By Tom Davis
Article originally published in Door County Almanac #3, Dragonsbreath Press, 1985
Photos courtesy of Dennis “Trygvie” Jensen, author of Wooden Boats and Iron Men (woodenboatsironmen.com)
(EDITOR’S NOTE: A quickly-disappearing way of life, commercial fishing now employs fewer than a dozen full-time fisherman in Door County. For many years, especially in the 1800s, the industry, along with logging, was the foundation of the County’s economy and employed many hundreds of hard-working men and women.)
He was in his first season of commercial fishing, fresh from high school, the fourth generation of his family to cast his nets upon the waters of Lake Michigan since the emigration of his Great-Grandfather from Norway. Entering the profession had been his choice: his father, Marvin, had neither encouraged nor pushed for his decision. Rough seas or calm, he had been sick every day since he started two months ago. The bleak realities of commercial fishing were beginning to gnaw at him: the interminably long hours, the rugged weather, scant pay, the total lack of guarantees. Many of his school pals had left Door County for more alluring opportunities in the cities. He was fed up, and he didn’t mind saying so. Toward the end of another brutally difficult day spent lifting deep nets for the chub, his belly a painful confusion of hunger and nausea, he was helping his father’s partner, Ed McOlash, clean the catch when he blurted “I quit! I’m going to get a factory job where I can punch a clock at eight and punch out at five, put in my five days, and have the weekends off. I’m done with this!” McOlash, who had looked to the lake for his livelihood for decades, turned to the angry young man and said “You may be done with fishin’, but fishin’s not done with you.”
The prophecy rang true. Not that Jeff Weborg didn’t try to abandon this hard life. Twice, he left to start fresh where the money was better, the hours were realistic, and the fringe benefits at least tangible. A factory job in Minnesota lasted just a few weeks, despite several raises granted by superiors awed at the young man’s dedication and productivity. Weborg returned to fishing, again became convinced that greener pastures awaited, and moved to Washington where he was employed in an aluminum plant. There, his fisherman’s independence of spirit swept him to loggerheads with organized labor. A few months were all he could tolerate. Dimly, he was becoming aware that fishing had infected him like an incurable disease, that he was possessed by a passion for the life that admitted no pretenders. The nature of the diseas, the passion, was impossible to define, but there was something about freedom, something about honesty, about self-reliance, abiding tradition, about the grandness of the lake itself. Other than seasonal residences in Kewaunee and Chicago, brief stays dictated by local scarcity of whitefish, Gills Rock has been his address ever since.
Today, commercial fisherman and sometime actor Jeff Weborg is perhaps the most recognizable figure in Gills Rock. A powerful bear of a man with meaty hands, thinning hair and hazel eyes, he seems always to wear the earflaps down on his felt cap. It has become his signature, although the handwriting was not conscious. If Jeff Weborg wears his earflaps down, it’s because his ears are cold. He is a man wholly without pretense or affectation. Despite his protests to the contrary, he is extremely articulate: his is a pointed, direct fluency, well-informed yet spiced with opinion, a style learned from years of dealing with bureaucracies at best ignorant of the commercial fisherman’s peculiar needs, at worst plainly antagonistic. Weborg says what’s on his mind, regardless if it’s what other parties want to hear, and if it comes off sounding blunt, never is his speech ill-considered. Increasingly, Weborg finds himself in the position of fighting tom preserve a way of life. As Jeff Weborg discovered early on, commercial fishing is not a job, it’s not something you can leave at the plant. It is something by which a man comes to define himself.
The work of a commercial fisherman entails a blending of diverse skills. As Weborg says, “We don’t know how to do anything well, but we can do everything.” Of course, he must own intimate knowledge of the fish themselves, their seasonal habits, their responses to current weather conditions. Such knowledge is not gained overnight; rather, it is the result of years of familiarity, and even then, a fisherman can marshal all his experience and not find a fish. Seamanship, skill in handling nets: these are other obvious attributes. But the fisherman must also be welder, carpenter, electrician, marketing expert, and bookkeeper. If the core of the life remains the fishing itself, the ancillary responsibilities demanded by the complexities of the era have forced the fisherman to become a large-scale businessman, charged with overseeing a capital investment of hundreds of thousands of dollars and managing a staggering operations budget as well. For example, fuel alone costs Weborg and his partner, brother Mark, in excess of $30,000 per year. To replace the drivetrain on one of his boats would run in the neighborhood of $40 to $50,000. This frightening expense casts a shadow over the future of the industry: Weborg points out, rightly, that “no young man could afford to get into fishing today.”
