Black Cod on the Alrita
By Art Hodgins
In the early 1980's the west coast halibut longline fleet began to displace the long- standing Japanese freezer-longliner fleet off the coast of Alaska. They had been targeting black cod off Alaska for decades and were good at it. This transition was the logical extension of the displacement of all foreign fishing fleets which had historically been working within the recently established Exclusive Economic Zone, ie, the then-new 200 mile limit. Some of the halibut guys (mostly the young and aggressive go-getters) geared up and went black codding, and some did not (mostly the older, more established halibut guys who were not looking for this new hot and technically very difficult deep water longline fishery). I say hot, because there was a LOT of black cod on the grounds and difficult because instead of longlining at 100-200 fathoms (a fathom equals 6 feet) the black cod were 200-600 fathoms deep. This called for new gear and new techniques, none of which was easy on a bunch of old wooden boats with crews who were very traditional and very set in their ways. Among other changes, crews had to adapt to hand baiting hooks spaced 42 inches apart instead of the old halibut gear with spacings of 18 feet!
In 1986 I was fishing on the very well established halibut longliner, F/V Alrita. I had fished blackcod on two other boats and I knew first hand how grueling it was. Upon arriving in Seward towards the end of April of that year in preparation for the first halibut opener, I heard how hot the blackcod fishing had been in April and how much higher the blackcod prices had gotten since I had done it. So, after mulling it over, I went to the skipper and asked if he would consider letting me run the Alrita for blackcod the next spring. I was figuring that he, one of the best halibut guys ever, would take the boat for halibut and I would work on deck. I would run the boat for blackcod, he would run the boat for halibut and the crew would do both, thus making more money and, hey, wasn't that why we were all in this "game" in the first place?
It took a lot of guts to even ask and I was thoroughly prepared to be instantly rebuffed. After all, skipper Otto Jangaard was known as one of the best ever and the idea of an unknown deckhand operating his vessel would be considered extremely presumptuous if not completely ridiculous. All the more reason to be utterly flabbergasted when I heard his reply. We were down in the engine room where he was changing oil in the main engine, all the better to avoid anyone hearing this ridiculous proposal. Otto looked at me while he wiped his hands. I prepared myself for the worst, thinking "nothing ventured, nothing gained". He said, "If you are going to take her for blackcod then you better take her for halibut too." He went on to say he was 65 years old and thinking he wanted to retire. In his mind, if I was willing to take on this new fangled black cod fishery then I should be able to handle halibut fishing too. The very idea of taking the Alrita on the halibut grounds was overwhelming.
I will finish by saying that it all worked out. No, it was not an easy decision. No, it was not easy to do. But, somehow, some way, through trial and many many errors, I very gradually learned the ropes and became a longline skipper beginning that next spring of 1987. Suffice to say, I had a great boat, a great crew and what could go wrong, right? Well, plenty. But I won't bore you with that now. Maybe another time.
1987. Art Hodgins driving the Alrita with his youngest daughter, Liza Bee.