Thinking Like A Fisherman
As far back as my childhood memories take me, I know that I loved every aspect of the salmon fishing life my family and I lived. From bouncing in the bow of the skiff on stormy days with my face covered in ocean spray, to building driftwood forts and fires on the beach, to quietly soaking in the movement of the tides and the clouds and the windblown waves, I thrived on it all. As a teenager and young woman, I derived pleasure from pushing myself to be the fastest, most accomplished crew-member I could be. A deep connection to the natural rhythms of the ocean, the seasons, and weather felt built into my DNA.
Year after year, as I grew stronger and more competent, we noticed that Dad began to decline and need more help. When he had to step down, my family and I contemplated the choices ahead. I didn’t really envision running the fishing site alone and wasn’t sure that I wanted to take it on, to have all that weight and responsibility on my shoulders. “What happens when the outboard acts up, when the set line breaks, when our water lines clog up or we need to replace the deck of the cabin?” I worried. Dad had always been a skilled carpenter and somewhat of a mechanic, and I hadn’t really learned much about those trades from him before he wasn’t able to teach me. Even so, I couldn’t imagine a life without fishing, so we decided to take things one season at a time. I would step up my role from crew-member to skipper, and Mom would continue to sustain us from shore.
The community of set-netters in Uganik Bay also provided a rich web of support. Once when my outboard wouldn’t start while I was out on the net, I called on the VHF radio for help. Soon enough, not one but two skiffs came charging up to me, one from each neighbor to the west and east. We checked the gas line, the fuel pump, and electrical connections, and they were about ready to tow me to shore when somebody spied the culprit. It turned out to be an embarrassingly easy problem to fix – somehow the emergency stop cord had jiggled off the kill switch – and yet, no one made me feel stupid about that simple mistake. Instead, they bent over backwards to tell me of similar situations they had found themselves in, drawing me deeper into the close tribe of Uganik fishermen. Tollef came over to me at a party not long after that and made it a point of encouraging me with a story of something even more embarrassing that he’d done. In time, I learned not only to ask for help, but also to receive it graciously, and to appreciate the bigger picture of the tight and helpful community I was a part of.
Over the years I’ve been able to return the favors – to tow my friends back to shore when an electrical problem shut down their outboard, to lend anchors to someone whose set broke, to help pick my neighbor’s net when her husband and crew had to go to town for an emergency. I’ve learned, too, that I fish just as hard as any good fisherman, and harder than some. One stormy day when I was out with my crew picking our nets in huge swells, a new tender skipper called to see if we were fishing or stuck on the beach due to the weather, as some other sites were. He must have thought I was a wife or mother answering the radio from shore, because when I answered, he asked, “Are the guys out on the nets?” I replied with indignation, “I am out here fishing now.” Sheepishly, he said he’d meet me in 25 minutes to take our fish. Outwardly, I was all business, but inwardly I was a little annoyed at him for assuming that a woman would be on shore instead of running a fishing site in rough weather.
Slowly, I gained confidence and a deep understanding that fishing in Uganik Bay was what I wanted to focus my life around, more certainly than anything else. I knew that it fed all my senses, and that I wasn’t taking on the mantle of site owner out of obligation or inevitability. I chose it. So, instead of selling the fishing business, my family finally officially turned Trap Six over to me.
That was also the first summer that I didn’t hire any men for crew. I have always loved fishing with women, starting with my mom and sister, and often I’ve had one female crew-member, but I had never worked exclusively with women. I found it so empowering to work with Lizza and Gillian. They had great endurance and hardiness, wonderful attitudes, quickly learned the skill set, and didn’t shy away from stereotypically male jobs. Camp life had a creative spirit of camaraderie, filled with amazing meals, great subsistence gardening, and professional-quality net mending. Working on the water proved almost effortless. Those women knew how to use their whole bodies dynamically instead of just relying on brute strength, and seemed to naturally watch out for each other without needing much direction. There was a peaceful flow to our work in the skiff, which felt like a beautiful validation of my ability to be a fisherman in my own right without relying on Dad or other men.
As I go about my fishing life, figuring things out, improvising, listening to my instincts, I often hear Dad’s voice in my head: “Now you’re thinking like a fisherman.” He said that years ago when I was frustrated to the verge of tears at my inability to get a gas drum open and his vision was bad enough that he couldn’t help me. Our trusty old bung wrench no longer fit the new barrel’s redesigned opening, and after struggling for too long with the wrong tools and bad technique, I finally got the idea to see if the cat’s paw rattling around in Dad’s tool bucket would fit. It did. Though this was a small moment, Dad’s sage comment helped me realize that patience, perseverance, and creativity – attitudes he’d cultivated – gave me the foundation I needed to be confident on my journey to becoming a fisherman in my own right.