Weather-worn hands that bait hooks, untangle nets, grip wet metal and haul salmon onto boats instead plucked guitar strings, traced invisible shapes through the air and adjusted glasses to read from sheaves of notes as commercial fishermen turned artists entertained a crowd at Kenai Peninsula College, Kenai River Campus.
The fifth annual regional gathering of fisher poets and its promise of clever puns, autobiographical fishing tales and verbal artistry brought more than 30 people to the college on Thursday evening as commercial fishermen — some retired, some still fishing — shared tales they’d lived and poems they’d written while fishing in Alaska.
The tradition began in Astoria, Oregon, in 1998 and local fishermen perform in the Oregon-based gathering each February.
For most, like east side setnetter Meezie Hermansen, the stories are born from decades of experience on a fickle ocean.
“Fishing is a lot like life. You pray for calm, but a lot of stories come out of the storm,” she said before performing a piece titled “The Storm’s Embrace.”
After the gathering, Hermansen said the writers meet because it’s a fun way to share what they do.
“Writing is such a solitary thing and there’s not many people who get to write and to share. It’s kind of fun,” she said. “It’s kind of funny because this is just a niche little thing and yet it’s got such an avenue for sharing.”
The lifelong east side setnetter said she’s been fishing for 46 years “minus how long I was in diapers.”
Her family fishes in the beach in Coho and while she calls herself an introvert, Hermansen said she is addicted to the terror of performing her work.
“It’s really terrifying getting up there, but the more I do it the more relaxed I get,” she said.
Some of the poets said they sometimes write about the politics in commercial fishing and the battles they fight to protect the fishery.
Clark Whitney, Jr., who emceed the event said it’s not uncommon to find fishermen who will weigh in on fights like those brewing over the proposed Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay or the Chuitna coal mine in Cook Inlet.
“The commercial fishermen that I know, even though they make their living harvesting salmon, they love salmon. Alaskans love salmon,” he said. “A lot of what I talk about is a connection with the salmon and wanting to protect the salmon in Alaska.”
Kasilof resident Steve Schoonmaker said he loves salmon and wishes the rest of the world could do the same.
“Sometimes I think we could prevent a lot of poor management, you know with some of this mining stuff — like Chuitna and all that — if we could convince the world of the romance of these fish,” he said.
Schoonmaker, Hermansen and others are well-known at fisher poet gatherings in Kenai. Whitney introduced Schoonmaker as “my old friend.” The two have known each other since the 1970s, Whitney said.
Whitney welcomed Schoonmaker to the podium with a recition of his friendly ode to the “Schoonmaker Man.”
Hermansen said liked having the opportunity to share stories about her way of life with the community.
“For me at least, east side setnetters — it’s kind of a dying fishery, just because of the politics,” she said.
“In a way, I think this is a way I can adcocate for that. It’s just something I love. I feel fortunate to have grown up in it.”
Reach Rashah McChesney at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @litmuslens