Saturday, July 23, 2005

"Fish jamm'n"

If you want to fly fish out of Alaska, you gotta know about "fish jamm'n" I'm not an expert on the subject, but I suppose Winky Crawford was if anyone was and I helped monitor his account at the Alaska Commercial Fishing and Agriculture Bank. Bill Blackmon and I went to Seattle one time to look at his planes. He had a Boeing 707, the kind that will split your ears, and is banned from U.S. airports. He also had an old Constellation that had belonged to the Admiral of the Navy.

The Constellation was sitting at a little field north of Seattle and the jet was at Boeing field. Neither would have even made a good anchor at that point, but maybe they had some value overseas. Winky was going to use them to fly hair crab from Dutch Harbor to Japan. The Connie was probably too hard to find mechanics for and the Japanese might not have wanted that unmuffled 707 over there either.

Flying off the beach above Egegik in Bristol Bay got a bad rap when one plane full of sockeye didn't make it off the beach. I think that kinda fouled up the beach for future flights, not to mention lenders willingness to finance such operations from then on. And that was a big plane I saw sitting out there on the beach. Looked like a DC-6. We were financing the Diamond E cannery at Egegik and I had to go out there occasionally. My daughter was almost born without me in Anchorage while I was poking around out there. But she was awful early too, and it didn't help that the President and me took off and nobody knew right away where I was.

I think this is where the term fish jamming came from. They would jam a plane full of sockeye, push the throttles to the firewall and hope for the best. It was a lot easier to make money in the fish business in the early 80s. When I was at the cold storage in Yakutat, we had a DC-3 to fly sockeye up from Dry Bay to the airport. We had a big flatbed to take them into the plant from there. I didn't see the Dry Bay end of things but I understand that was "jamm'n" at it's best.

Bruce would load up his plane on the little gravel strip by where they set-net. Then with all that plane could muster, it would head for the "mound" at the end of the strip, which would catapult the plane into the air. That's about all the altitude Bruce would get. He would then follow the coast up to the nearest river to the airport and come sneaking up through the cut in the trees. He might have even been using the "ground effect" for more lift. I don't think things are quite so wild and wooly anymore, that was 35 years ago.

Having a company plane around can come in real handy for other things too. Bruce had to airdrop supplies that year to a herring seiner we had sent into Russel Fjord to look for roe herring. Louie Busanich had caught the first roe herring in the state with a seine that spring fishing for us. But he had got himself in a pickle when Hubbard Glacier advanced and blocked his retreat out of the bay. (He spent a few weeks in there then put the family off on the beach to walk around the point while he ducked by the face of the glacier.)

Flying fish isn't nearly so colorful these days, but maybe a few analogies might help those wanting to get fresh or live fish out of Alaska. That old great fish plant operator, Tom Thompson, had set up a deal to fly chums from Kotzebue to Petersburg in the late 70s. Over at Whitney-Fidalgo, we were to get what PFI couldn't freeze, which was about half of it. So the Lockheed Electras and Hurcules' started to stream in. The fish quality wasn't that good considering they had sat in open skiffs and then in aluminum totes in a hot plane for who knows how long.

But is what stuck in my mind was that one pilot overflew Petersburg on one of those days the ceiling is at least twice as high as Devil's Thumb over on the mainland. He said there was too many clouds for an approach to a "box canyon" airport. That's never stopped any other pilot before or since. Someone said he had a date in Fairbanks he wanted to keep happy. I don't know where that plane offloaded, but someone took bath on that.

The last time Tom flew fish, that I know of anyway, he was operating a plant in Yakutat for himself and bought his own planes to fly fish to Seattle. He wasn't going to let anyone go sightseeing with his fish again.

Icicle Seafoods got my dad to go to Bristol Bay once to oversee helicoptering fish, from the tenders to the airport in King Salmon, to be loaded on bigger planes. That didn't last long either. The problem is keeping the fish cool on the tarmac. You get into this flying fish on Alaska Airlines too. They just drop off the Igloos on the tarmac and forget where they put them. You could have EPIRBs in the Igloos, but you'd still just watch them heat up in the sun. They don't care.

Icicle flys a lot of fish on Alaska Airlines, but they have a headquarters in Seattle to watch over the fish coming down. Alaska Air was still pulling this stunt as recently as this spring I hear. And of course, passengers take precedence over fish any day of the week with them.


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