Always Guts, but no Glory

‘Fish-box fairies’ cut and prep catches

  Tess Larson of Two Girls Fishing fillets a coho—also known as a silver salmon.

It’s 5:13 in the evening and the mostly obstructed sun over Klawock has four more hours of energy.

Kaleigh Ryno has about the same. She sprays the concrete floor of Two Girls Fishing, a fish-processing place that fillets, chunks, smokes, vacuum packs, freezes and boxes fish for visitors, local subsistence fishermen and charters.

Every day ends in cleaning, but today is a deep-clean day. She wasn’t expecting—and didn’t get—a lot of fish. After yesterday, the respite is welcome.

Forty-nine boxes went out, each 50 pounds, and with the normal drop-offs from cutters of local charters for later departures, it was an 18-hour day.

A Fishy Tale

Kaleigh is the fish-box fairy. She and her crew are the ones removed from the glory, the ones who magically turn objects of epic excitement and high-fives into dinner-ready chunks of meat or smoked snacks. After the fish are hung and the hero shot taken, the cutters do their work as the guides clean up and the guests retreat to their rooms to prep before dinner.

Guys like Zach Thibodeau, a 2007 graduate of a local high school, do the filleting.

Kaleigh Ryno holds the cheek from a 70-pound halibut caught by a local fisherman.  

Zach has been cutting fish for seven years. He works for the Fireweed Lodge, where Kaleigh got her start, and comes in to help Kaleigh when things are busy.

The Fireweed has its own vacuum packer, freezer and boxes, as do many lodges, but Two Girls gets plenty of business from charters and locals. Whenever people want their fish smoked, they are sent to her.

So when the stories back home are told, Kaleigh is probably not mentioned, neither are Tess, Zach, Sabrina or Tucker—the guy who takes a folding chair into the smoker to clean it with a Scotch-Brite scrubber.

“Our guide took us to this spot and I caught a huge king—here, look at this picture,” is how it goes. No one says, “Yeah, I am so thankful that Tess did such an exceptional job putting salmon chunks into bags and vacuum-packing them.”

Thankless Job

It’s a thankless job for the most part.

Kaleigh has cut fish for nine years. She started out washing dishes in the kitchen at the Fireweed Lodge down the street, then housekeeping, then cutting the salad for dinner. Two years ago she was an assistant to the boss at Two Girls. Last year she took over. This year she’s getting traction.

“Cutting fish was always my favorite,” she said. “But I never thought I’d be running this place.”

Here she is, a first-grade reading, sixth-grade math and special-education teacher who boxed more than 46,000 pounds of fish in 2011 as an 80-hour-a-week summer job. The rumor is that teachers in Alaska bank a ton of money. That may have been true in the 1980s, but things have balanced a bit, so the 2010 University of Alaska Anchorage elementary  education graduate does like the supplemental income and might even treat herself to a new hunting rifle if business keeps up.

Business picks up right on cue and Zach’s in the shop just in time. He had planned on just stopping by to hang out and is just finishing up a story about the time he pierced a growth in the side of a ling cod—and the subsequent greenish geyser that caught him in the face—when the fish cutter from Tranquil Charters out of Craig drops off 12 gutted and headless coho salmon, 10 black bass fillets and some halibut—68.8 pounds of fish that need to be packed and frozen.

“I don’t even have a sharp knife,” Kaleigh said.

Knife Inspection

Zach and Josh, an ocean guide at the Fireweed who stopped in with Zach, inspect the 14 knives magnetically attached to the wall above the cutting table. Zach grabs his favorite and runs the blade up and down the sharpener.

“Oh that’s better, I’ll probably cut my finger off,” Kaleigh said, chunking salmon that would later go in a brine before  being smoked.

She drops the fish into a large bowl and adds a mix of 2.5 cups of brown sugar, six cups of soy sauce and four cups of pineapple juice for the brine. After the bath, the fish is placed on racks and put into one of the two smokers. The big one smokes 650 pounds of fish at a time, the small one smokes about half that.

It’s now 7:40 and pilots from Trident Seafoods show up. Kaleigh thought she would be home by now, but business calls. The pilots are not on the clock. They want their own fish, and Kaleigh to process it.

Zach puts on the cutting glove while Kaleigh and the guys talk about where to get kings and sockeye.

He is one of close to 100 local kids who have worked at the Fireweed Lodge over the 22 years it has been owned by Bob Anderson and part of the growing legacy of locals that has Kaleigh as a reference.

