A commercial fisherman epitomizes the American dream and working class hero: Independent, hardworking, and tough. Commercial fishing is one of the oldest professions known to man. “It’s not the easiest life, but it’s the only life as far as I’m concerned — it’s all I’ve ever done, “says one old commercial fisherman. A fisherman must be and do many things to be successful in the commercial fishing industry. Besides carrying the title of fisherman, he must also be a weatherman, a carpenter, welder, and electrician, good pilot of his craft, navigator, and a gambler, have an iron will, strong body and furthermore have a good pair of sea-legs when Mother Nature whips up a heavy sea. Jeff Weborg sums it up best, “We don’t know how to do anything well, but we can do everything.”
Fishermen on the Great Lakes were and still are a tough bunch, by any measure of the word, especially fishermen in the early days. Marvin Weborg and Cliff Wenniger would always 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 was rough, hard work. Their day begins very early and usually carries them well into the evening, depending on the season, weather, and what type of fishing they’re performing. For the most part it was a long day that involved physical labor under all kinds of conditions, varying from sunny calm days to the late fall storms and heavy seas; a true test to a fisherman’s endurance. Also a certain skill factor and a little luck played an integral part in the picture.
Experience was the fisherman’s best tool and played a major role in how a fisherman fared. Those who spent most of their lives on the lake gained a great knowledge of where fish were feeding, spawning grounds, and lake currents, the most effective methods of harvest, and basic lake ecology, which gave them a great advantage in a competitive industry. Also, the success of a fishery depended on a good crew, sound boat and a good work ethic.
Alvin “Gabby” Anderson, a commercial fisherman talks about the wealth of knowledge and experience, which 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.”
Many fishermen learned the trade at a very young age, usually from their fathers or working with other fishermen. It wasn’t a career that was learned from books, but rather from first hand experience as Laurence Daubner, a long time commercial fisherman from Door County, says so truthfully: “You know when I decided to go into fishing it was like on the job training; you couldn’t find out anything about fishing by books, but rather you had to have it by experience. And that was handed down from the older generation to the younger generation. When you were out there, in the beginning, you got some pretty good seas. They had old Straubel engines that sneezed once in awhile and you’d smell gas and you had to shut the door up and then you felt something in your stomach rolling around; and then it got worse and worse. First you were afraid you were gonna die, then you were afraid you weren’t.”
There were lean times when fish were in low cycles, and bad weather kept a fisherman idle at times. They’ve learned in this profession you have to take the bad with the good. ”You never know what you’re going to catch — it’s a gamble from day to day. You either get a good lift or you get nothing and that’s what you have to live with.”
Jake Ellefson, a semi-retired commercial fisherman from Washington Island once described a fisherman. “A commercial fisherman is a strange creature; you have to battle the elements, you know, it’s something like being a farmer except that we’re more exposed because we have to fight the wind and sea with our boats; we can be out on the water and of course can get involved with the worst weather: fog, snowstorms, heavy seas, high winds, and you have to find your way home under all those conditions.”
A superintendent from the Wisconsin Fish hatcheries spoke of the rigors of fishing around the early 1800’s: “The lives of lake fishermen are not easy ones… In all kinds of weather the nets must be looked after, and usually the catch is largest when the great gales sweep the lakes. In November the best run occurs, as the herring, whitefish, lake trout, and blue fins leave deep water and seek the shallow spawning grounds. Oil-skins sheeted with ice, numb fingers cut and bleeding from drawing in freezing nets, and faces frost bitten by icy spray are common experiences.”
“I guess we’re a different breed of people,” remarks one commercial fisherman, “There are only so many in this business that have survived. If you’re going to be a fisherman, you got to be tough.” For a fisherman, so many variables affected his livelihood and prosperity: Life cycles of fish, season long temperatures, and long term cycles of weather patterns, lake levels, and human influence that alter the lakes ecology. October and November, the spawning season for whitefish, herring, and trout were important months for fishermen. Spawning season was the one time of year when fishermen could count on a good run of fish. Years ago when the native lake trout would come into spawn on the Sheboygan and Milwaukee reefs in October, and the whitefish in the shallow waters in November, as well as herring, gave them a chance to make-up for poorer harvests earlier in the season.