewshed as where you are heading, so you don’t always have to be looking to the rear.

Fun to fish with someone new. Dave has his set up with a flasher on the cannonball, and a whole herring with a toothpick through it to keep a bend and proper roll clipped off a few feet above teh cannonball. Dave doesn’t like having to fight a flasher and the fish. We caught a small king the first morning that was almost barely legal. This went to his friend, who was heading south to visit his parents who had moved from Wrangell in their later years like so many do to get warmer weather, better medical care, or both.

We had a couple other strikes, then a long dry spell. Near high tide, we moved to a passage in the mouth of the Stikine River. There were birds working the needlefish, and the winds were a little gusty. Not long after high tide, the rod on my side took a dive, and I clamored out to grab it.

I knew it was a big fish, and Dave thought maybe it was a halibut. We didn’t see it for several minutes as it stayed deep and took drag. When the fish tired and we got it up near the surface, we both saw it was a nice king. It seems like time stands still catching a nice fish. I always think I might lose it, and if I get the fish to net, it’s with as much relief as joy. And this was a dandy – 25 lbs or so. Big anytime, but especially in the winter when it’s still months or a year from spawning – it could be either.

I worked to get the fish bled, the old fish seller in me kicking in. Dave got me to leave the fish for a moment and get the rods back down fishing first. One nice fish is not a “great day” for Dave as it is for me.

We got the lines down, and I filled a bucket w/sea wate and stuck him in the bucket of water. I’d already instinctively broke a gill as soon as I dehooked it. The water helps to keep teh fish bleeding by preventing the blood from coagulating.

After the fish bled out, I started to dress the fish. Not only was it big, but as the belly lay open I saw it was also a white king. The Southeast Alaskans ultimate delicacy. Paul in Petersburg, Sara, and our friends would be in for a rare treat.

We didn’t catch any more fish that day. Dave’s deck hose made for a bang up job of cleaning the fish. The weather was around freezing, so we could just leave teh fish in the cooler overnight. I gave Dave what I’d hoped were a few good demonstrations of my fish cleaning ideas and techniques, since I never know if I’m embarrasing myself relating fish care tips to a native. Dave seemed appreciate of my fish handling experience, as I did hearing about boat building knowledge he passed on.

We returned to Wrangell, where I met Dave’s wife. Bob had given me advice – coffee for Dave and chocolate for his wife. My wife told me what to get for good chocolate in Juneau, and that put me in good stead right away. Dave had also asked Bob what I liked. So there was a half rack of PBR in Dave’s truck when we went fishing.

The next day we started in a different spot than the day before. Dave’s buddy caught 3 in this spot the day before. There were two commercial boats already fishing when we arrived. One, the brother of a good friend in Craig who I’d deer hunted with years ago. The other, an old crotchety man who Dave warned me about. We no sooner idled into the area and went to get our gear ready than the old man yelled over to me “hey asshole”. I said nothing, but motioned for Dave to come on deck. Then the old man said “you’re an asshole fisherman”. I was tempted to ask if he needed a hug, but bit my tongue.
We fished behind him all morning, watching him land 3 fish while we had not a strike. The other troller fished offshore most of the day, perhaps not inclined to incur the old man’s wrath.

I tried some different gear set ups. I even put a rod off the stern with a banana sinker and a McNight spoon with a little cut plug of herring on it, just to have more gear in the water. Nothing was working. The old man eventually left, and Dave decided to fish further up the shoreline of the island than we had been doing. Dave’s friend, who’d fished the day before, radioed to say he was further up the shore, where we were now, when he got his fish the day before. As Dave was talking to him, he glanced behind the boat, said we had one on the stern rod, and ran to grab the rod. The friend on the other end of the radio said he must have talked one on when Dave left in mid-sentence. By the time I got back with him in the stern, Dave said the fish had come off. As he reeled in, he set the hook, realizing the fish had just swam towards him. We got the fish to net – a nice 15 lb king. I stunned it, dehooked it, and broke a gill and put the fish over
on a stringer as we left the bucket at the dock. We got the gear back in the water and Dave told his buddy the story on the radio. It was a gorgeous day- flat calm, and then the fish caught on my funky gear selection. We later caught another fish on a whole herring, lost another that might have been just legal when we crossed lines, and released a shaker. I cleaned all the fish, and put them in the cooler with fish from day 1. The cold temps were keeping the fish nice and fresh.

