The Living Past: Commercial Fishing in Door County
by Trygvie Jensen
Commercial fishing is one of the oldest professions known to man. The industry has survived for nearly two hundred years on the Great Lakes. Commercial fishermen are our living past, but confronting an uncertain future. They epitomize the American Dream: independent, ambitious, and hardworking. Not only are they fishermen, they are carpenters, navigators, electricians, mechanics, welders, among other things. As one commercial fisherman so eloquently put it, “We don’t know how to do anything well, but we can do everything.”
Many of the commercial fishermen were born into the business, passed down from generation to generation. At a young age they helped at shore duties, eventually accompanied their fathers on the boats learning the craft first hand, assimilating into a way of life that proved to challenge one’s physical and mental strength. “It’s not the easiest life, but it’s the only life as far as I’m concerned,” said one old fisherman.
Commercial fishermen on the Great Lakes are a tough lot, by any measure of the word, especially the fishermen of the early days. Marvin Weborg and Cliff Wenniger, two prominent fishermen in their own right, were known to say, “Years ago they made iron men and wooden boats, now they make iron boats and wooden men.” Being constantly exposed to the elements, fishing is rough, hard work. The day begins very early and usually carries fishermen well into the evening, depending on the season, weather, and what type of fishing they’re performing. For the most part, it is a long day that involves physical labor under all kinds of conditions, varying from sunny calm days to the late fall storms and heavy seas; a true test of a fisherman’s endurance. In addition, a certain skill factor and a little luck play an integral part.
Experience was the fishermen’s best tool and played a major role in how they fared. Those who spent most of their lives on the lake gained a vast knowledge of where fish were feeding and spawning, lake currents, effective methods of harvest, and basic lake ecology, which gave them a great advantage in a competitive industry. In addition, the success of a fishery depended on a good crew, sound boat and a hardy work ethic.
Alvin “Gabby” Anderson, a commercial fisherman talks about the wealth of knowledge and experience that is imperative to a commercial fisherman: “A true commercial fisherman has more knowledge, I don’t care how much education you have; if you have two years, four years, or eight years. It takes common sense and knowledge of all that’s around you. You’ve got to understand in this business, you can’t be taught this in books― it’s all experience, and you have to know what’s happening all the time in order to understand it. In the old days all we had was a clock and a compass; I had an old alarm clock. There were no fathometers, radios, navigational aids, or sonar. You’d run into snowstorms, fog, what have you, and you had to know where you were by what you knew and what knowledge you gained through experience. I don’t care if you’ve been out there five years or thirty-five years you see something different every time you go out you keep learning … always learning. There’s always something different, but you learn and don’t forget, you store that in your mind which gives you experience so when a situation arises you can say: ‘ I’ve seen this; I’ve been through this; and I know what to do.’ A good captain observes everything and you learn from your experiences. You are never too old to learn. I’ve been out there for fifty-two years and I don’t think there was hardly ever a day I haven’t seen something or learned something new. It’s unbelievable what you can learn.”
Commercial fishing, typically, has always been a family-oriented practice handed down from generation to generation. Everyone in the family gave their time and effort in the business, whether on their boat or part of the shore crew; it’s all teamwork. Hard work, long hours, and dedication are imperative to make a fishery thrive. Wives, sons and daughters, help out on the boat or as part of the shore crew packing and mending nets, packaging fish, and working on equipment. It is definitely a family affair and in order to survive, it takes a strong will and a strong back. “Once the business is gone,” says one commercial fisherman, “you’re never going to get it back. Its family oriented and you grow into it; you develop certain things and once you quit, there’s no way back.”
If you would ask any fisherman why he chose this profession you might get a variety of responses: It’s all I ever knew, or my father was a fisherman as was his father before; a feeling of satisfaction using your skills and hard work to bring in a good lift. One thing that is a common thread among commercial fishermen is the inner flame that burns in each and every one of them ─ consciously or subconsciously. It’s a passion toward fishing, working in the great outdoors, and finding solace in nature. “I enjoy being able to do a lot of things,” says one Door County commercial fisherman. “I’m not a professional at anything, but if I have to do something, I can do it. The fact that I’m not a college educated person, but being able to run a fairly good business is all the satisfaction I need.”
A fisherman is a different type of person; ask any fisherman and he’ll agree. In a sense, you could compare him to a farmer, both are independent, use the resources for their livelihood, put in a long day, and are not afraid to work hard. But, a fisherman finds himself more exposed to the elements and is at the mercy of nature’s elements. He’s out there nearly every day and is in it not to get rich, by any means, but is in it for the love of the game.
Trygvie Jensen is a Washington Island native and his commercial fishing ancestors inspired him to chronicle the history of fishing on northern Lake Michigan in Wooden Boats and Iron Men. He followed this work with a compilation of fishing stories and oral history, Through Waves and Gales Come Fisherman’s Tales. To learn more about the commercial fishery industry that sustained many communities around Lake Michigan and Door County for more than 150 years, find Jensen’s books on his website (woodenboatsironmen.com), or email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or call him (920.435.5303).