Utter lack of predictability endears fishing to Jeff Weborg. The vagaries of weather and the uncertainty inherent in the very enterprise make each day different. The year begins with ice-out on Green Bay in April. Fishing is generally productive in the spring, slumps during summer, then rallies in autumn before the season closes in late October. Whitefish are the principal quarry, chubs secondary (the resurgence of the yellow perch may eventually provide another species of importance to Weborg). Typically, Weborg’s boats leave the docks about six a.m., although Jeff has already put in an hour of work by then, mapping a plan for the day’s work and checking that each boat is equipped to carry out that plan. Two types of nets are used. The gill net – Weborg calls it “the most versatile fishing tool ever made” – selectively entangles fish of a certain size, according to the diameter of the mesh. A difference as small as 1/16 inch in diameter can be crucial. Fish larger than the target size bump the net and turn away; smaller fish pass through the openings. When the net is lifted, the usable fish are picked out by hand, while species that are not legally kept by commercial fishermen (trout and salmon) are returned to the lake.
The other type of net utilized by Weborg is the trap net. Long “leads” of fine mesh guide fish through a small opening into the trap, basically a box made of netting. Once inside, they cannot find their way out. The trap is lifted out of the water, and the whitefish of legal size (seventeen inches and up) are removed with dip nets, while the other species are put back. After the net has been re-set, whether a trap or gill net, the fish are immediately put on ice in the boat’s hold. Only when all the nets have been lifted and set does processing begin. The fish are gutted on the run home, the livers retained (they are a delicacy often compared to chicken liver but with a milder flavor), and the dressed fish instantly return to the ice. “It’s extremely important to keep them iced and handle them properly, or `you won’t have a decent product,” Weborg argues. In contrast to other work places, says Weborg, there’s very little talk among the crew on a fishing boat. The members of an experienced crew know their responsibilities in any given situation; there’s no need for orders or questions.
At around four or five in the afternoon, the boats return to the docks, either the “home” dock at Gills Rock or the one Weborg maintains on Rowleys Bay. The day’s catch is transferred to his own processing shed: Weborg’s is the only fishery in the county set up to completely process their fish. First, they are passed through a scaling machine (itself a $14,000 investment) then placed on a “slide”, a long table where as many as seven people can work at a time. After any remaining scales are removed, fish to be filleted are de-headed and then run through a filleting machine (this wonder cost Weborg $19,000). The fish is then returned to the slide and checked for any bones missed by the machine. “We wouldn’t have to do that, “ says Weborg, “but it’s a way of insuring the quality that we’ve become known for.” The fillets are then washed, drained, and hand-packed according to the specifications of the order. To supply the many fish boils in the northern reaches of the county, the scaled fish are carefully scraped out, the belly fins removed, thoroughly washed, and then “chunked” on a band saw – as much as 2500 pounds a day. Weborg’s wholesaler is Elaine Johnson, but it’s difficult to determine where one’s duties end and the other’s begin: both of them can be found working side-by-side in the processing shed. “We like to say that within three hours of catching, the fish has been processed and is ready to be prepared,” he says. “Nobody can touch that kind of quality.” It is obviously a point of pride with him. When the fishing slackens in mid-summer, Weborg purchases whitefish from other netters, often in Michigan, to fill his standing orders. Weborg and his buyers – most of them local restaurants – agree upon a price prior to the vacation season, allowing menu prices to be set accordingly. If necessary, Weborg will absorb a loss when buying from other fishermen to see that his orders are met. Because demand for chubs is more sporadic, these are often frozen until needed.
Weborg’s day doesn’t end when the fish are trucked off to their final destinations. Boats must be fueled, fish boxes put aboard, perhaps a dip net mended, or another net readied for setting. It is not uncommon for Weborg to complete his chores as late as ten in the evening. During the summer lull, all the nets are lifted, cleaned of moss and slime, spread in the sun to dry, mended as necessary, then coated with a solution that facilitates later cleaning (without this treatment, moss would adhere so tightly that cleaning would soon become impossible). Again the nets have to be dried before they can be returned to use. The procedure is repeated at season’s end in late October, after which the nets are stored until fishing resumes in April. Weborg devotes his winters to the maintenance and repair tasks that the fishing season simply doesn’t allow time for.
