fish T A L E S
AS LARGE AS THE OCEAN FLOOR A FLATFISH THE TRUE TALE OF BRINGING IN THE BIG ONE
MY first job as a freshly minted fisheries biology
graduate from the University of Michigan in
1968 was in Alaska with the U.S. Bureau of
Commercial Fisheries as a summer technician
on pink salmon smolt research.
Smolts are second-year salmon leaving their natal stream for
The field station home for the six of us — two biologists,
three young techs, and a Swedish handyman named Sixten —
was a two-story buoy tender. Basically, a large barge that was
towed into Traitors Cove outside of Ketchikan in the Tongass
National Forest, the largest in the country. We were the only
human inhabitants of this wilderness estuary.
The workday was netting migrating pink salmon smolts
(3 inches or so in length) and marking them with fluorescent dye
for hopeful ocean recapture. In the
net with the smolts were predator
Dolly Varden trout (a delicious
char as is our brook trout). These
we cool-smoked and canned.
At the end of the workday and
on weekends it was fishing and
exploring time — setting and
checking pots for the super sweet,
deep water, glowing-eyed spotted
shrimp and Dungeness crabs, and
setting bottom longlines for hali-but.
In a wilderness setting, with
never another fisherman to be seen
other than sea lions and harbor
seals, we could have lived off the
Other free-time activities were
shore oriented — picking berries
with the black bears and catching
migrating pink salmon so thick
they colored the river bottom pink-ish-
red. Before this, the largest fish
30 february 2022
I had caught were panfish and yellow perch, although the latter
in numbers that required stuffing them into our pockets from
the breakwater at Manistee, Michigan.
My greatest thrill, other than surprising bears, was boating
with the other techs out to the longline and pulling up the
bottom set. Especially the day when we caught a Pacific halibut
that was almost the length of our skiff.
A discussion ensued on how to land it. To bring it onboard
would have knocked us silly or out of the boat. The wiser and
better fisherman of the group suggested we tie her off — her, as
large halibut are females — and drag her around the cove. And
so we did for several minutes until we “drowned” her.
We then brought her onboard the barge and hoisted her up for
an initial 125-pound measurement, less as she drained water for
quite a while. She was much larger and longer than me.
Unfortunately, there were two
not-so-happy endings to the fish trip
and our research.
First, and to hurt our righteous
pride, higher-ups happened to be
onboard, and they immediately
helped themselves to the topside
fillets. As flounder fishermen know,
the topside fillets are best. We still
had plenty of good eating, but it was
a lesson in chain of command that
I have experienced several times since.
The second was a failure to catch
one of our marked smolts later in the
ocean (no surprise as we have no idea
where they go after leaving the cove).
However, as our leader Chet consoled
us, one of our (to my thinking major)
jobs was to circulate money in the
Still, I doubt I will ever catch
another fish as big or delicious as that
BY P E T E R P E R S C H BAC H E R
The author, Peter Perschbacher, currently lives near
the Cape Fear River in Wilmington. He says, “We
are now happy “natives” living on River Rd. I had my
first professional job on the Cape Fear in the late
1970s with Frank Schwartz and the UNC lab impact
project for the nuclear plant.”
COURTESY PETER PERSCHBACHER