What It's Really Like to Work on a Fishing Boat in Alaska

A day fishing in Kachemak Bay.
A day fishing in Kachemak Bay. Clay Duda
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In spring 2017, fresh off a six-month trek around South America, my wife and I decided to dive into our next "crazy adventure." We packed up a trailer in Atlanta and hit the road for Homer, AK, a small town quite literally at the end of the road near the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula.

Before we left, we didn’t have a place to live or jobs lined up. But the appeal of life in this outdoor paradise in the summer—which thaws the rugged winter landscape and opens up a wide range of adventures, from hiking to rock climbing, and of course fishing—seemed worth the risk. Plus, we knew that the Kenai Peninsula south of Anchorage is home to some of the best halibut and saltwater salmon fishing in the world, with opportunities in the tourism industry as well. The bottom line? For people willing to work hard, the chance to live a slice of the rugged Alaskan dream was there for the taking.

Within three days of landing in town, my wife and I both had summer gigs and a lease on an apartment. Here’s how we made it happen.

Getting There

All it really takes to make it to Alaska is the will to drive for days on end. Getting there is as easy as punching a destination into Google Maps, then driving 4,500 miles north. (Don’t forget to change your oil at 3,000 miles!)

Roads connect the Last Frontier state to the rest of civilization, but they’re often in pretty bad shape due to the rough weather, and you’ll need a passport to make it into Canada. From Atlanta, it only took us two days to reach the border crossing in Portal, ND, then it was just four more days of rolling hills and not much else until we reached Alaskan territory. If you go this route, you can say you drove the Alaskan Highway nearly in full from Dawson Creek, British Columbia.

Finding Work

A day’s catch of halibut on Captain Jordan’s “Storm Petrel.”
A day’s catch of halibut on Captain Jordan’s “Storm Petrel.” Clay Duda

Springtime breathes life into the Alaskan bush, as well as the scores of small towns that rely heavily on the summer tourism that boosts most local economies. "Help Wanted" signs start appearing in local coffee shops and online in April and May, and by mid-June droves of RVs and tent campers start showing up in places like Homer, Seward, Whittier, and elsewhere.

I was lucky enough to have a friend living in Homer, which made my job hunt pretty easy. But you don’t have to have a local connection to make this scheme work—just the will to risk it and arrive in Alaska without something lined up. No experience is necessary, though it does help. Some people walk the harbor looking for gigs as a deckhand on a charter boat, or hit the boardwalks of tourist shops and restaurants looking to bulk up their staffs for the busy months ahead.

I have fished most of my life, but never for pay, and the type of fishing in Alaska is a lot different than Georgia. Captain Daniel put me to work on the Sea Flight and taught me how to fish these treacherous waters. My wife landed a well-paying gig working in the office of another charter company. Over the summer, we sailed daily.

Daily Life on a Fishing Boat

This is what happens to the goldfish you flush down the toilet (no, not really). Yellow-eyed rockfish caught off Elizabeth Island.
This is what happens to the goldfish you flush down the toilet (no, not really). Yellow-eyed rockfish caught off Elizabeth Island. Clay Duda

Many mornings as I drove onto the Homer spit, a natural peninsula that is ground zero for halibut fishing and tourism in Kachemak Bay, I’d spot bald eagles soaring overhead. My shift started at 5 am, and for the next 12 hours we’d be at sea fishing for what are known in the industry as "barn doors," halibuts weighing more than 100 pounds that feel like you’re reeling up a barn door from 200-plus feet deep. Some days we went hunting for prized king salmon, yellow eye rockfish, or lingcod. Every day is different.

Homer rush hour started around 7 am daily, as the 60-boat charter fleet motored out of the harbor toward the daily fishing grounds. Some days we’d explore places few people ever see, like East Chugach or the Barren Islands—hard to reach and untouched wildernesses outside a far-flung port town. Some days the water was glassy and calm; others we’d jump six-foot waves and tuck into coves to avoid the howling winds. Often, we’d pass pods of orcas chasing salmon. And on clear days, you could see three active volcanoes looming on the other side of the inlet—Douglas, Augustine, and Iliamna.

This work isn’t for the lazy or seasick-prone. Everyday from June through September, I’d show up at the crack of dawn, check the engine room and set up gear for fishing, teach people how to fish, and bait hooks. For 10 to 12 hours every day, I’d clean the deck, bring in fish, or change around gear. My hands soon became battered from foul hooks and fishing line cuts, spiny fish, and my own clumsiness. It’s grueling work, but I loved it.

The (Pricey) Reality of Life in Alaska

Fishing is fishing, and some days are good. Full boat of salmon and hunky halibut aboard the Sea Flight.
Fishing is fishing, and some days are good. Full boat of salmon and hunky halibut aboard the Sea Flight. Clay Duda

Alaska is expensive. It cost a lot to get here and to live here. Pretty much everything is pricier than in the mainland United States, from groceries to electricity to rent (depending on what other cities you compare it to). Housing in small towns can be in short supply, especially if you have pets or are looking for a short-term lease. Of course, the trade-off is a chance to live in and explore this amazing remote corner of the States.

As anyone who’s ventured here will tell you, Alaska is a rugged outdoor playground no matter where you are. Near Homer, you can paddleboard at the base of Grewingk Glacier, hike to the top of Sadie Knob in Kachemak Bay State Park, take day trips to the town of Seldovia (only accessible by sea or plane), or go kayaking in a bay or lagoon—just to name a few options for adventure. Of course, there’s also fishing.

Clay kisses a 100-pound halibut pulled from the depths of Cook Inlet.
Clay kisses a 100-pound halibut pulled from the depths of Cook Inlet. Clay Duda

The thing is, if you work on a fishing boat, all you really get to do is fish. There’s rarely an off day during the summer, and if it does happen you’ll spend it sleeping in until noon, doing laundry, and running errands that have been put off for weeks.

Few other jobs offer such beauty and unpredictability, but my wife and I loved our adventure here so much that we decided to stay for a while. I guess you could say that we’re, ahem, hooked.

Charter fishing dies during the winter months, but commercial fishing continues year-round. I’m (hopefully) getting on a cod boat this January, out of Homer of course, and getting back on the water soon as possible. Until then, I’ll enjoy the down time I missed over the summer.

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