We got home about 430 pm and each took a shower to clean up for the Game Dinner. Little did I know that this was a major event in Wrangell. Some 200 males -members of the Stikine Sportsmans Club and their guests – packed the American Legion. The tickets are $50 for all you can eat and drink. Townspeople cooked the game supplied by the dinner attendees, with antelope, pheasant, moose, halibut, king salmon, deer, and king crab in abundance. The only females were four ladies dressed as cocktail waitresses, who Dave said were spouses of some of the members. Your beer glass never got empty unless you wanted it to.

The event started with appetizers. The event is for raising money for scholarships, Boy Scouts, etc. Along with the dinner was a door prize (870 shotgun), raffles (2 guns, an outboard, a 4-wheeler and airline ticket) and an auction, with items ranging from hunting clothing to chainsaws to boat haul outs. Someone even donated 2 hours of worktime at Dave’s shop. Mike O., a local personality, started things off with the moldy moose horn award, which is given to the person who screwed up the most the past season. The winner was a guy who flipped or sank his boat (I wasn’t sure which). Runner up was a guy who shot a robo deer from his 4 wheeler. In Wrangell, a fish or game violation can be more of a badge of honor than a public disgrace, depending on the incident and violators.

Then, the door prize was awarded. Dave’s friend who had caught 3 fish the day before won it. The whole place broke into a deafening boo. Dave told me why – everyone in the room knew the guy had 150 guns and was the last guy who needed to win another. But he was happy to oblige.

At that point, I told Dave “this is a rough crowd” – but in a good way – and Dave agreed. I also reflected that this event could have been in my own hometown and these bluecollar fishermen and loggers and deckhands and welders and bar owners are the kind of people our politicans send over to our wars in teh Middle East. I’ll never believe those blue collar people in the countries we invade would ever see the people in this room as the enemy. And I hope vice versa. We somehow, through ignorance, apathy or niavete let our leaders convince us others are evil, just leaders over there convince their people we are evil. How could regular people sharing a meal, laughing so hard it hurts, be anyone’s enemy? I’ll never believe it.

The beer kept flowing, and then dinner was brought out on the buffet tables. There were 10 tables of about 20 people each. Most had been to the event before, so it was like summer camp for them. They knew the rules. 10 cards were drawn one at a time to determine the order of eating. Our table was number 2, and that card came up first, so we got in line first while everyone else patiently waited their turn and drank more beer. This was Stikine River country, so lots of moose fare for dinner options. I chose mostly moose among all the other options since we rarely get moose.

As soon as everyone had got their dinner, items started to be auctioned off and raffles held in between some of the auctions. The auctions lasted nearly 3 hours. Beer and more beer. Nearly all auction items went for more than the item was worth. The old timers sitting next to us talked about the old days hunting moose, and how glad they were to see so many of the younger generation taking over the reigns for the Game Dinner. Some things had changed, like the ban on smoking indoors, but image teh essence of the community, tradition, and banter had not in the 32 years of the event. I hope to be asked again next year.

We didn’t fish on Sunday, but go things around to try to get things started for Dave’s kitchen remodel so he could get a sink back in service for his wife before he left town for the week on Monday to watch his grandson play basketball at the tourney in Ketchikan. I headed north on the ferry in the afternoon. The ferry was running late, and we didn’t stop long in Petersburg. I got off and gave Paul some salmon. He had beers and a sandwhich waiting. I didn’t get 2 sips from my beer when the ferry was leaving, so I hustled back, and was the last person on – they’d already put up the car deck but put it back down for me and didn’t admonish me for being late since it was such a quick stop. Back to work tomorrow, and king salmon all around this week.