Fishing has never held exceptional allure for me. My grandparents frequently took me fishing during my childhood visits to Texas, and I found the novelty exciting. But as an adult I have never felt compelled to pack up my gear and head for the nearest fishing hole. So it wasn’t the subject matter of Erv Jensen’s book that attracted me. But in my ten years of acquaintance with my husband’s Uncle Erv, I too have come to regard him with respect and affection, and it seemed appropriate for a niece-in-law with a book blog to read and review Uncle Erv’s memoir. After all, there’s precedent for the topic to inspire great literary works, as demonstrated by Isaak Walton’s 17th-century classic The Compleat Angler (which I likewise have not read). I therefore dutifully embarked on Little Boats & Big Salmon, little suspecting I would be drawn in (and hooked) by the Alaska life, the fishermen’s banter, and mooching.
Yes, mooching. But not free-loading. Mooching is the technical term for the method employed by Jensen and his brother Sven during their summer fishing expeditions. I’ll leave it to Uncle Erv to supply the details via his book. Suffice to say that it doesn’t involve large hauls of fish in nets or traps. It’s one-on-one. According to Jensen, moochers are the “ultimate lightweights” among Alaska fishermen–“The most tuned-in of all. To us, every fish is a worthy and exciting individual.” Sven, familiarly known as Brother S to Jensen’s readership, put it this way: “We can’t catch enough fish to hurt the resource. But we can sometimes make a little money, and always be out here taking in the country” (20).
And that’s what Brothers S and E did every summer for several decades: catch fish, make a little money, and take in the country. Jensen further capitalized on his adventures by writing a column for his hometown newspaper, the Bremerton, Washington, Sun. As one of his readers said, “You’ve got it made….You get paid to catch fish and paid again to tell about it. I think most of America would like to have your job” (7).
Little Boats & Big Salmon is organized into ten chapters with titles such as “The Seven Secrets of Southeast [Alaska],” “The Unruly Atmosphere,” “A Gamut of Emotions,” “Lessons in Lore,” and “Thanks for Everything.” Some of the essays that comprise each chapter are just well-told fishing stories, but many also include sage observations that apply to life in general. Such as the following discussion of a malady Jensen calls “The Blahs”:
–It hits each of its subjects three times in a 120-day season and lasts one day each time. …
–It despises sympathy. If your cohort croons, “Everything will be all right,” you will surely get worse.
–It will, per the numbers above, get to two of you simultaneously only at odds of 2/120 or once in 40 years.
We have not yet faced this frightful happenstance, but you may–and how to cope? Given the transient unpredictability of the hormones and the pitiful sights they will make of you, we suggest laughing at each other. At zero on the scale you can go nowhere but up (181).
Reading Little Boats was slow going at first; I ran aground on terms like, “lunkers,” “kings,” and “pinks.” If you are already familiar with these, you’ll be one step ahead. But by the end of the book I had the satisfaction of knowing that “lunker,” as well as several other similarly colorful terms, refers to a really big fish, “kings” are Chinook Salmon, and “pinks” are Coho. In this way, and many others, I found myself drawn into the Southeast Alaska fishing life, so that I was sorry when I reached the end. Who could resist the pull of the “instant outback”? Jensen describes the day he was driving down I-5 toward the Seattle-Tacoma airport at 5 p.m., was met by Brother S in a boat alongside Ketchikan International Airport, and “mooched up two king salmon totaling 82 pounds (69 dressed) in a secluded cove surrounded by spruces that very night” (21).
If neither the pure sport nor the idea of the instant outback appeals to you, you may still be wondering, Why do it? If he never asked such a question himself, Jensen at least encountered it. One essay in “A Gamut of Emotions” is titled “Money.” Jensen writes:
“Of course, you would not discredit the view of any friend or acquaintance who deems fishing its own reward. He makes a good case–‘I don’t need to catch anything. I just have to get out. Enjoy myself. Come back feeling good.’ But when pressed he will also admit… ‘Well, yes, that’s true. If I’ve caught something I feel even better’ (77).
Even though money isn’t the bottom line, the sport might not be worth it if it becomes a losing proposition; Jensen enumerates the numerous expenses an Alaska sport commercial fisherman will accrue: fuel, food, equipment, moorage, licensing. “Money goes out. Money must come in” (77).
I haven’t asked Uncle Erv if he ever experienced a net loss in a particular year. If he did, it didn’t stop him. The brothers began their adventures in the mid-1950s. I couldn’t find a precise statement of how long they continued their summer excursions, but I gather it was well over 30–maybe even approaching 40–years. Jensen’s conclusion?
Why go fishing? Don’t wonder. Just go… (208)
Little Boats is like a fishing trip, complete with awe-inspiring wildlife, meditative moments, and a wealth of good yarns. Don’t wonder, just read it…
(I might even have to pick up The Compleat Angler now.)
January 20, 2012 update: I just observed that Little Boats & Big Salmon is listed on Amazon.com for $85-$168 new and for $95-$203 used (plus shipping)! We have signed copies new at The Book Nest for just $11.95. Don’t live in the area? We’ll send it to you. Leave a comment to contact us. (Click here for Amazon listings: Little Boats & Big Salmon on Amazon.com.)