True Story, Issue #28

"The Sfumato of Captain Jeff" by Dave Zoby

True Story, Issue #28

A community college professor runs away from middle age and grief to spend a summer on the Nona’s Ark, a halibut charter based in Homer, Alaska. While there, he finds his fish story, but he also captures a vivid portrait of a salty old-timer struggling to make a living in an industry threatened by overfishing and rising temperatures.

From "The Sfumato of Captain Jeff" by Dave Zoby

He began as a deckhand for one of the first halibut guides in Alaska, Orby Sewell, who had a thirty-foot wooden seiner that he outfitted for sport fishing. In 1973, Sewell paid Jeff five dollars to paint the name—Arctic Explorer—on the boat’s stern in black letters. He launched right there on the spit, near where Land’s End Resort sits today, and he used a cable hooked up to a milk truck to pull the boat out of the water each afternoon. Jeff, just a kid, began taking groups of tourists out for day trips in the boat. “Back then, all you had to do is go out about a quarter mile and sink some herring,” he remembered. “Now, you have to run two hours out of Homer to find a decent halibut.” Now the Arctic Explorer, the very first charter, rots in a graveyard of fishing vessels at Mud Bay. Captain Jeff pointed it out to me each time we drove by.

Me? I was fifty and a professor at a declining community college in Wyoming, teaching Black Elk Speaks and “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” The students were growing impatient with my shtick. It seemed many of my colleagues were making serious changes in their lives, downsizing and heading off to exotic places. Right before Christmas break, I had lunch with a poli-sci professor who had been promoted to the college administration. He saw no point in teaching the classics and sang the praises of job placement and online classes, though he knew I disagreed. He was gluten-free now, and he told me about it. While we talked, his sea-blue eyes searched the cafeteria, as if looking for some new opportunity for advancement. Not long after that, he quit his job to become a preacher in Belize. His church paid for everything. All he had to do was buy a new pair of swim trunks and show up.

Why couldn’t I do something like that? I’d sometimes made extra money freelancing for the “hook-and-bullet press”—fishing and hunting magazines. For these types of articles, you got in and you got out. They were purplish pieces where you could earn three hundred bucks and meet some interesting people. I decided I might spend the summer in Homer, Alaska, and write a feature or two on the charter fishing industry there, maybe talk my way onto a few boats, get to know the captains. In the winter, I began contacting charter boat owners online, saying I wanted to do a magazine piece on them. I wrote dozens of these blind queries. Only Captain Jeff wrote back.

He said he’d love to have me aboard the Nona’s Ark, the thirty-two-foot catamaran he took around Cook Inlet and as far out as the Barren Islands, about sixty miles from Homer. He even beached her at Augustine Island to dig for razor clams and harvest blueberries at summer’s end. He sent me photos of Chinook salmon he had caught during the brief interludes of daylight that passed for January days in Alaska. He held the “feeder king” salmon in high esteem. The feeder is a Chinook salmon a year or two from spawning; they maraud widely, devouring candlefish and sardines at will. “Feeders are the most succulent and tasty fish that swim in Cook Inlet and beyond,” Jeff wrote. “They’re like swimming sacks of oil.” Most tourists who chartered his boat wanted only halibut, a fish for which Captain Jeff had little regard. He sent me photos of feeder kings, some as large as forty pounds, and pointed out their unique purple hue, their silver bellies. He composed great, detailed paragraphs about them: “It’s really astonishing that these fish are so perfect. They even come with their own deaths, predetermined, built into the design.”

It seemed as if he was writing the piece for me.

BONUS! Listen to our "The Sfumato of Captain Jeff" Spotify playlist while you read! Or, browse our other True Story playlists.