He also works 50 hours a week for an engineering firm that is developing the town of Kasaan, a village a little over an hour away on the east side of Prince of Wales Island. That puts Zach’s work week at around 70 hours. He just finished his engineering degree from Eastern Washington University, so while he’s building a résumé, he’s also earning money doing what he likes.

He moves the 74.8 pounds of gutted silver salmon caught below the snag line at Neck Creek next to the cutting table.

In 15 seconds, one side of the first silver is done. It takes 32 seconds for the two slabs of salmon to be freed from the spine and separated into thick red fillets. He blames the knife—“We’ll do another one.”

Twenty-one seconds. “The belly bone got caught that time,” Kaleigh says.

The third attempt takes 15 seconds.

Zach smiles, but claims he’s done it 6 seconds faster.

Good Job

“I knew he could do it. Mine would take two minutes,” she says sarcastically.

If there weren’t fun and humor involved, this probably wouldn’t be worth it.

“One time we vacuum-packed her cell phone and taped it to one of the main beams,” Zach recalls. “When it rang, it sounded like it was in all the walls. It was awesome. It took her two hours to figure it out.”

Kaleigh laughs and shakes her head while moving the brine bowls to the cooler.

Kaleigh likes her own product, which is always a good thing, especially since she smoked 9,432 pounds of it last summer. There are 25 containers of lemon pepper on the shelf. Though they are 26 ounces each, they go quicker than you might think. Same with the 28 chili powders, eight quarts of pineapple juice and 53 50-pound bags of salt. The Hawaiian-smoked fish is her favorite, but takes  the longest.

“It’s a two-day brine,” she says, “but I like it the best.”

Her clients think the teriyaki is tops, or at least order it the most frequently.

Once out of the smoker, the fish is cooled, packed, and the label placed at the top. Kaleigh had a bunch of great labels with the company logo, but the state didn’t like them. They didn’t contain all the subingredients of the main ingredients, as if someone cares about—let alone can taste—the Yellow 5 Lake coloring dye that comes with the basic grocery store lemon-pepper mix.

Kaleigh’s new labels are twice as big and covered part of the smoked salmon in the smaller packets, which wasn’t aesthetically pleasing, so she uses bigger bags to accommodate the bigger labels. It’s one of those annoying parts of running a business. She also had to take a three-day course about the potential hazards of working in the fish-processing business. She made flow charts, identified potential risks and passed the class—just one of a few hoops she had to leap through to complete required government paperwork.

She’s had to do paperwork pertaining to her staff as well, but doesn’t have to worry about this crew getting out of line.

Tess Larson logs a little over 20 hours per week until things really start to pick up. She is a 2010 graduate of Klawock High School and member of the 2009 state champion volleyball team. After two years at Centralia College in Washington, she’s transferring to the University of Hawaii in the fall to continue her degree in chemistry. She wants to be a pharmacist.

Sabrina Stevens graduated from Klawock High School and is working on a degree in communications from Western Oregon. She has two jobs, too, working as a housekeeper at a lodge in Craig before sliming up her hands at Two Girls.

High school sophomore Tucker Thain is the little brother of the operation. As a freshman last year at Craig High School, he qualified for the state wrestling tournament. He carries above a B average, but when he’s preparing the brine and adds five pitchers of soy sauce rather than five cups, he gets to hear about it again and again.

Outside of a few miscalculations, there are certainly no slouches working at  Two Girls.

“They are fun,” Kaleigh says, “but I don’t know about responsible.” More sarcasm.

Great Kids

“Honestly, there are a great bunch of kids that work here. When I take time off from the shop, they are always calling, but I’d rather them call than screw up.”

No one is calling now. She’s here  and they aren’t, but it’s OK because the workload is manageable. Zach lucked  into some work and Kaleigh lucked into some help.

Zach has finished the fish from Tranquil Charters. It’s vacuum-packed and put in the freezer. The fish from the Trident guys is fully chunked and packed while the fish they wanted smoked is all sitting in the walk-in cooler to soak before the smoke.

Kaleigh recleans what she cleaned three hours ago, then goes home.

It was a rare easy day. She’s expecting a lot of work tomorrow—she needs her sleep. 

Jeff Lund grew up on Prince of Wales Island. He worked at a fish hatchery in high school, but has always been more interested in the last part of a salmon’s life cycle. He has also always been better at writing than cutting fish, which is how he found Two Girls Fishing.

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