Brian Mahan understands the many menaces that can undermine the integrity of a fish net. He has seen a setnet shredded by coal deposits and rocks, or weakened with holes from hurried deckhands ripping holes to free fish. And he has seen the delicate webbing of a driftnet rendered useless after an encounter with a shark or bad trip through a Cook Inlet rip, notorious for collecting net-destroying junk.
“They’re full of logs, fish, beer cans—whatever is out there, it’ll get sucked into it,” Mahan said, referring to the rips.
Up until six years ago, mending nets was an important part of his career. Now it is his career. Six years ago, Mahan quit his career of more than 25 years of driftnet fishing to fix and hang nets full time. As a fishermen, when Mahan had a deckhand who didn’t know how to mend nets he made sure they learned how. But as the years went by, he found more and more of his deckhands arrived not knowing how to mend nets.
At the same time, Mahan’s wife, Lisa Blackburn, recognized that the ability to mend nets wasn’t just disappearing among Mahan’s deckhands, but among fishermen as a whole. She also recognized Mahan’s talent in mending nets and a business opportunity. She recommended he start fixing and hanging nets for other fishermen and learned how to do so herself so that she could help. She says the need for net-mending and net-hanging seems to have only grown in recent years with fishermen either not knowing how to mend themselves or not having the time or labor to do it.
“Used to be captains expected deckhands to know how to mend nets,” she said. “Heck, now half the captains don’t know how.”
Mahan said sometimes he can tell just by talking to a fisherman that they don’t know how to repair their nets. For example, fishermen who don’t know about net repair will sometimes ask Mahan to fix all of the holes in their nets. Mahan said that generally you don’t want to fix all of the holes, but leave the single holes, holes in which only one strand of twine is broken. The single holes have little influence on the overall effectiveness of the net and the accumulation of these holes can be used as a good indicator of when your net has seen enough wear and tear to be replaced.
In some cases, Mahan can identify how a hole was created and refers to hole types by name. Deckhand holes, for example, are holes in which three strands are broken and are created when a deckhand pops a fish out of the net instead of picking it or cutting it out.
When deckhands pick fish, they push them through the net. When a fish is stuck in a net, a deckhand might instead pop it from the net by breaking the net apart with their hands. If a deckhand can’t pick a fish because it is stuck, Mahan said it’s better to release the fish by cutting it free, which only breaks a single strand.
When fishermen say net, they are referring to just the webbing. On its own the net is not very useful. To be useful to driftnet and sentnet fishermen a net must be secured to a lead line to hold the bottom of the net down in the current, a cork line to hold the top of the net at the water’s surface and two breast lines to finish off either end of the net. With the lead line, cork line and breast lines attached a net is referred to as a shackle and the process of making a shackle is known as net-hanging.
Over the years, Mahan has identified several techniques for making strong and efficient shackles. The breast lines on most shackles, for example, are made with what Mahan calls finger rope. But Mahan has found that it’s better to use ground line, like the kind used to make halibut long lines. Mahan calls the conventional breast line finger rope because it’s hollow like a Chinese finger trap. He says knots securing the net to a finger rope breast line will have a tendency to slip making the net pucker and less efficient when it’s in the water. Knots securing the net to breast lines made of ground line, however, stay in place.
Preventing slippage is also an important factor in keeping the lead line in place. Many shackles are made with only double clove hitch knots securing the net to the lead line. When Brian hangs a shackle, however, his knots consist of two clove hitch knots and a backer knot. This keeps the lead line from rolling around and curling up the bottom of the net when the shackle is in the water.
Mahan and Blackburn do their net-mending and net-hanging behind their Clam Gulch home at about Mile 116.5 of the Sterling Highway. They stretch the nets out under a large enclosure made of blue tarps supported by old fishing net. The enclosure lets in lots of light and fresh air, while keeping out the rain.
When hanging nets to make shackles, Mahan and his wife straddle small wooden benches, each with a contraption at one end to help hold webbing and other gear while they are making the shackle. With the benches, called hanging benches, Mahan and his wife can make a shackle in about 10 hours. Nets can also be hung without a hanging bench by using the eave of a house. But using the eave of a house is less efficient.
In the last six years, as Mahan has refined his net-mending and net-hanging skills, he has been offered work teaching net-mending classes. And in some cases fishermen have offered to work for him for free just so they can learn to mend and hang nets themselves.
But while he has helped teach a few individuals his trade, Mahan has mostly stuck to just practicing it.
Although Mahan has identified a few basic tricks to improving the nets he hangs, for the most part, the craft of net-mending and net-hanging has remained unchanged by major technological advances.
“I’m still using the same formula as when I was a kid,” he said.