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Photo of Lake Superior.

October 29

by Stephen Dahl

There's a four-feet sea already. I've got 600 pounds of herring in my skiff and one net left to lift. I know there are another couple hundred pounds in that last net—and I just don't want to let it go. A voice in my head says: "I need the money." And another voice says: "Pushing too hard is what kills fishermen."

I drop the end of the net I've just finished and do the keep-your-body-low shuffle to the stern so I'm not thrown out of the boat. I don't have much freeboard, maybe a foot and a half. It would be easy to end up overboard. The last net to lift is the closest to shore. It's about a quarter mile away. Before I head to it, I scan the open water to the northeast. It's not good. More white on top of those waves. I knew that—just get to the last net and pick as fast as I can.

The northeast sea is off my starboard rear quarter. My skiff rides it fine. Still mostly four footers but a few five and six footers sweep under me as I steer to the inside piece.

As I start sliding along the net, I notice there is a little less northeast current pushing on this net. And because this is a newer net, not so ragged, it's easier—faster—to get the fish out. I say "thank you" and the wind carries my message. The first net I picked this morning is farthest from shore, about two miles. It's a rag—a lot of holes. Because of the stronger current out there and ragged net I probably spent an extra 15 minutes getting the herring out. Maybe I can scrounge enough money for a new net next? Forget replacing the old outboard or buying an ice machine. One new net is probably it.

About two-thirds of the way through the net, the wind velocity has increased and the five and six footers have become more regular. My skiff rides just fine as I sit here picking the net. I remind myself of this when I think of the three-mile ride back to Knife River. Take it slow. The faster I push, the greater the chance of losing control. I could easily start surfing on one of those six footers, broach or plow into the back of another wave and overwhelm the bow. Commercial fishing is patience, patience: waiting for a gale-force wind to die down, waiting for the herring to move in, struggling to save enough money for a new net.

People say to me, "It's a pretty dangerous job, isn't it?" I find it odd what people come to accept as safe. It seems to me traveling down I-35 bumper-to-bumper with 3 ½-ton SUVs at speeds of 75 to 85 miles per hour is insanity. How safe is one in an overpopulated world of people and machines? There are risks out here on the lake. The risk of being humbled. The risk of solitude. There is a Greenland Inuit saying: "It is not a good thing to steal another man's solitude."

Out here, the cold and the wind won't let that happen.

Excerpted with permission from Knife Island: Circling a Year in a Herring Skiff, by Stephen Dahl, published by Nodin Press.

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