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5 April, 2003

A Rare Treat

Today Jerry, our polar bear guard, invited Jim and I to observe the catching of king crab. It was a beautiful day to be on the ice, sunny deep blue skies, no wind and temperature around 24 degrees F.

We traveled by snowmobile to the south side of the island where Jerry has his crabbing area about 75 yards from the shoreline. With no wind and full sun our dark colored parkas became too hot and were soon discarded. The island is very steep here but you could make out the tracks of fox that frequently travel the slopes.

Jerry had explained to us that if we assisted him in clearing ice and cleaning slush from the nine holes he had in this area he would share his catch with us. Without hesitation we made the deal and awaited instructions.

Using a long handled wood tool with a metal, blade like tip called a tookpuk Jerry chopped at the ice around each hole until seawater seeped in. It was now our turn to help. Using small buckets we cleared out the ice chunks. Once we had finished Jerry lowered a foot-long rock attached to about forty feet of rope into the hole in order to break up a layer of slush that lay beneath the ice. By dropping the rock into the hole quickly and allowing it to chip away at the slush layer the chunks of slush break apart and float to the surface. Jim and I removed the near frozen seawater until the dark green seawater appeared clear.

It took about 35 minutes to do each hole before Jerry said they were clear enough to lower the crab lines into them.

Each crab line is very simple in design. Each line consists of about 50-75 feet of line wrapped around a foot-long piece of wood. At the end of each line a weight made of lead or rock was tied. Jerry attached two pieces of fish to the end of each line, one piece of tomcod and one piece of smelt, by tying them just above the weight. The baited line was then lowered to the bottom and the attached wood piece secured in the snow.

Jerry checked the lines about every fifteen minutes by gently pulling on them to see if a crab had come to feed on the bait. King crabs, like many crab species, are opportunistic feeders and are attracted to the scent of the dead fish.

Jerry is able to tell if a crab is on the line by feeling the weight of the line. If he feels the weight of a crab on the line he begins to gently raise the line to the surface. The crab holds on to the bait not waiting a free meal to escape it, usually. If you are skilled enough or lucky enough you can get the crab to the surface, grab it and toss it on the ice. Occasionally Jerry must reach in the frigid water to grab his catch before the crab lets go.

On this parcticular day Jerry caught 13 crabs, several of which were monsters, compared to what I have seen and as per agreement he shared his catch. The six hours on the ice bucketing ice and slush was well worth the feast we enjoyed that evening.

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