Essays provide inside view of commercial fishing

HOMER — Alaska's fishermen might tell a good yarn at seaside bars and cafes, but some might think their literary talents end there.


Don't tell that to the 16 poets, writers and journalists put together in "Hooked!" a new — and renewed — collection of essays by Alaska commercial fishermen. Edited by Kodiak writer Leslie Leyland Fields, "Hooked!" pulls essays by Alaska fishermen writers from her 2001 St. Martin's anthology, "Out On the Deep Blue," and adds new work. The result is a vibrant, honest series of tales by fishing women and men. Included are essays by former Homer writer Joel Gay, Homer and Vietnam writer Wendy Erd, and Homer writer Nancy Lord.

"Out of the Deep Blue" collected stories about fishing across the United States. When it went out of print, Epicenter Press of Kenmore, Wash., approached Fields about reprinting it.

"This book still has some life in it," Fields said in a phone interview while heading to a book reading at Westmont College, Santa Barbara, Calif. "I thought, 'There are some really great essays here from Alaskans. Let's make it an Alaskan focus.'"

The author of "Surviving the Island of Grace," ''The Entangling Net" and other books, Fields is the mother of six children. Her kids are the third generation of Alaskans to fish.

Picking up the Alaska writers from "Out of the Deep Blue," Fields updated it with new works by writers like Mary Jacobs, Moe Bowstern and Toby Sullivan. Jacobs is one of the first women fishing captains with an all-women crew.

"She tells that whole story, what it was like to be a woman skipper," Fields said.

Bowstern's "A Drop in the Bucket" also gives a fisherwoman's perspective. A performance fisher poet, Bowstern writes of a problem unique to women — peeing on a boat full of men.

Sullivan adds an essay unfortunately essential to any modern collection on Alaska fishing: the effect of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

"Toby is one of the best writers in Alaska," Fields said. "This essay does a beautiful job of really getting at the heart of the oil spill and how it impacted Kodiak."

Fields adds her own essay, "One Skiff, Two Women: A Constant Harvest" about working a setnet skiff with her daughter.

"I think it's kind of groundbreaking. It's an essay in two voices," Fields said. "The essay is set in a skiff fishing together. I wanted the essay to carry that same feel and dynamics."

Former Homer News managing editor Gay's "Payin' Your Dues in Togiak" is a rock 'n' roll riff on the Togiak herring fishery. Gay fished eight years in the Cook Inlet and Bristol Bay salmon fisheries while working as a freelance writer in the winters. Taking place in 1993, Gay originally wrote his essay for Pacific Fishing magazine, where he had been a field editor. He went herring fishing because he'd heard of the intensity of it and had always wanted to try it. One passage captures the essence of being on a boat.

"The western sky flooded red at sunset, then black, and we were enveloped in that world only known to mariners, defined by the cabin walls, the muffled roar of the diesel, the green glow of the instrument panel, and the polyrhythmic bobbing of the boat. After a big bowl of Skippy's garlic soup, I went out and barfed," he writes.

Dreaming of fast, quick riches, where his crew share could mean a payday of $6,000, Gay earns less but gains what matters to writers.

"My timing was impeccable. Every fishery I joined, I should have been there the year before," Gay said from his home in Albuquerque, N.M., where he now works for the New Mexico Wildlife Federation. "I was in it for the experience and not the money. I was in it for the story."

Lord's essay on setnetting on the western side of the Cook Inlet, "A Day in the Life," is literally that. An excerpt from her book "Fish Camp," she tells of a day's work with her husband Ken Castner setting and picking nets. One paragraph describes the Zen trance of fishing.

"I love when it's like this — the smooth, voiceless teamwork, the echoing clank of orderly corks over the stem, the practiced feel in my hands," Lord writes. "I don't think so much as I am. The body knows; is in my fingers, my shoulders, the knees that brace me. My physical self knows the grip of line, the quick tightening, the double hitch pulled over itself. If I stopped to think about what I do, I would surely fumble."

Gay said he was glad to see his essay reprinted as the lead work in the new collection. The typesetting of his essay was mangled in "Out On the Deep Blue," he said, so he was glad to get it right for the new version.

"I'm happy to have a life in a new context," Lord said of her essay. "It looks like a nice little book."

Erd's essay, "Pieces of the Wind," tells another side of fishing — how sometimes you have to give it up.

Fields said the title, "Hooked!" reflects a common theme of fishing, how people love the hard life and, like Erd, sometimes have to leave it.

"That hook somehow gets under our skin," she said. "Some people have to pull that hook. ... We bleed from it, we still hurt. We're connected and can't let go."