Though he didn't know it then, BUCK MELOY's fishing career began when he was a small boy dangling hooks baited with earthworms off a dock in Lake Michigan. In 1972, he discovered fishing for pay when he crewed for an equally green friend gillnetting salmon from a tiny double-ender in Puget Sound. No income materialized that year, but the hook had been set and he continues to fish for his living to this day. The Boldt Decision, and the bad management that followed it, made him seek opportunities in more distant waters. He has crabbed, trolled, seined, and long-lined halibut from Washington state to Southeast Alaska and Bristol Bay, finally settling down in Cordova from which he fishes sockeye on the Copper River Flats and in Prince William Sound. He will probably keep doing it until his feet swell too much to allow him to get them into his boots. Buck can be contacted at buckmeloy.com.
A succession of dreary days
muddles the sharp edge of optimism.
they plod past like a soggy dog,
who does not pause
even to sniff wet posts.
(Elegy for a fisherman)
Standing under midnight moon, alone,
The blind old man weaves his dreams.
He fondles web, salmon gillnet,
Tool of years of living, living.
His mind sees with eyes no longer his.
Worrying web through crooked fingers
He feels his life, his years:
Another salmon, another yet;
Pull web, stretch, pop fish to deck.
Another salmon, another. . . .
"Dad," she says, afraid for him.
"Dad, it's late. You must be tired."
"Yes," he says, shifting arthritic foot on lawn,
Picking yet more fish no one can see,
"I am tired."
"It's slow tonight; you can sleep."
"Yes," he says. "I will sleep."
But his hands continue their slow work;
His eyes stare blankly, imagining fish.
"Come, Dad, we will find your bunk."
"I will sleep," he says, and lays aside the web.
She helps him into his house
Where the old man lies down.
And he sleeps, dreaming years,
And never wakes.
"Ya' didn't let it boil! Ya' gotta let it boil! I told ya'!"
Clarence knew how he wanted his Hills Brothers prepared, and wasn't going to stand for any goddam greenhorn messing it up. He drank his coffee the same way on the troller that he had for the first 35 years of his working life, when he had been a logger in Washington's virgin forests: strong and boiled in an open pot. "It ain't no good 'til it's boiled!"
Later, sipping boiled coffee in one of Southeast Alaska's many coves on Clarence's 46' ocean troller, I had to agree that its flavor was fine. As he pointed out, if the water had an off flavor, you could always add a little canned milk to the coffee, or brandy, and it would straighten right up. I didn't agree with him on the canned milk part, but I had learned not to argue. Clarence had a definite mean streak and was ornery enough even when in a good mood.
His mood was fine now, as it was when the fishing was good and once each evening when, the boat cleaned up and dressed coho and kings tucked in neat rows in ice in the hold, he would tell tales of his years in the woods, and his early years logging and fishing in Southeast. His favorites were hard-boiled like his coffee. Unlike his coffee, they usually ended with someone in the hospital or a grave, a snapped choker or an axe handle having wreaked ugly mayhem.
I enjoyed these story-telling sessions. Clarence was as tough as human beings come. And though I didn't share his automatic distaste for "tar-heels" and "siwashes", nor share his enthusiasm for bare-knuckled discourse or brutally delivered justice, I was fascinated by the verbal history of the Northwest and Alaska that for him had begun in the opening days of the century. These were days when light and heat and cooked food all meant burning something, when dry clothing and bedding meant sleeping the moisture out of it, when seal or other oil was how one made Gore-Tex, when men needed to be as strong as the mules or horses that dragged logs out of the woods making roads as they dragged them. Fresh meat was what one trapped or shot, and salt was the preservative.
If Clarence's was a "frontier mentality", he had found the place for it. Ketchikan in the early 1970s was still a somewhat brawling place. And there were millions of trees yet to fell, uncounted wild animals to fill larder and provide wardrobe.
And ocean trollers roamed the inside and outside waters nearly unconstrained by seasons or limits other than those imposed by weather, low prices, or lack of fish. Pretty much self-contained, these vessels had large holds, big water and fuel tanks, and the manufactured ice that had finally replaced salt as a preservative, now enabling them to make 10-12 day trips between deliveries. Food for the two aboard easily stayed adequately fresh in ventilated larders. And a troller like this could drift the night on the open ocean, or anchor securely in any cove or bay, stabilizers down, hanging on its huge anchor and a great length of steel cable, to wait out any storm.
We did this once, at Noyes Island just in from the ocean, when it blew a steady 50-knots out of the south for nearly three days. Clarence chortled when one seiner after another sought refuge in our bay, only to drag anchor time after time. With my hands puffed and aching from their unaccustomed work, I could sympathize with the two or three crewmen who had to repeatedly hand-haul their anchors while their skippers moved back up into the bay to make yet another attempt to get the pick to stick. Already exhausted from days of heavy sockeye hauling, soaked to the skin from struggling with the anchor on the bow in gale-driven rain, hats long since blown beyond retrieval, their despair was almost palpable when the skipper finally gave up, choosing instead to face the storm outside in search of better anchoring ground in some other cranny.
