Life by and on the sea may have worked its juju on the writers of these fine tales of commercial fishing, but they convey enough of the work’s hard, raw—at times terrifying—side to keep readers from rushing out to get their fishing licenses.
It’s a line of work that many consider the most dangerous going. Its elemental, heroic, romantic, and ancestral qualities have drawn all manner of writers, but 19 of the good ones are counted in this collection. A few of them will be known to even casual readers of deep-blue fishing tales: John Cole, Gavin Maxwell, and Peter Matthiessen, who contributes a sweet little piece on earning the respect of the fishermen out of Montauk, Long Island, after three years as a one of them. Less well known names also produce some shining material. Seth Harkness writes of diving for urchins in “water that wouldn't melt an ice cube for weeks at a time” off the winter coast of Maine; Paul Molyneaux goes after swordfish with a harpoon on the Georges Bank, where the Labrador Current meets the Gulf Stream and “in alternating wafts of cold and warm air we can smell icebergs and coconuts.” Wendy Erd draws with splendid economy the laying of a setnet for salmon across a piece of the Ugashik River in Bristol Bay, Alaska, while Linda Greenlaw makes it plain as day why she became a swordboat captain in this story of her roots along Maine's Penobscot Bay. Martha Sutro throws all caution to the wind by taking on the “unconventional, hard-working, dangerous, and distant life” of crabbing in a Bering Sea winter, then Spike Walker, doing what he does best—scaring the bejesus out of readers by recounting desperate moments of fishermen in harm’s way—tells the outrageous survival story of a crabbing boat that rolled during one of Alaska’s coldest winters on record.
Maybe it’s the circumstances, but the writing here is always thoughtful, always attentive, and shorn of the trimmings.