The grainy black-and- white cover photo of Ernie Koepf’s 2020 novel “Opening Day” accurately underscores his family background and connection to the sea. The photo, taken by Koepf’s brother, shows Koepf as a young boy with his father, also named Ernie, the day they caught 850 pounds of salmon in Bodega Bay.
Koepf, 68, was born into a fishing family and grew up in El Granada. In his latest novel, now available on Amazon, Koepf channels much of his 30-plus years of commercial fishing experience and expertise through a fictional lens. The 349-page novel follows the life of Alex Skarsen, beginning as a young boy who is also raised in a commercial fishing family and, among other jobs, becomes a U.S. Coast Guard officer in Half Moon Bay.
“When Alex got into the industry it was a different beast,” the synopsis reads. “Over the years it's changed, but the sea is still the place he goes for solace, affirmation and a living. This novel captures the flavor of the fishing life and the deep changes in the values of the industry. From Central America to Bristol Bay, Alaska, folks carry on their endeavors. But the always looming, dominant factor of money casts its heavy shadow. This wistful, funny novel is a portrait of a culture in upheaval.”
That cultural upheaval is a theme throughout the novel. It begins in 1961 at the onset of the Vietnam War and ends with a dramatic shootout with a drug smuggler on a boat in Pillar Point Harbor. Although that particular scene didn’t happen to Koepf, many moments in the novel come from his personal experience, including when a vessel at Pillar Point Harbor carrying about 100 Chinese immigrants was seized by the Coast Guard in 1993.
As a former deputy harbormaster for the San Mateo County Harbor District from 1999 to 2004, Koepf draws on his knowledge of the boating and fishing industry. In 35 years fishing on the West Coast, Koepf has written numerous articles published in Pacific Fishing magazine. He’s also a member of several co-ops and fishermen's associations.
He details the mundane chores, pre-dawn work and the nuances of commercial fishing. He also refers to Pillar Point Harbor’s ideal location for salmon fishing, compared to San Francisco and Bodega Bay.
The novel’s 12 chapters are filled with Skarsen’s coming-of-age stories, vivid descriptions of day-to-day life and a wide cast of characters most of whom are accurate portrayals of people Koepf knew. At the same time, the novel examines the changes within the fishing industry. Apart from the boats, technology and politics, Koepf notes that it appears to be people’s attitudes within the business that changed dramatically in the last few decades.
“Fishing today, there’s an overemphasis on money,” Koepf said. “And with that emphasis, a lot of the appreciation for the lifestyle has diminished.”
Koepf believes the increasing pressure to produce results creates a snowballing of stress for fishermen. He referenced the recent “crab strike” that took place in and around Half Moon Bay during an already delayed season.
“These guys are stressed out to the max,” he said. “So much so, they’re looking at their fellow fishermen suspiciously. Some want to go, some want to stay. It’s dog-eat-dog.”
Like the protagonist, Koepf knows the pressure and nuances of a family dedicated to fishing for a living.
“It was not this homogeneous demographic,” Koepf said of his fellow fishermen. “These were individuals. These were men who went through World War II and the Great Depression. They had a lot of accumulated knowledge.”