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Fishing not a vacation for UMM student

Nik Pahno, a student at the University of Minnesota Morris, works on a commercial salmon boat during the summer. Pahno is from Seward, Alaska. He played football for the UMM Cougars this past fall. Rae Yost/Stevens County Times1 / 2
Nik Pahno's football photo for the University of Minnesota Morris Cougars. Pahno will be a deckhand on a commercial salmon fishing boat this summer. Photo from the UMM football website.2 / 2

For University of Minnesota Morris student Nikolas Pahno there is nothing quite like pulling a gillnet over the side of a fishing boat.

When that net is on board, Pahno starts taking salmon from the net and putting them on ice inside the boat's storage area. He must move quickly and efficiently as he pulls fish from the 120-foot long net.

Pahno, 19, is from Seward, Alaska. As soon as he completed his finals at UMM during the week of May 6, he returned home to Alaska. He's spent the past six summers as a hand on commercial fishing boats in Prince William Sound during salmon season.

He works as a deckhand on a 32-foot commercial fishing boat. The captain "is consistently in the top three commercial fishing boat rankings for poundage each season," Pahno said.

Poundage is critical because fishing boat owners are paid by the pounds of salmon they provide to vendors. Deckhands are also paid a set amount per pound.

Commercial fishermen are competitive with each other, Pahno said, but the need to have a successful fishing season helps create that competition.

Commercial fishing permits are expensive and can be as high $200,000. Boats and nets are also expensive. The costs of nets can run about $5,000 a season, Pahno said.

When the fishing season opening horn sounds the captain and crew know they are in for long days.

"As soon as the clock hits 8 a.m. I throw the net over the bow," Pahno said. His main job is to make sure the net stays free of obstructions and to "eliminate any distractions so (the captain) can focus on holding the net."

Deckhands use hydraulics and their hands to haul in the net and remove the salmon.

"The thing I enjoy the most is that time seems to fly in the blink of any eye," Pahno said. "All of a sudden, you've done a whole day's worth of work."

Some of those days are 12 to 48 hours long. The crew may not get much of a break in a 12-hour day but they always get one on a 48-hour stretch, Pahno said.

The season lasts for several weeks. "Twice a week, the season opens up."

Crews fish for red salmon early in the season . The crews' catch includes silver, pink and chum salmon throughout the season.

Although days may pass quickly, the work is grueling.

"Your hands blister and your fingers cramp," Pahno said. But, "I like physical labor. And it's rewarding work."

Deckhands like Pahno get paid a percentage of what the captain gets paid for the salmon catch.

"If you are picking up 2,000 fish...that's a lot of cash in your wallet," Pahno said.

Crews typically stay on the water for three to five weeks at a time during the salmon season. It's too expensive to return to port on the off days, Pahno said.

Pahno said life and work on a salmon fishing boat can be like what's shown on popular TV shows such as "Alaska Fish Wars," and "Deadliest Catch."

Deckhands live on the boat and the cabin is about 12 by 12 feet. On off days, he and friends that work on other boats may take a raft out on the water or go hunting on one of the islands in the Sound.

While Prince William Sound is a nice area, the weather can get nasty, Pahno said. The crew continues to fish in nasty weather if the fishing is good.

"We will turn on the lights and blast the music," Pahno said. "You can't quit because it's raining."

Bad weather has damaged boats. "It (can be) dangerous," he said.

"Last season a friend of mine picked up a guy whose boat had flipped over," Pahno said. "He had just lost a quarter-of-a-milion dollar vessel."

"We saw him later in the season in a beat-up boat. His back-up boat," Pahno said.

The fisherman was out in rough weather because he needed the income, Pahno said.

Various news stories on commercial fishing published by newspapers in Alaska talk about the difficulty for young people to enter the commercial fishing industry or the reluctance of young family members to take over the family commercial business.

Pahno, in contrast, hopes to be a captain of a commecial fishing boat. He's a financial management major at UMM because what he learns can apply to a fishing business. Also, he knows that he can't solely depend on commercial fishing for his income and he will need off season work.

It was Pahno's interste in fishing that prompted his dad Louis Tiner to buy a commercial fishing boat after he retired from the police department.

"I think he bought it because I always said I wanted to fish. He dove right in," Pahno said.

Pahno said his mom, Kerry Romig, still worries each time her son is out fishing.

This year's first opener is on May 21. Pahno said he'd be mending nets and making other preparations until that day.

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