"Siwash bastards, don't know nuthin' 'bout anchors. Hee, hee. Gotta have a real anchor here, and a lotta chain." Clarence didn't have anything nice to say about anyone, and the pleasure he took in the calm coziness of his warm fo'c's'l was greatly enhanced by the turmoiled suffering of our wannabe neighbors.
He did have at least one fishing buddy, however. Each evening he would warm up his two-way A.M. radio. At the appointed hour, he would shout a few words into the microphone, listen to the roaring snapping and crackling that returned, shout a few more words, listen again. Though I could never make out a hint of any human sound coming from the speaker, Clarence generally smiled when he snapped the set off. "Cohoes starting to show at the Cape. We'll head down soon as the wind slacks, afternoon t'morra."
His 73 years may have been making him a little soft. He spoke of his wife once, acknowledging that "she's a good woman, that one." It was that woman who had purchased the radar mounted in the wheelhouse, the only piece of modern equipment there apart from the depthsounder. It had never been turned on; Clarence didn't know how to operate it. "She thought it'd be safe in the fog, but it don't do nuthin'." Mounting that radar was the closest thing to a concession to someone that I ever knew Clarence to make.
He certainly didn't make any to me. On our second day out, we had gotten into a school of frenzied feeding coho. Even if I knew what I was doing, I would have been hard-pressed to keep up with eight lines on four poles. Clarence shrieking "It's a hot day; get those damn fish dressed godammit!" didn't help. In my rush to catch up, I dressed them without gloves. Big mistake.
These feeders were so hot-bellied that the skin burned right off my hands. Most of it healed within two days, but where the cuffs of my Helly jacket rubbed, the damage deepened and festered. Worried that I might become unable to work, Clarence prepared the remedy: liquid coal tar mixed in water slightly hotter than I could stand, in which I soaked both wrists morning and evening, followed by an application of Race's Buckley's Boil and Fish Poison Drawing Salve. This excruciating "cure" did keep things from getting any worse, but I lived with the raw sores, and the carpal tunnel syndrome that also developed, for more than a month.
The swollen hands were another matter. Though I had to knead them against the planks in my bunk for 10-15 minutes each morning to enable getting thumb and forefinger close enough together that I could hold laces to tie my shoes, they returned to near-normal a day after I left the boat.
And I left it when I could. We departed Craig after our first delivery and trolled our way around towards Ketchikan. 10 days later, when Clarence declared the trip over, I went below and packed by gear. We had good, clear weather, and I spent the day mostly on the bow, talking with the porpoises who played tag with the bowstem for hours. I still talk with porpoises, having learned on that trip that they enjoy it as well.
Clarence spoke to me with a tone almost bordering on respect when I brought him a sandwich in the wheelhouse. I knew what was coming. "I'll be making my next trip in 3 days. You can come if you want."
The money had been good, even at the sub-standard 10% rate he was paying me. And I had learned more about salmon behavior and how to catch them than I had ever imagined. "No thanks," I said.
His disappointment was barely perceptible, and we had no further discussion. When we reached Thomas Basin and the Hornet was secured in its slip, I grabbed my gear and headed up the dock. I picked up my last check from Clarence the next day. "I still gotta spot," was all he said as he handed it to me.
It was nearly a decade later that I next saw Clarence. I was running the Gale Anne from Bellingham to Cordova to try my hand at gillnetting the Copper River Flats. My crewman and I had pulled into Thomas Basin to try to get at least one radio working before our trip across the Gulf. Clarence was tying gear on his back deck. He looked the same, as tough and wiry as ever. He recognized me. "Looks like you been moving up in the world." I told him my plans.
"I don't fish so hard no more," he told me, by way of telling me his.
That was the last time I saw him. A few years later I learned that he had been murdered, his body found in a gully some time after he had been reported missing. Though no one was ever charged in the crime, there was widespread speculation that he had been shot by a person with whom he had been having a dispute over payment on some piece of gear.
I can imagine this man in his eighties being belligerently aggressive in a dispute. But, lacking the mean quickness of his youth, and perhaps misjudging his adversary, he found himself on the wrong end of an axe handle -- in this case a gun -- and paid the ultimate price for his miscalculation.
Though his rough end saddens me, I recognize that there is something appropriate about the way he met it. Surely Clarence would not want to have been seen dying sallow and wan, intubated in a hospital bed, coughing against tiny microbes or struggling against the ultimate deterioration of his own aging cells.