Oh well hello there. My name is Van Pierszalowski, and I've worked as a commercial salmon fisherman up on Kodiak Island in Alaska for several summers. I initially got the job through the glories of nepotism, as my father is the owner and captain of the Shawnee, a purse-seining vessel (Google that shit). He grew up in southern California and hitch-hiked up to Kodiak in 1969, and has been working up there every summer since. I started as a deck-hand, stacking the net, and maintaining things on board - and then graduated to skiffman, which was my position the last five summers I worked. I basically steer a small boat (the skiff), which is attached to the opposite end of the net that the big boat is. My dad and I communicate via radio and try to catch the most salmon by studying the wind, tide, and historical trends.
What kind of person would make a good salmon fisherman?
It's very exhausting, isolating, and difficult work. You should be able to work well with very little sleep, be okay with using a bucket for a toilet (and tossing the goods overboard), be around the same 3 people for over 3 months with very minimal distractions other than work, be okay with being cold and damp at almost all times, be okay with eating salmon every day, and be okay without any cellphone or wi-fi for extended periods of time. You should love nature! And adventure! And you should be into seeing parts of the world where no one else sees because there are no roads or any of that shit! It's both incredible and terrible in equal measures. If you can handle all that, you're good to go!
How does someone become a salmon fisherman?
It helps to know someone. But its not a necessity at all. The way to get a job is still pretty old school. People usually just go up there and start walking on the docks and asking captains if they need crew. Avoid skippers who seems boozy, or seem to have a ramshackle operation. It may be charming in a "wow, this is real!!!!!!" kind of way. But it takes so much work and organization and skill to run a boat and crew. If you're smart, charming, and a dedicated hard worker, you'll find a good job.
What is the pay like?
You receive a percentage of the gross. Usually for newbies, its about 10%. You're on the hook for all your expenses (including travel there and back, 25% of the food on board, and your crew share in whatever the diesel bill ends up being) - usually about $2,000 when all is said and done. However, on a good year, you could make upwards of $30-35,000 in a little over 3 months! Or as little as ZERO! But if you're on a good boat, you should be able to make $20k in a summer these days.
What are the best parts of being a fisherman?
Losing yourself to the wonder of the job. It's a completely engrossing experience. All you live for out there is to fish. All you care about is catching more fish. And there is so much strategy, planning, and skill that goes into it. It's primal in a way that's hard to explain without sounding like a stoner. It can be a beautiful way to make a good amount of money in a short period of time, get some muscle on your bones, and collect so many stories to impress your boring friends with. For me, I also love being away from the Internet and the zeitgeist of the modern world. I'm kind of addicted to it when I'm not out there, so its a wonderful mandatory respite from the noise. Life is simple when all you're trying to do and all that matters in your universe is catching as many fish as you can.
What are the biggest challenges in being a fisherman?
The lack of sleep. You should expect to go periods of sleeping less than 3 hours a day for several days in a row. The uncertainty that you'll make any money at all. There are usually weeks of pre-season work that you will not get paid for. It's all part of the package. The macho/backwards/racist/xenophobic feeling in the air in small Alaskan towns and on the CB radio can be very tough to be around. The fact that you are living in a very, very small space with the same people for so long. I've gone 7 weeks without touching land, and it can be a lot tougher when there is someone on the crew that you don't really like.
What is the best advice you've ever received?
From my dad: you should find a different career. This is a good job for you now, but don't count on it, kid.