Confessions of a Spit Rat

AT THE END of the Homer Spit there’s a fish-processing plant. It’s common knowledge among Spit Rats that if you go there and cast, say, some cut herring or squid, you can, with minimal effort, reliably catch your dinner every night: pollock, flounder, pink salmon, Dolly Varden.

I’m reeling in a pollock, Rocket tied to an elephantine chunk of driftwood, when I see this waifish figure moving among people. He’s wearing a coiled bandana across his forehead, a gray baggy sweatsuit, soiled Chuck Taylor sneakers. He carries a real estate brochure in one hand, a steaming cup of coffee in the other. He’s introducing himself, talking to photographers (Homer is lousy with photographers), joggers, beachcombers. He says he’s thinking of buying a place here because everyone is so nice, and, of course, it’s beautiful. Murph comes down the beachfront and kneels by Rocket. Not knowing any better, Rocket licks Murph and the two engage in an embarrassing display of affection. Murph shakes my hand and says that he wouldn’t dare toss the wriggling pollock back into the sea.

“Those fish are delicious,” he says. “Some people prefer them to halibut.”

“I wasn’t going to throw it back,” I say.

Murph tells me there’s a new charter out of Homer targeting pollock. There’s no limit on them, he says, and for only sixty bucks it’s a blast. He tells me he helped a guy with an overheated radiator get to Anchor Point, and the guy insisted on taking him out for pollock to return the favor.

“I caught like thirty of the rascals,” he said. “I’ve got them cooling at Coal Point right now.”

One of the blessings and curses of fishing villages like Homer is that you run in to the same people over and over. I’m going to have to see this guy many more times, so I have to hear him out as he tells me that he flew to Anchorage, purchased a 1999 Chevy van (he points to it: sea-green, body damage), and stuck a seven-square-foot freezer in the back. He’s going to fill it with salmon and halibut, find some place to plug it in. His ticket back to Fargo is open-ended. He says he has buddies here and there willing to ship some fish for him. He asks what I’m using for bait and whether I’d mind if he took a few casts. Because, after all, he’d like a fish for dinner too.

Him, I want to go away. But I’m welded to the beach, my two-ounce sinker cast out by the cement pilings of the processing plant, my dog tied to a tree that might have drifted here from Kamchatka. There seems no way of escaping Murph.

SEATED ON THE PROW OF MIKE’S BOAT in Deep Water Harbor, of course, is Murph—patiently waiting, stringing up his own halibut rod, ready to go. Mike explains that he met this interesting guy at the public cleaning table and they got to talking. I’m instantly peeved because I’ve traded a .30-30 for this trip. What did Murph give, I wonder? But this isn’t the spirit of barter. It doesn’t really matter who traded what, I decide, as we bump across the swells to Flat Island.

A slow bite: Murph tells us his genesis from a high-volume pharmaceutical rep, married and living in Scottsdale, to a directional driller in the Dakotas, a loner. “Look at me,” he says. “Do I look like a salesperson anymore?” And it’s true, he looks tragic. He was hurt on the job, he says. He seems to hunch over with each passing swell. He takes several painkillers and talks about the whales he sees in the distance. I can’t see them. Neither can Mike. Then Murph gets a bite and reels in a 15-pound halibut that almost whips him. Mike thumps the fish on the head and puts it in the box.

“After this trip,” says Murph, “I’m going straight into surgery to see if they can’t fix my neck.”

Murph produces a gallon Ziploc containing a flaccid octopus arm, another freebie from the fish-cleaning tables. He cuts it into chunks and puts some on my hook without asking. Then we drop our lines. I realize that this is most likely how he charmed his way onto Mike’s boat, a free and somewhat battered length of octopus against my classic deer rifle.

MY FIRST LEGAL SILVER SALMON OF THE TRIP comes like this: ebb-tide, seagulls, hundreds of cohos circling the lagoon as if it were an ice-skating rink. Somehow I steer my fly into the mouth of a hen salmon and the fight is on. There’s one seal bobbing its head in the lagoon—a late arriver stranded by low-tide—and I’m aware that, at any moment, it might take my catch.

Again, I have no net. Unbelievably, in a town where the main thing to do is fish, or to stand around watching people fish, no one else seems to have a net, either, and this vexes me to no end. My excuse is that I’ve been living in the back on my truck with a full-grown dog for more than a month, so there’s no room for a net. Boy do I need one now. A hipster who arrived via beach cruiser wades out, grabs my salmon by the tail, and swings it ashore. I pounce on it with a vigor that surprises me and stab it with my fillet knife. I’m walking up toward the cleaning tables, the air above alive with gulls, enjoying my moment of triumph, when here comes Murph.

“I thought that was you,” he shouts, clearly doing theater. “But then I saw the fish and said that can’t be Dave.” The octogenarians he’s befriended—rain slickers, high-dollar cameras around their necks—roar with laughter. So do I.

With my fish tucked in at the processor, I return to the lagoon and fish until the hordes begin to arrive for the tide change. Murph has grilled some sockeye and coho on a piece of cedar someone gifted him. He’s parked, illegally, in an RV spot. He says he’s holding the spot for a buddy who’s making a run to Safeway. We eat the fish with our fingers, and watch people dragging salmon backwards onto the shore, stoning them to death with the closest rock. Murph shakes his head.

I tell him I’m going to find a campground and check in.

“You’re doing it all wrong, man. Just find somewhere beautiful and park. I’ve slept the last two nights across from the Salty Dawg. No one bothers me, and I look out and see Cook Inlet and Kachemak Bay. Why would you pay?” He motions around with his arms to the distant glaciers, the sea, the bustling boatyards, as if he had something to do with their creation.