Bigfork man fished wild Alaskan waters for a living

Halibut was one of the fish caught by putting lines deep into the ocean. Here Gene Rajala shows their size. Contributed photo

Some people decide they can do anything–and then do it. For that, put Gene Rajala (rye-a-la) of Bigfork, Minn., at the top of the list, for learning how to fish professionally and successfully in treacherous Alaskan waters–and much more.

He traveled to Alaska from Bigfork in his early ‘40s, after hearing stories from his father and others who had worked on the Unalaska highway and north slope oil. “They all brought back big stories of some kind,” Gene, 83, said. “I thought I‘d go up there and find something I could do there. Maybe buy a small business or motel that I could operate myself.”

After driving around towns in Alaska, he nixed that idea. Then he saw a Masonic symbol on a boat. “I identified myself as a mason to Donald Holgate from Rhode Island. He said I might try fishing, as he and his son had been doing it for seven years.”

Gene found a guy with a boat for sale. “He said, “I built it, and used it, and sold it to a guy, who is now getting divorced, so he’ll need to sell the boat and the fishing license to pay for half of the divorce.’”

After examining it, Gene thought it might work out–if he decided to do that. But he was in no hurry. He went back and forth from Bigfork to Alaska, looking at other boats, and checking out the eternal daylight in early December, “I thought I’d go up and find out what it was like when it was all daylight.”

A couple of months later, he decided to take the plunge. He discovered no houses were for sale, and no lumber was available… “except for rough green hemlock being used for the pipeline. So I came back to Bigfork, and figured out how much lumber I would need to build a house and a shop. I got that ready, and after my son graduated from high school, we drove to Alaska with the lumber.”

They built a house and shop, then bought his 32-foot F.V. (Fishing Vessel) Down Easter, and prepared to fish commercially. 

“I’d never been on a commercial boat before, but we got it in the water and ran it around and got familiar with its operation.” His son and nephew were his crew.

A Lot to Learn

They had a lot to learn about fishing, and with licenses costing  $10,000 to $500,000, knowing those basics was important.

Chris Davis and Connie Rajala show off caught shrimp. Contributed photo

“A new permit has to be purchased each year,” Gene said, “and can only be used in a strictly-defined area. If you’re one foot out, you’re illegal, and the fines are severe.”

As he discovered one time when wind and a fast-running tide drifted him across the line. “I didn’t do it on purpose, but we had a full net, which we couldn’t get into the boat, so I got pinched, lost $30,000 worth of fish, donated to the state, got a one-day license suspension, and was fined $55,000. It’s your responsibility to know where you are.”

That was the only time Gene was fined. After three infractions, the license is confiscated for a year.

As he was learning his new trade, Gene fished closer to home in the Haines Harbor. “Twenty other boats went north and south. We threw out our nets and retrieved a few fish, and a conservation officer and biologists studying scale samples asked permission to come aboard.”

That was the first time he knew about a maritime law, that someone on the boat had to give permission to others to come aboard. They went down in the fish hole and examined some of the fish.

Gene asked fishermen around Haines who was the best fisherman. “‘What do you mean?’ a couple of guys said. I said, ‘Who catches the most fish?’ They named one guy, so I watched him real close to figure out what he was doing, and why, and I did the same.”

Types of Nets

A wide variety of crabs can be caught. Steve Rajala shows a catch of King Crab (larger) and Dungeness crabs (smaller). Contributed photo

Gene had to learn which nets worked for which fish. “Gillnets catch fish in holes that allow certain-sized fish to push in, and get caught, because they can’t swim backwards. Each species of fish requires a gillnet with different size holes. “You need the net with the right size of holes to catch the fish you’re after.”

Nets come in 300-foot sections. “Around Haines at a hundred feet deep, I snapped four sections, or 1,200 feet, together, but in the 12-foot-deep Bering Sea, you couldn‘t use that many.”

Fish are also caught with a long line with a thin lead thread in the center that takes it to the bottom. Baited hooks are attached every 20 or 30 feet. “When fishing for halibut and codfish, the line can be played out 20 or 30 miles–though I only did 30 once, because of the tremendous amount of work needed to reel it back in. I should never have put that much out. After that, 15 miles was the most, in smaller sections. An anchor with a buoy is placed every 3-4-5-6 miles so you can find your line when you want to start reeling it in.”

When the line is reeled in, hooked fish are removed, and the line is rebaited and set out again. “You kill and gut the halibut, and put them in ice in a fish hold.”

Bait and ice are bought from a cannery before going out, with maybe three tons of ice in one hold, and one in another. “Halibut are laid directly on ice, followed by six inches of ice, another layer of fish, and so on. But Salmon is different. Put them in the ice, add water, and mix up the slush ice. They find their own level in the slush.”

