How did you get involved in Alaskan fishing? When was the first time you went to Alaska?
It all began in 1977 when I went to Oregon State University to pursue my interests in fisheries and wildlife. After a term there, I realized that I wasn’t ready for college yet. I made the decision I would leave in the spring. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but it was going to be one of three things: construction, ranching, or commercial fishing. One night, I was in the dorm room of a kid who was from Homer, and in that dorm room he had a picture book of Alaska. I opened it up and there was that classic picture of bears in a river somewhere sweeping salmon for a meal. When I saw that picture, I knew that’s where I wanted to go. So at 19 years old, I was about ready to leave. I had a buddy call and ask what I was up to, and he asked if he could join me. He came up from Southern California and met me, and we basically began a journey hitchhiking to Homer, Alaska.
We had never been to Alaska, but we were going to go to Homer and walk the docks and see if we could get jobs as deckhands. We probably had $35 in our pockets, and we got ourselves up to Seattle where the ferry system left at the time for Haines, Alaska. Our plan, because we didn’t have very much money, was to just get to the first stop on the ferry, get off, get a job, work for a couple of days, make some money, then get back on the ferry. We could only afford one stop. Well, we got on the ferry and realized that they didn’t count the tickets of people getting off the ferry, so we just stayed on. We became stowaways. Ultimately, Bill and I couldn’t just walk off. We had to sneak off. We had to be hidden in somebody’s rig. We had to walk up to a stranger, tell them our story, and hope they’d agree to let us hide under all of their stuff in the back of a pickup truck. In fact, that’s what happened! This guy snuck us off, and off we go. He drops us off there on the edge of town and we continue our hitchhike to Homer.
We finally get to Homer. Given that we basically know nothing about commercial fishing at that point, we’re thinking all the boats are going to be there with captains needing help. Well, it turns out there’s no boats there when we arrive. Turns out they’re all out herring fishing. Ultimately, we find a job over in Seldovia, which is over in Kachemak Bay not far from Homer. They put us on a little plane, flew us over there, and we worked in a crab factory for a while. Then we earned up money to leave there. At this part of the adventure, we went to Kodiak Island and we got different jobs on boats and production plants.
Now summer is over, I’m 20, and I’m still just trying to figure out this commercial fishing life. We headed back down to the lower 48 and did our thing. I went back to college at OSU but decided to pursue my summers working in Alaska. So, the next summer I go up there, and I end up in Kenai. I end up working for a gentleman by the name of Per Osmar over by the Kasilof River. At that point, we’re out working on the dock hoping again to get a job on a fishing boat. Then we have this idea—we could lease skiffs from fishermen or folks in the area, go out into the river, unload fish from the fishing boat, and bring it back to the dock to the processing plant. So we go to Osmar with this idea and he says, “Yeah, that’s a great idea.” So he gives us room on the dock and a crane to unload fish. He’d pay us 10 cents a pound. This is where we started our own operation. I started to understand then, and I truly understand now, however many years later, that there is something magical about me spending time in Alaska. So we started that little business with one skiff. At the end of the summer I think we had two skiffs. We had made so much money from our little business that Osmar asked us to come back the next year, but told us he’d only pay us 5 cents a pound. Because we killed it that summer!
I come back the next summer and lease three skiffs. I call down to my little brother, Wade Benson and my brother-in-law, Michael Schwab who were seniors in high school. I said, “I need ya, can ya get up here?!” Before I knew it, there they are. So we spent that summer together and had a great time. We move through that summer, and next summer I’m back again. Wade doesn’t join that time, but Mike does. We also have another brother-in-law who joins us, Steve Schwab. Steve has come up to join us in the skiffs but also to experience Alaska and to find out what it is that we’d been talking about with so much enthusiasm and joy. We go through that summer, now there’s maybe four or five skiffs at that point. We’re also joined by my wife, Barbara Schwab, who comes up and works as a waitress at Sourdough Sal’s. We end up having a little dry cabin that we’re all living in together. It’s the life and we’re lovin’ it. Through these experiences with those skiffs, people started calling me Skiffman. To this day, those who I’ve reconnected with who knew me back then call me Skiffman.
Stay tuned for part two if you want to find out how Skiffman reconnected with Alaskan fishing to found Kenai-Red Fish Company!
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