Lake Superior Journal

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Lake Superior Journal

Postby admin » Tue Jun 07, 2016 9:51 pm

Lake Superior Journal: Fishing with Sharon Jon

by Captain Dan Rau

I met the boat Sharon Jon on the same day I fell in love with commercial fishing.

Growing up in an Army family, I had only distant connections with the fishing heritage, mainly of Scandinavian immigrants, on Minnesota’s North Shore. All of that changed the day I started work for Stanley Sivertson and his nephews Frank and Milford Johnson on the smelt run in spring 1973.

I honestly don’t remember anything about Sharon Jon that first day. What I do remember are masses of fish boiling up out of the water as we lifted the pond nets, the sense of infinite abundance and the beauty of those black-backed, silver-sided smelt. I thrilled to working hard on the water, fully exposed to the elements.

As evening settled, I eagerly agreed to go along when Frank took the diesel-powered steel trawler A.E. Clifford under the Duluth Aerial Lift Bridge onto Lake Superior to see if we could catch more smelt with the trawl net. The gorgeous spring night with a sliver of moon over Park Point, the powerful chug of the old Caterpillar engine and the image of Frank barely visible at the wheel in the dark interior of the boat – that clinched my love affair with fishing.

The next morning when I got up at 4:30 to meet the guys for breakfast, my muscles were so sore from dipping thousands of pounds of smelt by hand that I could barely tug on my T-shirt. I was hooked.

My affection of Sharon Jon grew more gradually. Over several seasons, I acquired memories of her – my own and those related by others. The 33-foot boat had a proper, though small, wooden ship’s wheel with eight spokes. It connected by a chain to an identical wheel forward at the starboard (right side) net-lifting hatch so that the captain could steer from there while lifting gill nets through the hatch.

That forward wheel was also next to the coal stove and hand bilge pump – the one to heat the boat’s interior during the frigid fall herring run and the other to pump out the inevitable water leakage into a wooden hull, supplemented by water pouring out of just-filled fish boxes.

The captain did not use that forward wheel during the smelt runs. But it still had herring scales plastered to it from years before, the last time the boat lifted gill nets at Isle Royale. That is what Sharon Jon was built to do in 1943 by the Jones family in Cornucopia, Wisconsin. She was one of several wooden fish tugs built by them during that era.

Stanley bought the boat in 1966 from the Johnsons (no relation to Frank and Milford) and used it and another wooden herring tug, the Knife Isle, to fish at Isle Royale near Grand Portage, Minnesota, and out of Duluth.

One fall when Stanley was bringing Sharon Jon back to Duluth from up the shore, he stopped in Grand Marais. He tied the Sharon Jon to a piling by the U.S. Coast Guard station, near a raft of pulp logs, and booked a room in East Bay Hotel. That night a huge storm blew up. Stanley feared that loose pulp logs, tossed by the swell coming into the bay, would bash in the boat’s hull. So he and his deckhand made their way onto the boat and prepared to move it. Conditions were so fierce that they couldn’t untie the bowline from the piling. His deckhand chopped the line with an axe. Almost immediately, as Stanley backed Sharon Jon away, a pulp log jammed itself into the rudder, locking it in place and making the boat uncontrollable.

The only thing Stanley could think to do was to jam the engine ahead, trying to rotate back to the piling. Miraculously, in the howling wind and with a boat notoriously underpowered for that sort of maneuver, Sharon Jon muscled in a curve right back to safety. The deckhand grabbed the stub of bowline still hanging on the piling and tied it to the fragment still attached to the post on the bow.

Ironically, the oak-hulled boat safely rode out the rest of the storm. Stanley, a seasoned fisherman, told me that was the closest he’d ever come to dying on the Lake, right there in Grand Marais harbor.

My own memories of Sharon Jon hold serenity over drama. I have a mental snapshot of Milford at the old wooden wheel, his Thermos cup next to the engine’s instrument panel and the hot coffee steaming the window of the tiny pilothouse as we head to the smelt nets early on a dark gray, nasty stormy Nor’easter morning. Or Milford with that same cup, stretched on the Douglas fir-planked deck, warming in a spring sunbeam and chatting over lunch after a morning of pulling up the massive poles placed for the nets – the herculean task that ended each season and for which all that muscle built loading and unloading of hundreds of boxes of fish each day was needed. The sun, the coffee, the conversation and the task done – it was for me a rare timeless moment of perfection.

When I now see the Sharon Jon rotting away in Superior, returning to the elements, I try to conjure images of her newly formed: Her gunwale freshly hewn of clear white oak; the edge of every frame and the keel and stem sharp, solid and clean; the hull planks curved and tightly fitted over ribs and a snowbank of fresh shavings on the ground under her. To me, it pictures the elemental relationship between the wood and the unself-conscious competence during the millennia of wooden-boat building, producing a sturdy tool to harvest food on the seas.

This issue’s Journal writer: Dan Rau fished commercially for 11 years on Lake Superior and in Alaska. For the University of Wisconsin-Superior, he has been captain of its research vessel LL Smith Jr. since 1990, taught math and astronomy and done environmental research, including on the retired U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Sundew and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Lake Guardian based in Milwaukee.

Here's a link to this very entertaining site dedicated to Lake Superior
"There's no better bilge pump than a scared man with a bucket"