A tale of fishing like it isStephen Dahl has earned his North Shore fisherman bona fides not by generational osmosis but by keen observance and reverence. It shows in the first few pages of “Knife Island: Circling a Year In a Herring Skiff,” his book published last year.
Stephen Dahl has earned his North Shore fisherman bona fides not by generational osmosis but by keen observance and reverence. It shows in the first few pages of “Knife Island: Circling a Year In a Herring Skiff,” his book published last year.
The slim, diary-like read is stark in its passages but strong in details of what fishing for herring out of Knife River is like. It’s day-by-day, thought-by-thought, without adornment, without pretense.
The last thing Dahl wanted to do was romanticize his craft. He calls the book “Norwegian-esque” and the “antithesis of Proust”in its storytelling. He tells it like he hears it from the veteran fishermen whose stories and visages fill the pages. “They will tell you something once, with brevity,” Dahl said this week from the home he built off of Old North Shore Road. They expect you to hear it, because it won’t be repeated.
Dahl has been fishing on Lake Superior for 25 years. He began as an apprentice, as all 25 current licensed fisherman from Grand Portage to Duluth are required to do. He is among the few who do the work mostly solo. He has had a few apprentices himself since becoming a “master.”
In his book, he tells the story of camping near the mouth of the Knife River just after college. He woke one morning knowing “this is where I belong.” It didn’t root him just then, he still had some “wanderlust” and travelled the world, including fishing stints in Alaska. He came back to the area in 1982 for a human services job but soon was called to the lake. “I knew I wanted to fish.” He realized one day when headed out to his nets that the urge to see more of the world had left him. “I’m here,” he writes.
Dahl also knew he wanted to write about his time on the lake. He’s written and published poetry in the past and did graduate work in Scandinavian literature and languages. “I love literature,” he said. It’s stories and writing that help people “understand each other.”
“So few people know about commercial fishing,” he said. The book is timely because the market for fish along the North Shore is good. It’s part of a growing call for local foods at restaurants and stores. Dahl had an urge to let the public know “how much work it is to set fresh fish on your dinner plates.”
He wrote the bulk of the book from simple notes he made each day after coming off the lake. It wasn’t all fishing. He noted, in just a few words or sentences, what he was thinking, how he was feeling. When it came to his regular downtime January through March, he could easily come back to those moments and write passages for the book.
He highlights more than the physical rigor of his work. “Some days you’re sad, there by yourself, just picking off fish.” There are parts where he rails about politics or the damages done to the environment. “This is not a conservative book,” he said.
They are the thoughts we all might have while going through our work day. Dahl couches them with the constant wariness he needs to keep with the task at hand: finding fish, watching the winds, navigating the water.
He said it’s a misnomer to think of commercial fishing on Superior as a novel reach to the heydays on the lake when hundreds of people fished and the industry was booming. “People think we’re like the last of the Mohicans,” he said. But there is a waiting list for one of the 25 licenses the state allows. There’s a surge and a new generation wanting to make a living off the lake.
Dahl does well enough. He’s still a small-timer. He launches his boat from the marina each day and wishes for easier access or equipment that could make the job more manageable. But it’s a full-time occupation that keeps him comfortable in his needs. “I’m not going to buy a Mercedes.”
His wife, Georganne, teaches music. Their home nestled in the woods is filled with handmade instruments, including historic but obscure ones Stephen has learned to make by visiting Norway and Denmark.
He acquired a work ethic suited to the fishing trade when growing up in New Auburn, Wis., knowing that when you’re 12 and available, a farmer will come calling, asking you to pick rock or bale hay. Fishing is not a regular occupation. It’s like “dairy cows or sled dogs, seven days a week,” he said.
In the book, he lets the reader know who’s boss. It’s the herring and their elusiveness. He has his spots on the lake, but they change all the time.
“Commercial fishing is sometimes compared to farming,” he writes. “Fishermen and farmers both have to deal with the vagaries of the weather. But farmers don’t wake up one morning and see that their 80 acres of corn has moved to the next county.”
The underbosses would be the other stars of his 72-pager: the lake and its wind, ice, and temperature. Bad wind can leave him on the shore with orders to fill or catch him on the lake even when he’s careful. It takes skill in his small boat to make it back each day, the details of tackling waves sprinkle his book and are matters of fact more than points of pride or self-assurance.
Dahl’s friend, Duluth poet Louis Jenkins, writes about Dahl’s prose on the back of the book. It will get a second printing after selling out the first run of 1,000 copies.
“Being a fisherman is an ancient calling,” Jenkins wrote. “A calling that demands solitude and patience, a patience that is rewarded by moments of luminosity and sometimes fish. Stephen Dahl brings us a glimpse of that life, that luminosity, in prose that is rigorous and spare, as the job demands.”
“It’s interesting how each person has a part they like,” Dahl said of the reaction to “Knife Island.” He hopes it enlightens and also puts “Knife River on the map.”
You could suppose that writing the book was a risk, but Dahl shrugs his shoulders, assured that he has simply written the way it is for him each April through late December on the lake. Even the old-timers appreciate that, he said.
Fishing is risk enough, but something he’ll take, given what the world can offer. He calls hurling down an interstate at 85 mph a risk, it just depends on your comfort level.
“There are risks out there on the lake,” he writes. “The risk of being humbled. The risk of solitude. There is a Greenland Inuit saying: ‘It is not a good thing to steal another man’s solitude.’ Out here, the cold and the wind won’t let that happen.”