I may have mentioned this frequently heard comment in an earlier post. “I have to go fish!” The Bristol Bay Salmon season is brief and productive if you have luck or talent. A fisherman with a little luck, and his boat cooperates can make a fair amount of money in a brief period of time. Sometimes staying healthy enough to fish can be a challenge, especially when they drink to excess.
I worked a couple of years in a community clinic along Bristol Bay in Alaska. They have been catching salmon there for over a hundred years as the salmon attempt to go up river and spawn.
The fisherman arrive from around the world to fish, it is a melting pot of cultures. There are families that have been fishing here for multiple generations. A brief frenzy of activity over a season that may last just a few weeks they are motivated by a large payout.
My role was as a Nurse Practitioner. My task was to repair them and hopefully they could go and fish. It was difficult at times to overcome the bad choices they would make. They had a very narrow world view catch fish and hope the price per pound was high and the cost of diesel fuel was low.
The season divided itself into in to three distinct chapters. Chapter 1 would be titled Drunk Fisherman Getting Their Boats Ready to Fish. Except for 2 weeks a year while they are out fishing the boats are stacked on timbers and blocks on shore. Once they begin to launch, they would work 24 hours a day launching the boats without pause.
Fisherman drink, they drink a lot and without an apparent pause either. Young, old, and everything in between they drink. Like their grandfather and his father before him they come to drink and don’t forget, they fish.
A lot of people drink and don’t get into trouble. The problem arises when you are drinking on a boat that is setting on blocks high off the ground while on shore. Ladders in use were rarely secured or in poor repair as they climbed up and down readying the boat for the season ahead. Young, old, and everything in between bones will break after a fall.
Chapter 2, titled Fisherman Hurt While Fishing. There appeared to be a limitless number of ways to injure yourself while fishing. Anchor chains and windlasses were particularly hard on the ten digits attached to their hands.
Do you know the cure for a missing finger tip? Simply snip off the bone if it is protruding and suture the finger tip back in place. If the tip is still in a glove on the boat, send someone for it. It works like a charm; a little shorter than it once was but still functioning.
A large salmon shark caught in a salmon net should never be brought aboard. I learned this from a guy who chose to bring one aboard. The fisherman and crew even debated the issue prior to bringing it aboard. On its way to the deck and a few flops later it opened a crew members thigh wide open, a nasty gash no doubt about it. The take home message here is to leave the salmon sharks in the bay and not in the boat.
Chapter 3 is similar to Chapter 1, but without all the optimism. It would be called Drunk Fisherman Putting Their Boat Away. All of the preseason euphoria has now been replaced with the knowledge of how many fish you caught and how much money you made. If you fished the Naknek River, but you should have fished Egegik all that is left is bitterness. Accepting that you are not the best fisherman on the bay can be a bitter pill to swallow.
Luigi is a fisherman from Italy. His story would definitely find a home in Chapter 1. Luigi fishes with three good friends from a small island in the Mediterranean. They have been fishing together for a long time. The boat they are fishing belongs to Luigi’s father, who also fished Bristol Bay.
Luigi and crew had been getting the boat ready and of course drinking. No one fell from the boat or the ladder to the boat. One afternoon while making their way to the tavern for a drink and social interaction, Luigi spots a ladder. Near the beach it extended 20-30 feet to the fish processors dock above. It seemed like a good idea at the time, so he hopped up and grabbed the lower rung of the ladder. After a little struggle he was well over half way up the ladder. This is where it all begins to go badly for Luigi. He fell half way up and hit his head on the beach when he landed.
I get called to meet him and his crew at the clinic. They are very drunk, but in spite of this Luigi checks out reasonably well. As I begin to examine him he loudly proclaims, “I need to go fishing tomorrow!” Please give me some pain pills so I can go catch the fish tomorrow!”
I decide that Luigi is not going to die from the fall so I let the crew take him back to the boat on one condition. They have to periodically wake him up and make sure he still appears to be the Luigi they know and love. No more drink for Luigi either, not today anyway. They are all very understanding and able to repeat to me my instructions back to me. I am as sure as anything this will all work out. Call me an optimist.
My last word as they left, if anything changes bring him back to the clinic pronto so I can take another look. “Ok, Ok, Ok we have to go fish tomorrow but we promise, like a bad chorus they carry on as Luigi and crew leave for the boat.
The following day Luigi and the boys return with a report, Luigi is different. It is currently 5 pm when they arrived. I agreed with them, Luigi did not appear to be the same. Medical speak, Luigi had some neurological changes wrong answer to questions and speech is slurred. This could be bad.
When did you guys first notice he was slurring his words and walking a little funny? “This morning over breakfast, about 7 am he was talking funny.” Oh brother, why did you guys wait? “We are getting the boat ready. We have to go fish in the morning!”
I sent Luigi to Anchorage on a fast plane. It turned out he had a small bleed on his brain. He showed up a couple of days later back in the clinic requesting pain medication. He had signed himself out of the hospital AMA (Against Medical Advice). Of course he did, why you may ask?
HE HAS TO GO FISHING IN THE MORNING!