The clock ticked down, nearing the hour. Our gillnetter, the FV New Life rose and fell with the swells, drifting with the tide, the 3208 turbo Cat engine idling. In the pilot house I discussed alternatives with Keith, my partner in our commercial salmon fishing business. Out on the famed Bristol Bay grounds, site of the world’s greatest red salmon fishery, with time approaching a big opener, we tried to guess where the fish might be concentrated.
Full partners, Keith and I alternated year by year skippering the boat and running the operation. Though we discussed such major decisions as where to set on this opener, this was my year and the final call would be mine. I prayed for guidance as fervently as I knew how. “God, where, in all this vast expanse of water, should I point our bow to position us in front of the densest schools?” There were fish moving out there somewhere in net-sinking masses, but where?
During the twenty-four-hour opening, virtually all the big hauls would be made on the first set. In that hour the fleet would soak up most of the fish in the bay. If I guessed wrong and we just strained water, all there would be for us the rest of the opener would be a mere scratching for remnants.
It wasn’t chump change hanging in the balance. Near the peak of the run as it was, a good share of our year’s income probably rode on whether I got us into the thick of the fish or I whiffed. The clock ticked down. When the fleet started setting, where should I begin sending corkline, web and leadline screaming off the big reel, flying between the fairleads bracketing the stern roller, hitting the drink and trailing out behind in a 900-foot-long, 12-foot deep curtain of mesh? Time wasted as I agonized almost to the point of inaction, awaiting a revelation.
Keith, aka Rev. Keith Lauwers, one of Alaska’s most beloved ministers, said, “Rod, we can pray for God to send us a dozen eggs, and he may well send them. But he’s not going to come down here and cook ’em for us. And he’s not going to steer our boat just bobbing at idle. The main thing right now is for us to get some water flowing over this rudder. There’s precious little time before the starting gun. You think God expects you to wait for his audible voice or hands on your shoulders before you make a move? Now maybe not on this single set in front of us, but in our overall life course, if we’re living in obedience and asking and trusting him to guide us, even if we start out in the wrong direction he knows our heart and has his ways of correcting our way.”
Twenty-five years later I can’t remember whether we made a $20,000 set—very possible in those days of high wild salmon prices before the advent of farmed fish—or if I struck out. But I’ve always remembered the confidence to make a move I gained by taking Keith’s words to heart.