HILLEL WRIGHT was born in Denver, Colorado in 1943 while his father was stationed at Lowery Field (US Army Air Corps). Raised in Hartford & Old Saybrook, Connecticut, he moved to Hawaii in 1969 and began his commercial fishing career. He married Maureen Fath, a Canadian girl, in 1972 and moved to Denman Island, BC. He fished in BC for 20 years out of Tofino on the west coast of Vancouver Island in the summers and Comox, on the east coast ofVancouver Island in the winters. He retired from fishing in 1993. He started writing for fisheries magazines in 1984, which he still does. He was divorced in 1982. He married Shiori Tsuchiya in 1998 in Japan. He is now Japan Correspondent for Fishing News International. He’s also written three novels, two poetry collections, a collection of short stories, and edited five literary anthologies. He is the father of a son & three daughters, and the grandfather of four grandsons & four granddaughters.
Haida Gwaii Haiku Cycle
Whales spout in Hecate
Strait. Sunset in Western Sea.
No lonely sadness.
Wake up to wild geese
Honking, northbound, overhead.
Big spruce look like sticks.
Tsimpsean Waitress in Prince Rupert Chinese Café Haiku
Stripper’s body, style
Slim, voluptuous at once
Old lonely sadness.
Frog Wakes Up
across the borders
from the cocoon
a creature of green scales
and golden yellow
Frog bursts from below
the blue water surface of a tropic sea
pursued by dolphinfish
and mahi mahi
green scales flash prismystic
in the relentless sun.
In dreams frog
sheds the sticky pond
looks down from
a hemlock top
shares philosophies with raven
in the high thermals
above her nest.
Frog screams at crow
chirps to his young
dives at deep green water
sinking talons deep in salmon’s body.
Salmon drags frog down
the watery depths.
Salmon and frog drown
in death dance
as dogfish circle their bodies
frog wakes up.
The Thousand Fathom Edge
The blue water of the thousand fathom edge
blue as the depths of a new-born baby’s eyes
pierced by spears of sunlight at the surface
dark and still one thousand fathoms deep;
wild and windswept, hurling curling waves to mountains
spraying spindrift like horizontal hail.
Equinox dawn comes calm and still
sea like a duck pond, milk on a plate
the rare calm foreboding of a storm at sea
and fishermen made uneasy by the calm
as stillness seems to brood upon the water
and clouds begin to gather in the south.
Wind accompanies the sunset like a flute
a silver whistle in the silver stars.
The lines are coiled, the jigs are stowed
the fish are iced in the cavernous hold
while coffee brews in the fo’c’s’l
where fishermen speak their earthly dreams.
Morning breaks with freshening wind and building seas
fishing is fast and strong and true
fish strike the jigs with lust and frenzy
as seas rise higher and gale winds blow
while hulls rise to the swells and show their keels
and rusty-looking coats of copper paint.
The lowering sky, the howling wind, the screaming shrouds
mountains rise and break across the sea
the crewman on the back deck grips the rail
while petrels dance to the stormbeat
and goneys sit like ducks in the curling swells
and all the gulls have long since left
the thousand fathom edge.
Remembrance Day (11/11/1978)
Time moves steadily around
another cycle approaches fullness
Moebian timelessness, infinite time.
The day brought high pressure to the waters
adjacent to North Latitude 50/15, West Longitude 125/17
it was clear, cold, and windy and a glaze of ice
floated with the rising tide in Granite Bay
seagulls rode the icecake like seals riding a floe.
Eagles rode the northwest wind across the bay
toward the beach; old squaws bellydanced
crows circled the fading apple trees, half wild now
with winter moving steadily toward the solstice
the black locusts were now bare of leaves.
The radio reminded us of Remembrance Day
reminding us what we would just as soon forget
the reminder of wars now near forgotten
and now reports of new wars just begun
and tales of Tanzanian soldiers
eaten by Ugandan crocodiles
in a strategic river known as Time.
Interview with journalist Richard Mark Glover, Hawi, Hawaii, February 2011
WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 28, 2011
Writer, fisherman and father Hillel Wright gestured as he leaned out of the sun, into the shade under the canopy at the Kava Café in Havi. He glanced at his grandson Fyfe then summarized the tale he’d just told – “It’s the whole philosophy of commercial fishing.”
Now living in Japan, the green-eyed, mustached former PHD candidate should know - he spent thirty years at sea fishing the Pacific and now writes for Fishing News International a leading fishing publication of Asia. It all started in Hawaii in 1969 on a 60 foot diesel sampan named “Alika.”
