Dockside Fish Market....Fish Tales


by William Least Heat - Moon Photographs by David Bowman
Gourmet Magazine May 2004

Painted on the window of the market door were two golden herrings, smiling, and beyond them, inside, behind the counter, lay rows of the actual fish accompanied by other species, some not native to Superior. "Any ciscoes?" I asked. "No," the clerk said with a kindness elicited I think by my crestfallen expression.

Harley Toftey

At the market, the only commercial smokehouse on the upper North Shore, I bought two herrings and walked toward the dock, stopping on the way to look into a fish shed where Harley Toftey, bright in orange waders, was cutting his morning catch, 80 pounds of herring, each about 12 inches long and weighing about a pound. He deftly and nearly bloodlessly opened the bellies of the sleek and fulgent fish, removed innards while leaving head and tail, and tossed each into a bin ready for 12 hours in his small smokehouse, the next-to-last stop on a voyage from 150 feet down in frigid Superior to a warm dinner plate.

I said I was looking for ciscoes, and he said, "I am too." He shook his head. "They've just kind of disappeared. I take out herring, Menominee, whitefish, and trout-but ciscoes, no."

Next door was Tom Eckel's cutting house, where he, too, in orange waders was preparing his morning harvest, this one primarily lake trout. He grew up on a Superior island, something harder to do these days, and he was old enough to remember the area before World War II. His Gitche Gumee pedigree was pure. I rephrased my question to reflect the sad news I was finding: "Did you ever catch a cisco?" He looked at me as if I'd asked, "Did you ever catch a cold?" With North Country politeness he said, " A long time ago," and returned to a big trout under his knife. Then, "I don't think you'll ever see the ciscoes come back-not in this area. Too many predators." When he put the fillet knife down a moment later he said, "But then I didn't think we'd ever see the lake trout back like this." Halfway through the next filleting (in Minnesota, one learns conversational patience), he mused, "The lampreys are under control, I'd say, and I've heard ninety percent of our fish right here are natives again."

Everyone's commentary about ciscoes was historical, about what had been. Worse, in less than an hour, I'd just talked to two thirds of the commercial fishermen remaining in Grand Marais. As I left the cutting house, I asked about a stretched-out black sock tacked to the wall. "Found it in the belly of an eight-pound trout," said Eckel. When I reached the door, he added, "Don't know what happened to the rest of the guy."

I sat on the dock in an easy lake breeze and opened my smoked-herring lunch. Two details gave me hope yet for finding a cisco: Eckel had said he preferred to go after larger species and mentioned a couple of fish stands along the southern end of the North Shore, down near Knife river, places closer to the café where I'd first tasted cisco.

Shele Clapp Toftey - One Great Fishing Story

Why would a woman choose this profession, and where does she find the perseverance?
by Anna Klobuchar
The Area Woman Summer 1999

Picture this: a small, fishing boat bobbing in royal blue waters off the ice-capped mountainous coastline of Alaska. Onboard this fishing vessel, you'd find a crew of about seven rough and tough souls who find the strength and stamina to brave the icy cold waters of the North Bering Sea to pull in 200-pound halibut. They wear thick rubber parkas over heavy wool and fleece coats to ward off the freezing ocean spray, pelting ice, and bitter winds. Under six of these parkas, you'd find hearty, seasoned fishermen. Under one, you'd uncover a strong 125-pound woman whose chosen occupation has been to fish the Alaskan waters for most of her life. If Shele Clapp Toftey were to make a movie about her career as a fisherwoman, it would be full of adventure, hard work, and learning some of life's lessons.

Shele Toftey

"If I had to write a book about my life, I wouldn't even know where to start," Shele told me while I was in her home on the north shore of Devil Track Lake, off the Gunflint Trail near Grand Marais. So, just how did this high sea adventurer end up in this corner of the world?