If the times have made Jeff Weborg a sophisticated businessman, they have also thrust him into the position of spokesman and advocate for this eminently worthy, curiously fragile profession. He cannot talk fishing for long without reviewing the destructive influence that the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the Federal Food and Drug Administration, and other governmental agencies continue to exert on the commercial fisherman. Despite an acknowledged mellowing in the relationship as of late, Weborg remains profoundly distrustful of the DNR. The very things that 18-year ole Jeff Weborg thought so annoying – the hours , the pay, the uncertainty – are accepted by 38-year old Jeff Weborg as part of the terrain. “We can handle going out and not catching any fish,” he says. “That happens. But we can’t take some individual on our dock telling us we can’t take certain species or we can’t fish certain sections of the lake. I would hope that in the future we have a system where the fisherman has a right to make a living and still work within the boundaries of sound biological management. I can see that happening, but it would be many years down the road, and much would have to change. Right now, if my son were eighteen and wanted to become a fisherman, I wouldn’t allow it. I feel that on our present course, within five years or so, you’re not going to see much of a fishery at all, just a skeleton of what we had because of the bureaucracy – imposing quotas, telling us where we can and cannot fish, constantly closing areas to fishing. It’s a way of tightening the noose around our necks. It’s slow starvation.”
Weborg can recite chapter and verse of the subtle outrages perpetrated by the DNR on commercial fishermen, especially the arbitrary closed seasons based on erroneous information and assumptions, the arrogance of young biologists trying to tell his father, a man of 60 years’ experience on the lake, that they know the fish better than he does. But the liveliest, and most livelihood-threatening “political football” continues to be the problem of chemical contaminants. Weborg agrees a problem indeed exists, but his stance is that the DNR should be attacking the source of the pollution rather than strangling commercial fishermen. And his attitude towards the posturing machinations of bureaucracy is typified by his account of a meeting with FDA officials: “I told them ‘If it’s your intent to put us out of business, let’s just do it and be done with it!’ They assured me at the time it wasn’t, but it remains to be seen where the contaminant problem will lead.”
The DNR, in Weborg’s estimation, carries this political football like a runner constantly reversing his field, looking for daylight. “When PCBs became an issue a few years ago, the papers ran stories to the effect that all fish were contaminated to the point that they were unsafe to eat, that the half-life of PCBs was 50 or 75 years, that they would be there forever. But then when a lawsuit was threatened which would have shut down the Federal lake trout planting program, it was reported that PCB levels had declined drastically. My feeling was that the DNR thought they’d found a tool to shut down the commercial fishery, and it backfired. They discovered not only that it would eliminate commercial fishing, but it would eliminate sport fishing as well. And that’s when they started backing off.”
The Federal lake trout planting program is another bone of contention. Historically, the lake trout was the mainstay of the commercial fishery, with a sustained take of four to six million pounds per year. The invasion of the Great Lakes by the parasitic sea lamprey effectively killed the Lake Michigan fishery in the 1950s. When the Federal stocking program began in the mid-1960s, its purpose was to restore the lake trout fishery for commercial and sport harvest (“In that order,” Weborg claims). Two decades later, the commercial fishery has not realized a penny of benefit from the program, while the sport fishery has profited enormously. State-funded programs for stocking brown and rainbow trout, coho and chinook salmon have also created a huge sport fishery without any gain for the commercial netter. While these latter species were never intended to be fished commercially, the lake trout was, but the DNR’s position is that it cannot be legally netted until natural reproduction is documented (Lake Michigan’s population of lake trout is completely dependent on continued stocking; natural reproduction is negligible, if it occurs at all). “Our position is that no one should be able to take lake trout,” says Weborg. “But so far the sport harvest has been allowed to continue.” Weborg spoke out in favor of a proposed lake trout “refuge” on “the Banks” , a reef area near Sturgeon Bay, but feels the agreed-on provisions are weak, and that the prohibition of sport fishing in the area is unenforceable.