Gene Rajala holds one of the chum salmon he caught while fishing in Alaska.
Contributed photo

Trolling is another way to catch fish, dragging bait behind the boat.  “In trawling, a net to catch shrimp or other small fish is like a gunny sack with holes so fine a forefinger wouldn’t go through them, is dragged behind the boat on the bottom. I wasn’t successful a couple of times, so I didn’t do it again.”

When nets or holds were full, Gene contacted a tender, which came out to pick up the fish. “It’s hard to keep fish well. The tenders have refrigerated seawater ice, so you pull right up to them, they hook up your fishing bags, which have sorted fish in them, put it on the boom and weigh them.“

Unloading fish to a tender at sea can be harrowing. “Sometimes the waves knock you into the side of the tender, and your boat takes a hell of a beating. It gets hairy doing that.”

Gene the Entrepreneur

But Gene did more than just fish and sell his catch. He set up his own processing plant on his boat to clean the fish and ready them for selling. For two years he had his own fish truck, so he caught the fish, cleaned them, took them home, froze them, and retailed them off the truck.

Different fish brought different prices, like king salmon and sockeye salmon, which have the red flesh that everybody prefers. For a while Japan was paying the highest prices for those fish.

The work can be dangerous, Gene said. “The first time I thought I was going to die was about 150 miles from Haines with a whole boatload of really nice fish. That meant going home up the Lymm Canal, where the  wind was bad and the tide was running hard. Big waves were swamping over the boat, which was overloaded, so we couldn’t control it very well.”

They got pushed closer and closer toward the shore of big rock cliffs and boulders. “I told my workers to put on survival suits, and get behind the bulkhead as far up front as they could. I would wait for the biggest wave, and push the boat up on the beach as far as I could, where they would jump off and run onto the shore.”

Luckily the tide or wind changed, so Gene could maneuver the boat away from the beach and out into good water. “We made it home in good shape, but it was a close call.”

Steve Rajala has a bunch of newly-caught Keta Salmon at his feet. Contributed photo

For 10 years, Gene fished in the Bering Sea. “You get a bigger run, different fish, catch more, and are paid more pound per pound for those fish, so I bought a license and fished there for a short fishing season each year of a month or six weeks.”

One time a big storm came up while fishing near a big bluff in the Bering Sea. “A friend who knew about things like that up there said I should get over towards the bluff and set my anchor. ‘But don’t shut your engine off,’ he said. ‘The bottom is soft and your anchor will drag unless you keep our engine at half throttle.’”

Which Gene did. A while later, his friend’s anchor line broke, and he was in danger. “I radioed him that I had a great big anchor that was holding pretty good, so he should drive up behind us, and my worker Dan would throw him a line.”

They connected the boats together, and waited in the high wind and waves for three hours until the wind went down.

People can drown if they don’t use common sense, he said.

Fishing Hours

Fishing times varied from 12 to 72 hours. “If there weren’t many fish, a 12-hour slot opened at noon–or 24 hours–so everybody would be waiting to put their hooks and nets in the water.”

They had to finish and be heading back before the time was up, or they would get fined.

Once enough salmon had swum upriver to spawn, fishing in the Bering Sea was opened for four or five days straight, 24 hours a day, until no more fish were left. At that point, you fished for 24 hours a day for four or five days, and you got pretty tuckered out.”

During those times Gene always had three workers on the boat, with one always sleeping, “I usually slept during the dog watch for a couple of hours each time.”

Fun Time

Gene said, with a laugh, that he liked payday best of all during the 14  years that he fished in the Alaskan waters, starting in June 1979.

Gene Rajala relaxes at a family reunion. Contributed photo

“Fishing is like hunting deer. Go and find them. Fish eat, spawn, and travel, and you have to figure out where they are and how to intercept them.”

Gene’s nets sometimes pulled up surprises. Like a huge pickle or olive urn of heavy glass cast with grape leaves and vines and branches on the outside. “Russian, I think, from their years here. It was encrusted and nasty, so I set it up on the engine hatch to take it home and clean it up.“

Unfortunately his son threw it overboard again, thinking nobody wanted it.

Gene’s nets brought up ocean critters with shells, and hundreds of different kinds of crabs, some small as a half dollar, some six feet across, as well as coral, other plants, parts of boats, and pieces of two airplanes.

Looking back on it, the 83-year-old says he really liked doing it.

“I sat up in front of the boat and hollered and screamed and gave people orders. Sometimes I’m wondering right now why I’m not up there still doing it,” he laughed.