Shele was born March 1, 1957, in Astoria, Oregon, and was the middle child of three. When Shele was just 14, she had her first taste of commercial fishing, mostly because of a case of teenage love. Her first boyfriend's family were commercial fishermen, and Shele often joined them on their Pacific, harvesting excursions. In her formative teen years, she gained a lot of valuable experience on how to fish on the Columbia River in a bowpicker, and she fell in love with the trade-hook, line, and sinker. She fished with this extended family for six years, and took her first trip to Alaska in 1978, fishing in Cook Inlet. She knew from that point on that she would someday return to the Alaskan waters.

When Shele was 20, she lost her mother to Lou Gehrig's disease. Her father took an early retirement from his position, and Shele, her father, and her brother decided to take a road trip to Alaska, which to them represented the last, great frontier. Shele embraced what Alaska had to offer her-the majestic mountains and rugged coastline-and she briefly returned to the "lower 48" with her father just so she could pack her bags and drive back to Alaska solo. "The place holds something new-the wild rivers, the ocean, and the fishing," Shele added. Within weeks, she signed up on a long line fishing boat, and she was immediately hired due to the extensive experience she already had; this girl knew her way around boats. "When I look back at how everything happened, it seems that it all just fell into place. The progression occurred so easily," Shele stated. Or, maybe, that's what happens when you're doing what you're really meant to do.

Life on a commercial fishing boat is dangerous. First of all, there's the external forces of nature to contend with-the wind, rain, waves, and slippery decks. Then, there's the gear and rigging of the vessel itself. The boats are crowded with necessary equipment and machinery, along with miles of line, tubs of gear, and some 10,000 mean-looking, baited hooks. "Commercial fishing is among the deadliest occupations," Shele described, mainly because the potential for a crewmember to be injured or pulled overboard is so high. Each crewmember carries a knife strapped to their belt so that if they get caught in a line they can cut themselves loose. She was taught how to respect the dangers inherent to the profession, yet not let apprehension stop her from experiencing life on a boat.

Shele Toftey

What's the worst that happened to Shele while onboard? "I was once locked in a bait freezer. I wasn't afraid of hypothermia but rather suffocation. I kept tapping the door with my foot in a steady rhythm until the skipper heard the unusual noise. Suddenly, the door flew open and he asked, 'Shele, what in the hell are you doing in there?"' she humorously described.

"The worst storm I was ever in was off the Aleutian Island chain, going through Sequim Pass. I remember that the morning was a beautiful, sunny day, but soon, 80mph winds were blowing, with 35-foot waves. The current was so strong that we were going backwards. The skipper told us to put on our survival suits. The only thing we could do was ride out the storm. With already knowing that one boat ahead of us had taken a wave over the bow and blew out its windows, we were pretty scared," Shele relived. "Of course, when you get back to home port, you become very thankful and appreciative of most things," she added.

Despite the fact that she was the only woman crewmember, Shele felt nothing but respect and comradery from her male coworkers. "First of all, you wouldn't get the job or be hired on the boats unless you already had a good reputation. You achieve this reputation by a lot of hard work, endurance, and communication with your fellow crewmembers. The fishing crews become your extended family. Right now, you see more of a variety of people giving commercial fishing a try, but in my days, there was more of a set crew," she added. That crew comradery is necessary to make it through a day's, or often, weeks' work.

What's the average catch per 48-hour season? 70,000 to 90,000 pounds of fish for the boats Shele worked on. Record catch? "One time, we caught 101,000 pounds of halibut in 24 hours," she answered. Gillnetting, if you pardon the understatement, is the more genteel method. "I think of gillnetting as a vacation," Shele conveyed with a smile. This is the method used to catch salmon, trout, and herring. The boat will set a large marked net into the waters, which after time is hauled onboard where the crew picks the fish. The fish are then delivered to the tenders or the floating processors. Again, the crew works around the clock. The type of fish harvested changes with each season, so most good crews have year round employment. However, this was not the case in 1989. That was the year of the Exxon Valdez spill, and Shele witnessed first hand the utter devastation and impact the mass oil spill had on Alaska's environment and fisheries. "We were affected to the point where no fishing could go on at all. Our boat delivered cleanup supplies," she stated. Shele has even worked a few seasons harvesting king crabs in the Bering Sea, hoisting 900 pound cages, called crab pots, onto the ship.

