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Saturday, November 3, 2012 - Page updated at 05:00 a.m.

Book review
'Four Thousand Hooks': the peaks and troughs of Alaska fishing

By Irene Wanner
Special to The Seattle Times

In the summer of 1972, 15-year-old Dean Adams set off on a great adventure: He flew from Sea-Tac to Kodiak, Alaska, to join his Uncle Jack and a crew of four other men aboard the Grant, a wooden halibut schooner built in Seattle in 1926. She had belonged to Adams' grandfather and was part of a family fishing tradition that spanned decades, yet at the opening of the book, she had just struck a log and been severely damaged while Adams was at the helm.

It was a clear day, but he had been reading, something he was allowed to do in open water. The hold was so full of fish, halibut were even stacked deep on deck. But now, the Grant was taking on water too fast for her pumps to keep up. Everything was in jeopardy: men's lives, their vessel and the best catch of the year.

Adams eventually became captain of his own fishing boat as well as earning bachelor's and master's degrees in fisheries from the University of Washington. Yet the hands-on education he gained and vividly recounts in "Four Thousand Hooks" (University of Washington Press, 270 pp., $26.95) is probably something few people experience. Vicariously, we readers learn along with him about the hard work, long hours, and necessary skill and luck that go into bringing halibut to Fisherman's Wharf, Pike Place and markets far beyond.

For instance, the Grant needed 12,000 pounds of purchased bait and 20,000 pounds of ice to fish for three weeks. Even in summer, the crew required warm, protective clothes: wool from head to toe — it's long before synthetic fleece — double gloves, oilskin jackets and pants, and boots that "ended at my crotch [and] ... felt like splints," making Adams' walk "as jerky and stiff-legged as Frankenstein."

These weren't the cotton shorts and T-shirt he'd have worn all summer at home. Unfamiliar, too, were 16- to 20-hour days, the rolling deck, cramped quarters, and cumbersome fishing tackle. Adams was accustomed to a lightweight rod he used for trout at a nearby lake; now, he began learning about fishing anchors, bags and flags, and "7,200 feet of buoyline" tossed over the rail. "Stationed on the stern, Kaare and Fred had sent 108,000 feet of fishing gear out the chute — twenty miles in all — along with 4,000 baited hooks."

And every time those 4,000 hooks went overboard, they had to be baited first.

The crew helped Adams celebrate his 16th birthday, introduced him to his first beer, first topless bar and the camaraderie of shared work. Sometimes, it was terrible — "I was chilled to the bone. Forks of pain coursed through my muscles. My fingers throbbed, swollen like sausages ... " — and other times, beautiful: "Green sparks of bioluminescent plankton streaked through the bow wave like shooting stars. Three porpoises began swimming around the bow ... Acres of ocean began to glow, for as far as I could see. It was magic. I couldn't believe my eyes."

"Four Thousand Hooks" is a marvelous loss-of-innocence book, informative, enjoyable and well worth reading. And did the Grant sink? Read it and find out.

Former Seattleite Irene Wanner lives and writes in New Mexico.

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