“Late one night, my friend calls and tells me that if I can make Hilo Docks by 4:30 AM there’s a job for me,” Wright said, sipping an Americano. “I bought a Renault Dauphine down the street for 200 bucks, drove it as fast as I could and by the time I rolled into the Suisan parking lot, the motor was toast. It would never run again, but I got the job.”
Single, fresh out of Southern Illinois University with a master’s in Literature, the soon to be father of four slid 5 tons of block ice across the dock that morning filling the cold hatch. It was the beginning of the fall season and for the next two months he’d be working off the Puna coast, five days a week, 20 hours a day with four other men, hot-bunking and pulling in ahi by day and onaga, opakapaka, and walu by night.
Under the direction of a Hawaiian Captain named “Old Man John” the fishing in those days was pretty good.
“He knew how to find fish,” Wright said.”He’d look out over the sea as dawn crept up and watch the birds. ‘Aku birds,’ he’d say and then ‘Ahi birds – go, go, steer 280.’ And before you know we’d be full of fish.”
“By the third week, I had the program down,” Wright said. “One day I’d just finished laying in the insulation in the ice hold and sat down on the hatch cover and lit a cigarette. I was watching the sea when I heard Old Man John yell something at me. I couldn’t make it out, it was Hawaiian and then finally he’s in may face and yells in English, ‘No sit on Ass!’ and that, in one sentence is the whole philosophy of commercial fishing.”
Mauna Loa, the mountain towering above the Puna coast also had philosophy that year. It was the year that Mauna Ulu, a vent of Kilauea erupted.
“We were twenty miles off shore working bottom fish. Then it blows,” Wright said. “You never saw fireworks like that. Old Man John, or Ahab as I knew him up to that point, suddenly gets nice. He tells us to pull in the hooks, make a pot of tea and sit down on deck. His whole personality changed, he became grandpa. Told us about Madam Pele, his Aumakua, as the boat rocked and the vent blew oranges and reds into the sky.”
Wright lives with his wife Shiori in Kawasaki and wears a gold wedding ban inscribed with eagles, “they mate for life.” On the same hand a thick turquoise ring covers nearly the bottom joint of his index finger. He grips it and twirls it on his finger. “Helps with my spiritual risk taking,” he said.
“All religions are one,” he said as an Aloha Petroleum tanker passed by on Akoni Pule Highway, shaking the ground. “I try to follow the local customs, live life and make my pilgrimages.”
He comes to the Big Island regularly, a place where his first daughter Anita was born, and always makes Hapuna Beach - he lived there when it was a county park during the summer of 1969.
“There was a bunch of us hippies. Tourists, locals, high school girls all came to the park. Everybody wanted to see what we were up to. We slept under the stars at night, stowed our stuff under the picnic tables – nobody stole back then. We combed the beaches in the morning for money. Occasionally the Aku boats would anchor at the cove to catch bait. We’d snorkel out to them, they’d throw their gill nets and we’d chase the Weki into their nets.”
Wright follows a lizard with his eyes, as the reptile slinks across a hou-hou wall.
“I stayed in one of the A frames last week,” he said. “Walked down the beach late the first night and heard the Menehunes singing. You don’t believe me?”
Wright edited five books and wrote another five including an interview he did with Beat Poet Allen Ginsberg.
“He had quite a mind, and quite an agenda. And for the most part it all worked together,” Wright said.
At sea on the “Alika,” Wright recalls the smell of salt air, the warm blood of tuna and a Louisville Slugger that Old Man John used on the ahi that came flying over the rail.
“He was pretty good with it,” Wright said.
Before flying to the Big Island, that summer of ’69, Wright spent a month in Berkeley, hanging out, learning Zen-Buddha chants and hitchhiking.
The first question they asked me the morning I arrived at the Alika was whether I was a hippie. ‘No,’ I told them, ‘I’m a gypsy.’ So they called me Egypt. A few days later as we waited for the fish to bite, I start chanting. And almost immediately, the ahi start biting. I remember Old Man John shaking his head, saying, ‘Da Kine Egypt, singing for fish,’” Wright said, as he looked out across the patio of the café. “There I was, a Jew named Egypt singing Buddhist chants on a Hawaiian boat. Kahuna magic, I guess.”
