JEFF STONEHILL was a commercial fisherman in Alaska and Washington for a couple of decades back in the 70’s and 80’s. He fished salmon on the Copper River and in Prince William Sound. Caught some herring and halibut. He gillnetted salmon on the Columbia and Gray’s Harbor. Ran fish buying boats. He’s retired from fishing and lives in Seattle now, but all those wheel watches, oddball characters and big catches are still rolling around in his head, and they come out now and then as stories and poems, and a novel, The Last Great Wild West Show.
One Of The Guys
At first she didn’t look like much, striding down the dock.
Pugnacious as a bulldog with her jaw thrust out and her rolling walk.
Couldn’t a weighed 100 pounds with her dirty Carharts thrown in.
But she came well recommended from the seine boat where she’d been.
The halibut derby a day away, we’re baiting at full speed.
“Well, OK, we’ll give you a try, you can’t cost much to feed.”
She pitched in tying ganions, a wiz at sharpening hook.
But when lunchtime came she set us straight,
“I may be a girl but I don’t cook.”
When we started pulling the gear, bucking a nasty chop
She was sure-footed, quick on the deck, like a Texas-league shortstop.
Gutting the ‘buts, pulling the nuts, even on a big barn door.
Never a wasted motion, like she’d done this all before.
And when we landed a big lively one, arching and thumping and kicking,
She’d attack with the back of the gaff, like a blood-crazed berserk Viking.
Till he lay there, stunned and quivering, twice as big as her.
Then her knife went in and the guts spilled out
and she looked around for more.
When we had ‘em iced down in the hold and were running back to town,
She stood a 5 hour wheel watch so us guys could all lie down.
Up at the bar its “drinks all around” from another longline crew.
When one of their deck-apes smirks and says: “You took a girl with you?”
She didn’t say a word, just flipped him the bird, went on with her drinking.
I stood us all another round, and then I got to thinking.
I said “you pulled more than your weight, out there in the Sound.
But if you really wanna be one of the guys,
you’ll need to buy a round.”
Men have been fishing with nets for a long time. Ancient Egyptian carvings show people beach seining the Nile Delta. Now a-days seiners usually have the lead and the seine sown together. But back in ancient times, when I was seining, we used to tie the lead to the beach at a likely spot and then just hook on the seine when we made a swing.
The most famous ancient fishing story is St Peter and the apostle boys out seining in the Sea of Galilee. You remember, the one where Jesus walks out, tells ‘em to cast the net off the other side, big miracle? Now I am not a true believer, but I have done some fishing. Fishing is fishing. So I think I have the gist of how that story actually went down. The lingo they spoke back then was Aramaic. I don’t think anybody knows what an Aramaic accent sounds like, but I’ll give it a shot.
The Big Set
Saint Peter and the boys had been hook hauling since first light.
They hadn’t even caught enough to eat that night,
They hauled the seine aboard, dropped the lead and let ‘er drift.
Sat down on the seine pile. Thomas the Doubter was miffed.
“I’m getting’ pretty sick of all these frick’n water hauls!
Straining the Sea of Galilee, until we bust our balls.”
Simon looked him in the eye and said: “It’s what we do.
If you got a better plan I’ll hand the tiller to you.”
Nathaniel and the other boys just gazed off toward the land.
When Christ come walking out across the water, raised his hand.
“How ya doin’ children? Are you catchin’ any fish?”
Their jaws all dropped. The dude was still as dry as he could wish.
They helped The Lord aboard. “We ain’t caught squat, and that’s a fact”.
“We’re baggin’ it, we’re hangin’ it up. So we can row you back.”
Jesus got a pensive smile, gazed at the pile of net.
“I see that you’ve been hooking left. You tried the right side yet?”
Simon gave the Lord a look, and then let out a snort.
Can’t you feel the wind? It’s coming from the North.
We always hook it left here cause the fish come off them shoals.
Don’t tell me how to do my job. Just stick to saving souls.
Jesus gave a little frown, “now I’m not gonna plead.
But as I was walking out here I looked down at your leed.”
An’ saw a tasty school of fish built up on the back side.
All I’m sayin’ is all yer prayin’ can’t get answered ‘lest it’s tried.”
So they hooked back up and set ‘er out and towed the other way.
Scraped the lead and pursed ‘er up. They didn’t know what to say.
As they dried ‘er up and gazed with glee at the slobber-knocker set.
They must’a been a thousand fish a’splashing in the net.
They had to use the splitting strap to get them all aboard.
They filled the hold. They filled the skiff! It was a massive hoard.
Some say it’s a miracle, some say it was luck.
I say, on a good day, even a saint can make a buck.”