How to Be a Highliner with Steve Tutt - HAP #35

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Manage episode 280494757 series 2842825
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Today on The Homer Alaska Podcast we sit down with Steve Tutt, captain of the F/V Redemption, a 55-foot seiner, to talk fishing. We talk about his business of chartering Feeder King Salmon trips in the winters out of Homer and seining Prince William Sound in the summers. We also discuss the lifestyle around fishing - how to make it a career and managing a family - as well as the difference between captains who risk it for the big catch vs playing it safe.

In an attempt to escape Coronavirus news Alex and JJ discuss things they love about Alaska and we talk to Jessica Powell, Speech Language Pathologist at South Peninsula Hospital, about swallowing disorders.

(0:37) Intro/Why We Love Alaska

(12:40) Jessica Powell at South Peninsula Hospital

(17:28) Steve Tutt

IG: @AlaskaShow @AlexanderTrokey @JCoe_Photographer

Interview Notes

Captain of the F/V Redemption - summertime seiner in Prince William Sound - charter boat for Homer King Fishing in the winter.

Steve’s son Eric got the idea to chartering the vessel in the wintertime instead of just sport fishing themselves.

Steve started fishing at 8 years old with his dad. Now his sons are getting into fishing. All the fishing they did was not local, so they started this chartering business Homer King Fishing in order to be local.

There are 3-4 guys that run winter charter operations. It’s more of a sporadic business in the summer. Maybe one charter a week - and if the weather’s bad they might go a couple weeks without one. But there’s a fraternity of guys who charter fish and exchange fishing information.

They seine in the summer, big game hunt in September, then roll right into winter King Salmon chartering.

Homer is becoming a real destination for winter fishing because of the Winter King Derby, especially over the last 4-6 years. It’s brought a lot of notoriety to this area.

Steve’s clientele in the winter isn’t just Alaskans - they get clients from all over the country. It’s a tough business because you can spend a ton of money and not get a lot of action. They have an online presence and need to work on the cheap initially. Word of mouth works well for them. They use FishAlaska and KGTL for advertising.

The winter chartering isn’t a big business. It’s partially a passion and partially Steve trying to help his son Eric get a sport fishing business off the ground. It also gives Steve a chance to really connect with the community and clients in a deeper way.

The feedback they get is “you make us feel like family”

A lot of their clients are slope workers, military groups, and business people.

Steve runs the only commercial fishing vessel that charters here in the winter. It’s a good chance for people to experience life on a true Alaskan commercial fishing boat.

“Winter Kings” or “Feeder Kings” are in the phase of life where they are feeding. It’s distinct from the “spawning” phase when most of the flesh oil has gone into reproduction. When people have complaints about salmon that it’s dry or overdone, usually that’s from spawning salmon. Winter kings are very rich and oily.

The first year Steve fished was 1969 with his dad when he was 8. His dad was only a few years into the seine fishery at the time but also gillnetted on copper river flats. He had a 36 foot wooden boat. The whole operation was just $18,000 and no permits required. But the income level was negligible. $40-50k was a huge season. Today the insurance bill is higher than that gross. But it was a more carefree era in fishing.

Steve loved fishing as a kid. Even when they threw the anchor down he’d have a hand line down for halibut.

By the time Steve was 12 he was running the skiff - full time by the time he was 14 or 15. By 19 he got his first gillnetting boat and fished Copper River in Prince William Sound. Steve had his sons on the boat at age 5 and by the time they were 17 all three of his boys got their own boats and started fishing. So they have several generations of fishermen.

Back in the days in Homer there were “hill toppers” and “hill siders.” The people closer to town were generally better off.

Late 70s herring started to stretch out to Togiak west of Dillingham. That area has the biggest herring fishery in the world. When Steve started Herring fishing - the first part would start in Sitka southeast, but they would go from there to Kamishak in Cook Inlet, maybe out to Kodiak and then out to Togiak. Price was $100 up to $2,000 a ton. Steve’s last year herring fishing he crewed for a guy and over a month and a half he got less than he would’ve made at McDonald’s.

Fishing herring is different than salmon. It’s a big slam and jam rodeo often. They don’t run along the shore like Salmon do. They’ll run in lines or sometimes school up in huge masses. They were always looking for bigger masses like 200-300 ton schools. But those schools would draw the most competition.

Steve doesn’t love the competitive aspect of herring fishery. His fishing strategy is always to get away from people and find a place where there might not be as many fish, but you can get a good whack at it. Generally they’ve been at the top of their game with that strategy.

What Steve has found is his strategy doesn’t work for everybody. No matter how much time you spend fishing there’s still a massive learning curve.

There are people who will risk it for a big gain and people who will go for a steadier income. That is true within the fishing industry as well. Some people will go to the safe places and some will go for the big win.

Steve is spending every waking moment when he’s not fishing surveying. Figuring out fish patterns and going out and looking around.

Steve’s approach is different and carries inherent insecurity.

Bristol Bay is a fishery where you have to go really hard. Sleep is almost non-existent. He ran five-man crews the last few years he was there. Steve could go 24 hours a day with just naps, but he couldn’t expect older teenagers to do that.

Steve doesn’t care about age or experience in a deckhand. He wants a good attitude above all and someone who can work hard with little fear.

If you can get 4-5 years out of a good deckhand that’s a good stretch nowadays. When he started there would be lifetime crewmen to draw on. Part of that reason is that it takes more money now to live than it did if you want to move beyond hand-to-mouth existence. Used to be that if a crewman fished and made 30-50k they could live off that and raise a family. Part of it is also the college culture where people feel they have to go that route.

What Steve did with his kids was help them buy their boats and refurbish the whole thing. From 17-25 they got a college education on their own stuff. All three of his sons married girls with college degrees. They didn’t go to college because they couldn’t have, they just chose a different path.

With Steve and his wife - fishing works for them because when Steve is home he’s home. But some couples couldn’t survive fishing. It is almost worse to be a full time business owner all year being on call all the time.

Is fishing hard on family life or does the industry just attract type-A, compulsive, impulsive people? Chicken or the egg question.

People with ADD make good fishermen. There are tons of different systems and things to engage with and a lot to do. Eric’s sons all started out gill-netting which is a simpler fishery. He found they weren’t as driven. But when they started seining they were much more engaged.

Gill-netting is just as strategic of a fishery as seining, but it’s not as complex to operate.

Steve didn’t grow up in Homer, but he met his wife when he was 14 visiting his father over winter break in Homer. When he moved to Homer after high school he told his wife that they were going to get married.

Homer is becoming more of a destination. There are bigger and nicer boats, and wealthier people buying second homes here.

What’s changed is that this isn’t a little sleepy fishing village anymore. That was back in the day. But between tourism and chartering and some cruise ships and these second homes this has become a real destination on a lot of fronts.

Cordova is the most underrated destination in southcentral Alaska. It’s one of the most beautiful places when the sun’s shining and one of the most depressing places when it’s not.

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