Spring Cleaning the Freezer
Melting pink shrimp ice
frozen in the corners
with boiling water from the tea kettle
reminds me of fish-hold cleaning
years ago when there were
more fish to hold and life
(like this Springtime freezer)
was fresher and, somehow, cleaner.
I imagine I'm a Leprechaun or Lilliputian
the deep-freeze rolling on a leftover sea
and as I lift out the last of last Winter's
salmon, smoked Alaska cod, and side-stripe prawns
I miss you more than all the ocean waves
that ever carried me homeward in the Fall.
1. Recovery (September 11, 2011)
The harbor is clean
There is no damage to be seen
except some cracks
in the concrete
of the breakwater
across the bay
But that could have come
from anywhere –
a coastal freighter
dragging its mooring
in a summer typhoon.
Where is the debris –
the garbage & wreckage
of the earthquake
the flotsam & jetsam
of the killer wave?
I know the answer –
I’ve seen the trash mountain
rising out of a rice field
from the railway platform
the last stop before the end of the line
here in Oarai.
The huge Kubota traxcavators
climbing the refuse mountain
look like Tonka Toys
in a little boy’s backyard.
This mountain is the harbor
and the waterfront
of Oarai – forty fishing boats
bent & twisted car doors
houses deconstructed into muddy junk.
But the harbor now is clean
The work of hundreds -
volunteers, patriots of Oarai
fishermen, City Hall clerks
heavy equipment operators
high school athletes
teachers, parents, visitors
from Tokyo & Kobe & Katmandu
And now the harbor is clean
Then the silence cracks
breaks like a wooden house
in the jaws of the jisshin
as the Japanese call “earthquake”
as two fishing boats round the point
and enter the clean silent harbor
from the Pacific
and the muffled rumble of their engines
brings the silent immaculate harbor to life.
They are not big boats –
4.9 ton registry
to avoid paying the higher fees
of the 5 to 10 ton fleet
They’ve been dragging for whitebait
which the Japanese call shirasu
They eat them raw or steamed
as topping for bowls of rice
garnished with thin yellow strips
with pickled daikon radish
and miso shiru on the side.
Do I dare eat a serving for lunch?
I’m served a bowl of rice with topping
the Japanese call this donburi
the topping is steamed shirasu
the Japanese call this dish
The Japanese say “Umai!”
After lunch I visit the Fisheries Office
with the Town Clerk.
They apologize – they can’t give me
any data – all their records
their computers – washed away
They tell me there were 105 boats
in the fishery
29 were damaged or destroyed
or washed away
Most were fishing, out to sea
but most of those in the harbor
were damaged or destroyed
or washed away.
Today, six months on
80 boats are able to fish
but most are not fishing
they sit in the immaculate harbor
2. Fear & Rumor (June 11, 2011)
We’ve been waiting for three days
here on Tokashiki Island
in the Ryukyus
Finally, a tuna boat comes in -
the Mayu Maru, Captain Fujiwara
He’s got three yellowfin tuna –
two juveniles – Okinawans
call them shibi -
and one adult
It’s 35 kilos, sashimi grade
a beautiful fish if truth be told
it gleams in the sun
lifts it from the hold.
Captain Tamaki, of the Fishing Co-op
on the cell-phone
looking for a buyer.
They used to sell to Taipei & Shanghai
but no more – Taiwan & China
refuse all seafood from Japan.
“We’re in the East China Sea, for God’s sake”
says Captain Tamaki, “Over a thousand miles
from Fukushima – and still
they won’t buy our fish”
An hour passes
finally, a buyer in Manila
In Shanghai this fish is worth
a thousand dollars
Manila offers seven-fifty
Captain Fujiwara accepts
“Shipping costs will be higher too”
3. Recourse (March 11, 2011)
March 11, 2011 and three fishermen
are out at sea
off the northeast coast of Japan.
Let’s call them Kikuchi, Sasaki
& Suzuki – common family names
of the region.
At 1440 hours
they hear the earthquake warning
and 15 minutes later
the tsunami warning.
They hear the jisshin was 9.2
on the Japanese scale
but how can that be?
The scale goes only
up to 7.
Kikuchi, the leader, tells
Sasaki & Suzuki
to head out to sea
“ We must meet the wave head-on,”
he tells them.
“It’s our only recourse –
there’s nowhere else to go.”
Half an hour later
they see the wave
a rolling mountain
on the far horizon
or rather, obliterating
the horizon altogether.
All together they head for the wave.
