At The Net: Game, Set, And Fish?

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At the Net: Game, Set, and Fish?         Sorry Wimbledon fans, this is not about tennis. It is, however, about competition -- competition between many different competitors and played out on many planes. Some competitions are purely cerebral while others are brutally physical and usually end in death.

        Fishing, like life, is a competition: It pits fishermen against fish, fishermen against the elements of nature, fishermen against predator animals, fishermen against fishermen (both commercial and sports-fishermen), and, arguably the biggest battle, fishermen against himself. This is not the laid back, lazy afternoon, worm drownin', bobber watchin', or cane pole twitchin' variety of fishing so vividly portrayed in many of Norman Rockwell's "Kodak moment" like paintings. Any American male over the age of ten can instantly identify with that Huck Finn variety of fishin'. The fishing here is different; it is not for relaxation or pleasure; gone is the tranquil peace and idyllic calm.

This is the day to day and hand to hand struggles of commercial net fishing. John Cole and Nancy Lord each offers us a different, but insightful, glimpse into this grueling labor intensive existence. The commercial net fishermen's work is much more than just their job: It is their way of life: They eat, sleep and fish.

        In fact, "Eat - Sleep - Fish" is the sales motto of Skeeter, a top selling brand of fishing boats, it is also the mouth-watering dream of a life time of many sport fishing enthusiasts, and is in reality the dreary day in - day out mundane routine of net-setting fishermen. In her metaphorically enriched essay, "A Day in The Life," Lord opens her story with a sense of anticipation, "Nights before fishing, I'm never really asleep but only wait . . . " (Lord 131). The excitement and anticipation of a fishing trip have left many of us with eyes wide open and unable to sleep, like an excited child, bursting with ecstatic anticipation, trying to sleep on Christmas eve while waiting anxiously for Santa. She leaves me with the feeling that food for her is purely for sustenance, having nothing what so ever to do with any semblance of epicurean pleasures, " . . . then make myself a bowl of instant oatmeal" (131). She further defines her eating habits with, "[I] unwrap a Fluffernutter sandwich, an obscenely high-fat, high sugar, [a] sticky concoction for fishing food" (139), and "I peel an orange with hands that smell as foul as the insides of my leaking rubber gloves" (144). This is hardly a food plan with any appeal as to content or dining etiquette, yet they seem perfectly reasonable and rational to the author. The characters in Cole's "Striper" did not fare much better; "... a cup of instant coffee, [and] a piece of toast..." and adding: "It's the same breakfast every time, and it's nothing special, but there aren't many other skippers who would do as much" (Cole 150). What is it about food and fishermen? I once saw former President Jimmy Carter as the celebrity guest on Tom Mann's fishing show; they ended the show by sitting in a brand new, sparkling like a diamond, top of the line, Ranger bass boat and both were sucking down canned beanie-weenies like there was no tomorrow. Only one character out of both of these stories ate well -- the harbor seal who stole salmon by "swimming along the net and [biting] out just the sweet belly" (Lord 137).

        There is the question of ethics. Should net fishing be allowed to continue? Lord describes a roe laden salmon being hauled aboard and "...spills eggs like jewels into the boat" (134). This is taking more than just a fish; it is taking that fish and all its future progeny. Both authors address the political ramifications of net fishing and the peaceful co-existence with sport fishermen: "A catch like that on a rod and reel must surely be a thrill, but the burgeoning sport fishery that's developed around kings [salmon] threaten those who fish commercially," and "...the "˜sports' get the main allocation of silvers as well as the kings, and now they're casting into the political pool for more sockeyes, our money fish" (141). "Them surfcasters are always on the beach. They don't like to see us haul seiners down there. Gives them fits if we catch fish and they don't" (Cole 156). Sport fishermen feel justified in their anger and hostility towards commercial fishermen: Commercial fishing nets have no conscience -- they indiscriminately kill all fishes they net; ". . . most fish we bring into the boat are already dead; once they're in the net, the web caught into the gills prevents them from working water through properly to extract oxygen. In fishermen's language, the fish "˜drown'" (Lord 135).

        These fishermen, like modern day wader wearing gladiators, are in a fierce dog eat dog battle for the fish they do bring to the net. They battle against Mother Nature in plying their trade in adverse weather conditions; howling winds, raging seas, bitter cold, freezing rain or blistering heat. These die-hard fishermen compete with each other to get to the "honey-hole" first and better their chances for a full hold of fresh fish: "Ted wants to be first when [the fish] come around. He always wants to be first" (Cole 155). They sometimes begrudgingly share their booty with a hungry predator; the seals, sea lions, sharks and whales have to eat too. In these scirmishes between fishermen and their avisaries, death is a reality: Dead fish is the end product of a successful day's work. Facing death on a daily basis seems to have desensitized some to its finality. When informed that is brother Smiley had fallen overboard and drown, Ted responded noddingly: "It happens, boys. It happens" (167).

        For me, Striper presented a bone-chilling and realistic account of this way of life. I felt cold and damp, sad and scared, and tired and sore as Cole weaved is story lines together, like the seine nets his characters used. Cole's use of stong and vivid imagery established a setting where I felt I was part of the story. Who were the winners in these competitions? I guess it depends on your perspective. Being a typical American male, I routed for the underdogs! Works Cited Murray, John A., ed. The Seacoast Reader. New York: Lyons Press, 1999.

Lord, Nancy, "A Day In The Life." Murray 131-146.

Cole, John, from "Striper." Murray 147-170.