Alaska, Land of the Last Frontier…. this rustic description of Alaska evokes images of a wild, untamed, rugged, beautiful and forbidding land. In
many cases this is as true today as it was a hundred years ago. It is certainly true when describing Alaska’s fishermen, who face unpredictable winds
and seas in a harsh environment that tests both fishermen and their boats. Technology, regulations and training have improved safety over the years,
but the basics of fishing still require individual fishermen to face the challenges of winds, tides and weather in an often unhospitable ocean to find
and haul in their catch. It is in this environment that our jig fishermen routinely venture to harvest some of the best quality seafood from the sustainably
managed jig fishery.
Jig fishing is known as an “entry level fishery”, meaning that it is typically fished by small boat fishermen using mechanical jig machines to catch
Pacific cod and rockfish. The small boats range
in size from 20 feet up to 58 feet and use two to five jig machines. These machines are relatively inexpensive, costing roughly $2000 which is
significantly less than larger, more industrial catch methods. Jig machines are designed for low volume fishing as the fish are individually caught
on each hook which results in less unintended by catch, so it is a clean fishery. The jig setup includes a cannon ball or weight, around 10 lbs,
attached to the end of the line to which the fishermen connects 10 baited hooks to the line and lowers the line down to 90 to 300 feet, depending
on the area and the ocean bottom. Most jig machines nowadays are automatic, so the fishermen doesn’t have to hand crank the line backup, so after
soaking the baited hooks, the line is retrieved and there are often fish on each hook. The fish is quickly brought aboard, bled right away to improve
the quality of the fillets and then iced or put into a refrigerated sea water tank onboard to chill the fish to 33 degrees.
So who are the fishermen who jig for cod and rockfish around Kodiak Island? If you have followed “The Deadliest Catch” or watched our good friend bush
pilot Bob Stanford on “Alaska’s Ultimate Bush Pilots”, you know that there is no shortage of genuine characters in these shows. The jig fishery is
no exception when it comes to real characters. Because it is a small boat fishery, there are typically two or three crew on each boat including the
skippers and it is the skippers who set the tone and atmosphere on their boats.
At Kodiak Fish Market, we have worked with many colorful characters over the years like “Perky”, “ArgoBob”, and “Evsevy” from our jig fleet. Each of these
fishermen has their own story to tell about how and why they entered the fishery. Perky and Argobob were some of our first jig fishermen who came to
Kodiak to prospect in a new fishery over ten years ago. Although both were experienced salmon fishermen, when they first started jigging neither was
familiar with the Kodiak area, where to find fish, where to go to get out of the weather or how the fish moved in and out of the bays or how deep to
fish offshore. Today, Perky and Argobob are considered among the most experienced jig fishermen in Kodiak and have consistently been our “high liners”.
Perky’s long white hair and flowing beard are reminiscent of Tom Hank’s character in the “Castaway” movie. Always ready with a joke or
political commentary, Perky is a hard working professional and thoroughly dedicated fisherman. Argobob has an engaging smile and projects a quiet strength,
but like his running mate, Perky, is equally dedicated and committed to his profession.
Weather always dictates when fishermen leave the harbor or how long they stay out on the grounds before they duck in to anchor up for the night. When they
leave Kodiak’s harbor, Argobob and Perky usually run together mainly for safety so they have another boat is in the area in case of a breakdown. Before
leaving, the jig boats stop to pick up several tons of ice to keep the fish chilled during the three day trip. Processors usually assign a three day
trip limit to ensure that quality is maintained during the course of the fishing trip – any longer and typically the quality of the fish is impacted.
Along with ice, they pick up several bags of Argentinian squid. This illex squid is preferred because it stays on the hook well. They also pick up
either herring or sardines for the chum bags. Herring and sardines have a high oil content which draws the fish in to the baited hooks.
Once underway at six or seven knots, the journey can often take
over 10 hours to the grounds, especially if they travel to the south end of the island or to the more sheltered west side where the bays are larger
and there is more protected anchorages. Heading to the west side, the boats go north to Spruce Cape and then turn west towards Ouzinkie Narrows and
cross open water to Whale Pass. The passage through Whale Pass can be tricky and dangerous with huge tide rips and swirling currents that often leave
a boat at a standstill if the skipper mistimes the tides. Once through Whale Pass, the boats turn west and head up Kupreanof Straits for the for Viekoda,
Uganik and Uyak Bays. Perky and Argobob have fished around Kodiak for long enough that they have favorite areas that have produced well in the past.
At the same time, they often talk about having to “prospect” if the fish don’t show up for some unknown reason.
When they finally arrive on the grounds, the action begins. The skippers set their anchors and immediately start baiting their hooks and chum bag. Usually,
a chum bag is attached to the end of the line by the weight, so the water is chummed on the way down. Most jiggers use a 10 hook setup, so each hook
is individually baited and then lowered into the water. With all the jig machines now “fishing”, there is a pause in the action until it is time to
pull up the first line. The jig machines wind up the line and if they are lucky, there will be fish on most hooks. Depending on the size of the crew,
one crewman can gaff the fish to bring it aboard, another bleeds it and drops it into the iced hold or refrigeration tank. Then the hooks are rebaited
and the gear is reset and they move onto another machine and continue this process throughout the day. Cod can range in size from 1 to 3 pounds and
some go as big as 18 or 19 pounds. We have seen some over 30, but that is rare.
While each boat is different based on crew size, operations costs, fuel costs etc, if a fisherman can bring in 10,000 lbs per three day
trip, then they are probably making more than expenses and crew shares and can start to show a profit. Like with any fishery, some days are better
than others, but somehow Perky and Argobob manage to get through a season and come back again next year. They would be the first to tell you that they
are not getting rich but it is what they know and especially what they love to do.
Usually by nightfall, the boats stop fishing and the crews clean the decks and settle down for an evening meal tucked up in a protected bay away from the
rolling waves. Most of the boats have little in the way of amenities, usually a small stove for cooking, a couple of bunks and a place to hang wet
Jigging is more than just fishing, for many fishermen. It provides a lifestyle that allows them to be their own bosses and to experience
the highs and lows that accompany every fishery. It is a rough and tumble lifestyle, always competitive yet like other fishermen, there is always a
willingness to drop what they are doing at a moment’s notice to help another fisherman in distress that underscores the camaraderie and close relationships
that are built on the ocean. Perky and Argobob also represent what we truly enjoy about fishermen – it is a profession that has room for adventurers
and real life characters and for that we are thankful.
Hopefully in reading this, you can get a glimpse at the tremendous effort and sometimes the risks necessary to catch and deliver some of the finest sustainable
seafood to the dock and then ultimately to your table. When you order seafood from Kodiak Fish Market, you know that there is a story behind every
fish – at least that is what the jig fisherman would tell you!
For a real life view of jig fishing, check out this link that shows another of Kodiak’s jig fisherman, Dave Kubiak and his crew on the FV Mythos working
their jig machines.
All the best