When people think of fishing in Alaska they often think of boats out in the open ocean - maybe searching for famous Red King Crab in the Bering Sea a la "Deadliest Catch" - with not a soul in sight.
But most of the fishing is done close to shore. On summer mornings in Homer, Alaska, dozens of boats leave the harbor in direct competition with one another to catch the biggest, baddest fish for their clients. And each evening they return with their spoils. These are charter fishermen.
Simon is a deckhand for Alaska Ocean Pros out of Homer. He and his captain specialize in long-range day trips that take up to six people a day out of Kachemak Bay to try their hand at landing Pacific Halibut specimens that can weigh up to 200 lb.
A good charter deckhand, he says, is a people person at heart. While fishing know-how is essential, it's also part of his job description to keep guests entertained, upbeat, and encouraged when fishing is slow or the going gets rough.
Do you have what it takes?
The "Halibut Fishing Capital of the World"
Homer earned the moniker "Halibut Fishing Capital of the World" as the jumping-off point for an area that has both an abundant population and huge specimens of halibut.
There are two species of halibut in the world- the Atlantic and Pacific halibut. The Pacific species grows slightly larger, on average, than its Atlantic cousins, but the meat of both are so similar in texture and taste that they are used interchangeably in cooking, and restaurants seldom bother specifying which is on your plate. No surprise that Alaska is home to the Pacific variety.
A typical summer day during the busy season when halibut fishing is open sees 75+ charters leave the Homer harbor to go hunting for the creatures. Each boat has at least one captain and one deckhand and capacity for six guests. Some boats have up to two captains and four deckhands and at least double the number of guests. Some spend a quick half day cruising around Kachemak Bay and some, like Simon's boat, travel hours searching for the big catch.
Like any job in Alaska on a boat, this line of work isn't for the feint of heart.
Simon's day starts just before 6 when he wakes up. He gets down to the harbor by 6:30 before his captain and the guests arrive to check the gear for the day. Knots have to be tied correctly, fresh lines, hardware has to be replaced, etc.
The F/V Kingpin, the 42-foot Delta Simon works on, leaves the harbor at 7:00-7:15 after a safety briefing. Being a "long range" charter means they travel 40-70 miles (about two hours) to get to remote fishing spots that haven't been fished as heavily as those within Kachemak Bay.
On the way out to the fishing grounds Simon's job is to keep guests entertained and help people handle sea sickness. A small boat rocking around Kachemak Bay, Cook Inlet, and the Gulf of Alaska can be stomach-churning, so a deckhand better have a level head and a strong stomach.
When they get to their fishing destination Simon helps guests bait hooks, shows them the best techniques for fishing halibut (at least those who aren't already self-proclaimed "experts" and are open to coaching) and makes sure line doesn't get tangled. It's a back-and-forth dance between socializing, having fun and making sure the group is getting on fish. He'll help them land the catch, kill it, and bleed it.
The day runs long, and sometimes they don't get back until 9 or 10 at night, when Simon takes the customers to Buttwhackers for pictures and filleting and then to Homer Fish Processing for vacuum packing and freezing. Plus he has to clean the boat up and prepare for the next trip.
It's important to note that he doesn't work this crazy schedule year-round. They'll start taking guests at the end of May and go through the end of August or early September. By the middle of September many of the Homer charter boats, including those run by Alaska Ocean Pros, have been converted to take hunters to Kodiak to harvest Sitka Blacktail Deer. Simon's work ends when the halibut fishing ends, but some deckhands will stay on for the hunting runs.
Deckhands make a day rate that starts at $50-$75, which seems low given the long days. Simon's worked his way up after a few years to double or even triple that rate. However, the real money comes from the tips. Simon and his captain do a 50/50 split and typically walk away with $200-500 a piece in cash tips each trip. With that pay and all the fish he can eat, he can do pretty well over a good summer. However, it's important to note that not all captains split tips right down the middle with their deckhands. Some might take the lion's share of the pot...
How to Get The Job
Simon grew up in Homer and knows people around town. He says it's kind of an "inside game" and it really helps to know people in the industry to get your foot in the door. One of his friends (JJ, you might now him from The Alaska Show) told his former boss Simon was looking for a job and that guy introduced him to a another guy and Simon got hired on when a deckhand suddenly left.
That said, I personally know people who came into town and walked the docks and found a job on a charter boat. Work is abundant in Alaska in the summers when tourism and commercial fishing and the construction industries all scale up to peak busyness. If you are personable and willing to get your hands dirty you can typically find work in the summer fairly easily in a place like Homer - no special training required. Once you make some local connections you'll quickly meet people who are in, or are close to someone who is in, the charter fishing industry.
Fishing in general is known for its turnover. The work is difficult and dirty, and deckhands are often young folks in high school, college, or their early 20s - and typically don't stick around for anything close to decades. Thus, charters are often looking for new deckhands throughout the season as people quit or are fired or go back to school or family obligations.
On the water things are competitive, and the charter boats are secretive. They might wish each other "good luck" as they leave the harbor in the morning but make no mistake, each crew wants its clients to catch the biggest, baddest fish that day. Each crew has its secret spot and its technique, and the success of the business year after year depends on delivering happy clients back to Homer each day.
After work, though, it's a different story. Back in the harbor a lot of the crews take their clients up to Buttwhackers (if they don't fillet onboard) to hang the fish, take pictures, and watch the professionals there fillet the catch. There the deckhands and captains can joke around and talk some trash and hang with the customers. Then the fish usually gets sent to Homer Fish Processing for a vacuum package and flash freeze, and everyone will head over to the Salty Dawg Saloon for a beer (or three).
When all is said and done all the charter crews have more in common than not - and they can (with the exception of a few nasty rivalries) put aside their competitive spirits at the Salty Dawg and swap stories and talk shop and have fun. In fact, a lot of times the customers will come!
Being a charter deckhand is a tough job for a tough person. It consists of long days, rough seas, fish guts, and helping customers have fun even when the going is rough or the fishing is slow.
But if you're up to the task there's good money to be made and you get the pleasure of sleeping in your bed each night (unlike commercial fishermen) and enjoying a social scene of like-minded, hardworking, and slightly crazy people all summer.
You can find Simon on Instagram @alaskan_simone