Why would a woman choose this profession, and where does she find the perseverance? "For me, I never even had the desire to try anything else, because this was what I knew. I had done this for most of my life, and fishing became such a natural part of it. And, I enjoy the challenge and excitement. You never know what you're going to catch, or how much," Shele stated. "Not to mention that the money is darn good too." Each crewmember gets a proportionate share of the catch, based upon their experience.

With most things that provide you with personal rewards and enrichment, you take the good with the bad. As with anyone who is in a dangerous profession, Shele accepted the fact that what she does carries great risk, but if you practice proper precautions, you can feel secure. Tragically, in a storm off the Alaskan coast in 1994, she lost her boyfriend and his crew when their vessel capsized and vanished. Shele also lost a good friend who was salmon fishing in the Columbia River when bad weather caused the boat to capsize. For five years, Shele had owned her own boat and gillnetted salmon in the Columbia River with her father.

Shele Toftey

The sea has also brought her many good things, and here's a tale of two ships that did not pass in the night. In 1990, when Shele was salmon fishing with an all-woman crew ill Bristol Bay in Alaska, another fishing boat was in their radio group, which is a group of boats who fish together. This nearby boat tied up to Shele's boat, and she met her husband to be, Harley Toftey, who was the captain. Harley grew up in Grand Marais and has been a North Shore fisherman his whole life. He also owns a boat in Alaska, and for a few months per year, fishes in Bristol Bay. The two were soon fishing Lake Superior's waters together, and on the North Shore's rocky shoreline is where Shele is now firmly rooted. They built their Devil Track Lake home in 1995 with lumber they milled from their own sawmill. In Grand Marais, at the base of the Gunflint Trail, they own and operate Dockside Fish Market, where they sell fresh and smoked salmon, lake trout, whitefish, and herring.

Every morning, at 5:00 a.m., from mid-April to mid-October, Shele and Harley are out on Lake Superior in their boat, sometimes up to five miles offshore, gillnetting between 1,000 to 5,000 pounds of herring. "We get up at four o'clock, are out on the Lake by five o'clock, and have the nets picked and are back on shore by about eight o'clock. Next, we scale and filet the fish, and then they're ready for delivery," she explained. Shele delivers the fresh fish to the North Shore restaurants and grocery stores daily. After her deliveries, she goes back to the store and works behind the counter.

And, just to make sure she will never know the meaning of the word boredom, last December, when Shele was 41, she gave birth to two healthy, vibrant, fraternal twin girls, Hannah and Sarah. "With our busy fishing and store schedule, I only gained 33 pounds in my entire pregnancy," Shele added. "Because of my age and because I was carrying twins, my obstetrician kept a very close eye on me. The constant monitoring and reassurance were comforting," Shele maintained. Again, as in her chosen occupation, her over-40 pregnancy carried some risk, but she had confidence in her health and in the proper precautions to keep her out of danger.

As soon as the girls can walk, they'll join their mom and dad in their North Shore herring business. Their goal is to comfortably settle into parenthood and expand their local commercial fishery. "Harley is selling out of his Alaska fishery so that he can be at home year round," Shele explained. Shele savors her newest occupation, motherhood, and cares for the two girls with calm confidence. "On the fishing boats, we slept in four-hour shifts. With the twins, I sleep like I'm back on the boat," she revealed. One month before Sarah and Hannah were born, Shele's father unexpectedly died of a massive stroke, and that was a tough time for her. "But, with these two little ones, I feel so very fortunate," she concluded, referring to the two girls who are filling her lap. Next time you're on the North Shore, stop by and see Shele at the Dockside Fishmarket. You'll hear great fishing stories. She's always seemed to land the big ones, and rarely experienced the one that got away. ..

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