Author lands her writing in 'Chicken Soup' book

Posted: Thursday, May 20, 2004

When it comes to telling fish stories, making them entertaining is the easy part. Making a story sound believable, however, takes a little more finesse.

Central Kenai Peninsula writer Jacki Michels' favorite fish story has the best of both worlds it's "alluring" and a "reel" life tale.

The story starts out sounding a little suspect, however, since Michels begins by describing the best fish she ever caught as being 175 pounds, a full six feet long and sporting a "delicious chestnut mustache."

But it all makes sense once you realize Michels is employing a bait and switch tactic and the story is really about how she caught her husband, Ken.

Not only did Michels land herself a "particularly cute fisherman" to marry, she also has netted a spot in the soon-to-be released book, "Chicken Soup for the Fisherman's Soul."

Michels' story, "Taking the Bait," about how she employed fishing strategies learned from her grandmother in snagging her husband, appears with other inspirational fishing-related tales, including ones written by President George H.W. Bush, President Jimmy Carter, retired General H. Norman Schwarzkopf and writer Patrick McManus.

"Taking the Bait" was one of 88 stories selected for the book out of more than 1,500 submissions, according to information from the book's editors. The "Chicken Soup for the Soul" series began 10 years ago when the parent book was published and the series has sold more than 85 million copies since then.

Alaska, with its world-class fishing opportunities, seems like a perfect spawning ground for world-class fishing stories, yet Michels has the distinction of being the only Alaskan to have a story included in the book.

"It's because we're more busy fishing than writing about it," Michels joked.

She only submitted the story after being kindly but firmly badgered into it by a professor at Kenai Peninsula College. Michels was taking a creative nonfiction class and the teacher, Janice High, decided the story deserved to be in print.

"(High) was extraordinarily encouraging to all of her students," Michels said. "With a little prompting from her I think she said she wouldn't talk to me if I didn't start submitting I began to submit some of the stories I had written."

Publishing for Michels is a fairly new endeavor. She had always scribbled free-form poetry and other things, she said, but it wasn't until her father died that she began sharing her work with others. She wrote an obituary for her father and poured her heart and soul into it, she said.

"It was really odd people I didn't even know came up to me and said, 'Wow, I was really touched by it,'" she said.

Michels began taking writing classes a few years ago, has joined the Kenai Writers' Group and is a regular fixture at KPC Writers' Nights at River City Books and at the last few Central Peninsula Writers' Night events.

She has had a few things published in the state, but "Taking the Bait" is her first story to be published in a venue outside Alaska.

"I was just pleasantly surprised," she said. "It was an encouragement. ... I'm trying to submit more things these days. I'm getting a bigger pile of rejection slips. I want to keep doing it."

Michels' history with fishing predates her experience with writing and is a topic that often winnows its way into her writing.

Since she was a child she was hooked on the activity, which she learned from her maternal grandmother, who "always out-fished Grandpa," she said.

"I loved fishing," she wrote in her story. "I also loved to eat fresh fish. It's something you never really get out of your blood, or out of your backpack if you don't wash it out in time."

"Taking the Bait" comes from her real-life experience working as a cashier at De Harts General Store in Auke Bay, near Juneau, in 1998. Michels was attending the University of Alaska Southeast and working at the store to make ends meet when she met her future husband, Ken Michels, who was a customer at the store. Ken was working as a deckhand and relief skipper on the F/V Wavedancer and together they took advantage of the many fishing opportunities Southeast provided.

"Our courtship consisted of many camping, fishing and picture hunting trips," Michels said. "I truly was hooked on fishing, and the fisherman. We had more than just fishing and the love of the outdoors in common we each had two kids under four. We figured if the 'Brady Bunch' could do it, so could we."

The two bought their own fishing boat and got married in that order in 1990, she said.

"I think everyone should run 300 crab pots 24-7, sometimes in the worst weather possible and have four little kids and a dog on packed like sardines into a 32-foot boat during their first year of marriage," Michels said. "If a couple can do that they can weather just about anything."

The family moved from Juneau to the Kenai Peninsula based on its reputation as a good place to raise families and catch fish. Though Ken now works as a commercial driver for ASRC and Jacki operates a small greenhouse business, the two still are frequent fishers of local waterways. Michels said their first "run" of kids are grown and now they just have 5-year-old Patrick at home, who is crazy about fishing and has out-fished mom and dad on occasion.

Michels said she would like to write a book of her own some day, but for now is happy casting around for smaller publishing nibbles.

She will have book signings for "Chicken Soup for the Fisherman's Soul" from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday at River City Books in Soldotna and at Boarders Books from 2 to 4 p.m. June 12 in Anchorage.

Taking the Bait

By Jacki Michels

The biggest fish I ever caught was about 300 pounds. The most fish I ever caught? I have been fortunate enough to have caught more fish in one day than some folks get to net in a lifetime.

The best fish I ever caught? That's a good fish story. About 175 pounds, six feet long and sporting a delicious chestnut mustache.

It was my maternal grandma who taught me everything I needed to know about fishing and about men, for that matter. "Always spit on the bait and sing this little song," she'd say. Then she'd smile and sing out, "Sue culla, sue culla-culla." (Finglish or Finnish-English for "Here, fishy fishy"). "Now don't set the hook until you're sure you're got a good nibble; always let a man or a fish chase the bait until you're sure you've caught 'em." She would always say this with her wise and knowing smile, and she always out-fished Grandpa.

I was living in Auke Bay, Alaska, under the small general store. It was handy. I lived downstairs, worked upstairs, and I was near the harbor.

I loved fishing. I also loved to eat fresh fish. It's something you never really get out of your blood, or out of your backpack if you don't wash it out in time.

Sometimes I would eavesdrop on the fishermen who stopped to buy supplies or gas. I always got the best tips on where to catch fish.

One sunny summer day, a particularly cute fisherman stopped in the store. He seemed rather shy, but after chatting at the counter for a while with him, he asked me if I was interested in taking a preseason flight to Burners Bay to check out moose hunting areas. I declined, since I already had plans to climb the Mendenhall Glacier trail as high as I could and get some good photos.

A few weeks later, he returned to the store and asked me out again, this time suggesting that we go fishing. Good move. I never turned down a chance to go fishing, especially since he was a professional fisherman. I figured I could learn a few new spots, and besides, he was rather cute.

Fishing together became a fairly regular event for us. Other suitors had bought me predictable gifts such as bouquets of flowers, cards or candy, but not this guy. He left vacuumed-sealed smoked salmon at my door. Still, I was enjoying being single, and I did not want to be like the salmon, vigorously swimming upstream only to spawn and die. I wanted excitement.

It was three o'clock. Late for work, as usual, I bounded upstairs; suddenly, before I could reach the third step, a note and a little box, attached to a fishing line were being dangled in front of my face.

Puzzled, I looked around, but I could not see the prankster. As I grabbed at the line, it rose just above my reach. I could hear the clicking of a reel being cranked. The note and box dropped again; after several attempts to grab the bait and see the perpetrator of the insane little joke, who was laughing out loud by this time, I finally grabbed the box. I unfolded the note and read: "need a deckhand and a tax deduction." In the box was a gold nugget band.

I'm not sure who hooked whom, but I promise, I did not spit on him or sing to him. I am still hooked on fishing and on the fisherman. We now have a small fry of our very own so my life continues to be exciting, and I still out-fish my sweetheart. I will teach our son everything he needs to know about fishing and about fisherwomen, for that matter. And I will wear a wise and knowing smile.

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