“90 degrees,” Kikuchi warns them.
“Make sure to take it head-on –
The boats and the wave move
inexorably toward each other
steadily, no hurry
like two old lovers
meeting by chance
on a lonely city sidewalk
“Keep your eyes on the wave”
Kikuchi tells them
“Head-on, head-on, 90 degrees –
don’t be afraid.”
Head-on, head-on, Kikuchi meets the wave
and climbs, the boat
bends over backward
rises like a rocket
to the celestial crest
then- over the top –
and the long slide down
the back of this brontosaurus
of the sea.
Out the starboard window
he spots Sasaki
“Good job, Sasaki-san” he spouts
in the radio mike
Out the port side window
he sees the roiling sea.
“Can you see Suzuki?” he calls.
Sasaki doesn’t answer.
“Sasaki,” he calls again
“Sasaki – can you hear me?
“Sasaki!” he cries
“Can you hear me?”
“I hear you.”
Hook & line fishing for ahi and albacore in Hawaii and Canada
In 1969 I was living at Hapuna Beach on the Big Island of Hawaii. I was 25 years old and had recently taken a leave-of-absence from Southern Illinois University, where I’d been an Instructor in the English Department and a candidate for a PhD. Since I’d spent 20 of my 25 years in school, a year-long vacation seemed like a good idea, but after a few months, I ran out of money and needed to find a job. A serendipitous series of events led me to the deck of the Alika, a 65 ton ahi (yellowfin tuna) boat in Hilo harbour on the windward coast of the island. Actually, I didn’t remain on deck very long as I was immediately handed a shovel and sent down into the cavernous fish hold to load ice for a five day tuna fishing trip.
The Alika fished ahi with live bait, which was kept in a large tank of circulating sea water located just forward of amidship. The bait was opelu or jack mackerel which is called aji in Japan. The method was handlining – one line, one hook, which is known as ippon zuri in Japan and famously practiced by the Pacific bluefin tuna fishermen out of Oma Port, Aomori, in the Tsugaru Strait. The differences were that while Oma’s fishermen usually work alone with the aid of an electrified ring to send down the line to stun big fish and a battery powered puller and boom winch to haul the fish aboard, we employed two men per line – one to pull the fish by hand to the side of the boat, the other, bigger and stronger, to gaff the fish in the gill rakers and manually lift it onto the boat. Gaffing was a highly skilled job. If the gaff penetrated the meat of the fish, its price at auction would be drastically lowered. It was absolutely essential to gaff the fish in the gill covers. Another difference was the average size of the fish. Oma’s hon maguro often weigh in at 200 kilograms or more, while the average Hawaiian ahi is 70 kilos, a big one being 90 kilos. Finally, the waters we fished were quite different. Windward Hawaii has a tropical climate moderated by the Northeast Trade Winds, which produce a regular ocean swell, easy to travel and fish in, while the Tsugaru Strait is colder and plagued by strong Arctic winds, treacherous currents and choppy seas, as the Pacific Ocean and Japan Sea connect through this narrow passage. Outside of the Bering Sea, this could be the most dangerous fishing ground on the planet.
By 1972 I had moved to the west coast of Canada, bought a small live-aboard sailboat and put in a trip on a salmon seine net boat out of the Kwagiulth Indian village of Alert Bay. When the salmon season closed, I heard of an albacore tuna troller looking for a cook/deckhand over on the neighboring island community of Sointula. A three week fishing trip 60 miles off the north end of Vancouver Island on the 60 ton schooner Seamaid was my introduction to trolling and over the next twenty years I spent seven of them trolling off-shore for salmon or albacore. Perhaps the highlight of my 23 year fishing career was as captain of the 20 ton ketch-rigged motor-sailor Daemon in 1977, trolling for albacore under full sail off Cape St. James, Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands). In 1979 I purchased the 10 ton shell fish packer Ancestor V, a cutter-rigged motor-sailor and spent the next three years in Georgia Strait, western Canada’s inland sea. I also fished on the Daemon again, but also in Georgia Strait, in the winter longline fishery for dogfish sharks, and returned to the North Pacific off-shore trade again from 1985-87 on the 5 ton salmon troller Wanderlust.
I never did go back to Southern Illinois to complete my dissertation, but my M.A. degree enabled me to teach at universities in Japan since 1998. Herman Melville, author of the great American novel Moby Dick once said “A whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard;” for me, the tuna boat was my PhD.