934th Airman takes fishing to the extreme

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Josh Moshier
  • 934th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Many people who live in the upper Midwest fill their summer days fishing. For most, this means leisurely casting from shore or boat and occasionally reeling in a keeper pan fish, bass or walleye. 

Senior Airman Eddie Pietron isn't much different, except his idea of fishing is more along the lines of the Discovery Channel's Deadliest Catch than a day on the pontoon.
Airman Pietron, a medical technician with the 934th Aeromedical Staging Squadron, spends roughly six weeks of every year - from the last week of June through the first week of August - with his parents and two younger brothers as a commercial fisherman in the Bering Sea. It's an annual journey he's been making with his family most of his life. 

"I started learning salmon fishing when I was real young," Airman Pietron said. "I got my first permit when I was 12 years old, became a crewman at 15, and by the time I was 19 and my brother was 18, it was just our family in the skiffs."
The birth of the Pietron family tradition began more than 30 years ago when Airman Pietron's mother and father, Roger and Sue, moved to Alaska to work on the Trans-Alaska pipeline. When the pipeline's construction was finished, the couple moved back to Minnesota to purchase land in Cushing, a tiny town just north of Little Falls. Shortly thereafter, the couple returned to Alaska to look for more work and
were introduced to commercial fishing. 

"My dad tells the story best," Airman Pietron said. "On the plane ride(from Anchorage to Bristol Bay, he noticed all these guys who were flying in from all over the U.S., and they were decked out in flashy jewelry and clothes. After they'd been in Dilliingham for a couple hours, dad was walking by a pier and saw these exact same guys. Now they were wearing old work coveralls and waiting for their brand new 32ft fishing boats to be unloaded from a container ship that had just arrived from Seattle. He knew they were making money." 

After working for other boat owners for three years, Roger took the plunge and went into business for himself. Thirty-plus years later, the family business is running strong. With two 24 ft. fishing skiffs and three permits, the family nets an average of just over 100,000 pounds of salmon during the species' spawning season each year. But it's not an easy life. 

The Pietrons practice a style of fishing called set net, which essentially means they determine the best spot to catch fish based on the current and tide before they anchor their nets and pull in their catch. At the end of each day, the family retreats to their camp - a cabin with no access to electricity or running water near the tiny town of Pilot Point, Alaska, on the Alaska Peninsula. Their transportation is limited to three-wheel all terrain vehicles. Since salmon fishing is tightly regulated there, they wait by the radio each day for an announcement from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game letting them know when they can start and when they must finish. And that's all before taking into consideration the dangers presented on the open sea. 

"The physical work can be really demanding," Airman Pietron said. "You've got to haul the nets in by hand regularly to pick out the fish, and that takes three of us by itself. Then, when the swells are large, you're getting thrown back and forth across the skiff, and you've just got to hang on and pick out the fish as quick as possible between swells. When the weather is working against you, it can be the most miserable work imaginable." 

Even delivering their payload is a daunting experience.
"We deliver the salmon to a large crab fishing boat while we're still out at sea," Airman Pietron said. "So we're out in the middle of the ocean in this tiny little skiff, and we're sitting right next to this massive crab boat. The whole time, they're grabbing the salmon with a giant crane that could take you out by itself, and when the weather is bad, the 800 lb. bags of salmon can get to swinging around." 

At the end of the day, however, the experience makes it all worth it.
"There are days when the whole bay is glass calm," Airman Pietron said. "You're working in a T-shirt on a nice day, you throw the net in the water, and for 15 feet you see nothing but fins and heads. And you know for every fish you see, you might be looking at a $5 bill."