Weborg argues that the seeds of discord between commercial fishermen and the DNR were sowed and continue to be cultivated, by a few influential voices in the sport fishing lobby. The numbers are in their favor. The state licenses some 180 commercial fishermen, whose industry represents over $10 million to Wisconsin’s economy. But about 500 licenses are issued to charter boat operators catering to the sport fisherman, and over 200,000 Great Lakes trout and Salmon Stamps, required of all anglers who fish Lake Michigan, are sole as well. Revenue from these stamps, along with tax dollars, fuel the ongoing stocking program, which effectively translates into a publicly subsidized harvest for charter boat operators. Predictably, this fact irritates Weborg. As an industry, sport fishing in Wisconsin dwarfs commercial netting. The upshot is that whenever a decline in the quality of the sport fishery is perceived, the commercial fisherman is blamed. This despite the fact that the species of interest to the sport angler cannot be taken legally by netters. Of course, the trout and salmon that excite anglers are caught in the nets, and although they are returned to the lake, there is a certain percentage of mortality, but not of a degree to affect the sport fishery. Personally, Weborg sees no substantial conflict between the two groups. “There’s no area in the entire Great Lakes system that is fished more heavily, commercially, than northern Door County. And yet this is one of the most thriving sport fisheries in all the Great Lakes as well. That shows they can coexist in harmony. But if you went to a meeting before the senate or the assembly with the DNR and leaders of the sport fishing industry present, they’d try to promote this argument that a great conflict exists. There isn’t a conflict. There’s room for both on the lake, and we’ve proven that right here.”
Weborg’s son, Eric, is becoming two. Jeff would at least like him to enjoy the option of entering the fishing business when he’s of an age to do so, although, in the manner of his own father, he won’t pressure him. He hopes to instill in Eric the hard-learned lesson that whatever career he chooses, it must be one he genuinely enjoys, regardless of money and title. The same hold for his pretty, four-year old daughter, Robin. But for her, commercial fishing will not be an alternative, just as it wasn’t in the critically-acclaimed movie, The Islander, for fiction, fifteen-year old Inga Weborg, played by actress Kit Wholihan. One of a handful of independently-produced movies made outside New York and California in 1984, The Islander also stars Jeff Weborg, “playing” himself, as Inga’s father, a commercial fisherman in whose footsteps the girl wants to follow. Unable to memorize a script, Weborg worked with Director Phyllis Berg Pigorsch to understand the essence of a piece of dialogue, then relayed it in his own idiom, with only the final line repeated verbatim in order to cue the other actors. ”I’m not an actor,” he shrugs. “I was playing myself. If I’d done it any other way, it would have sounded as if someone pushed a tape recorder and the words came out of my mouth. If my daughter decided she wanted to become a fisherman, I’d react in the same way. I’m not against women’s rights, but fishing’s a man’s world. There’s a lot of heavy lifting. Physically, women just can’t handle it. I’d certainly discourage my own daughter if she wanted to fish.”
Jeff Weborg is a thoughtful man, a man full of concerns. He worries gravely about the future of this life he has come to love, a life around which the future of his family is entwined. He longs for the day when his private version of Big Brother no longer seems dedicated to his extinction. Insofar as it is possible, he is pessimistic and hopeful at once. But he is at the most distant remove from dour, his sense of humor acute. He suggested that this interview occur at five in the morning, and laughed heartily at the inevitable balk. He claims to assume no responsibility for the actions of anyone who eats whitefish livers, especially young couples whose amour is supercharged by their rich endowment of Vitamin E, the legendary aphrodisiac. He refers to his quiet, dark-haired wife, Betty, as an “import” from British Columbia: “Imports may cost more, but they run better, “adding, with obvious affection, “We’ve been married sixteen years, and the honeymoon’s just beginning.” Of his profession, he says “They used to say we were men of steel in wooden boats; now they call us men of wood in steel boats.” Only once in his twenty years of fishing has he truly feared for his life, when heavy seas and a coating of ice threatened to capsize him; once the dock was reached, it took two hours for the men to hammer their way out of the frozen hatches, finally running the engine water through a hose to melt the ice. “I don’t fear the water, but I respect it,” he admits. And he respects the preceding generation of fishermen, the steel men like his father who faced unspeakable danger and survived. In his eighties, and after triple-bypass surgery, Marvin Weborg still accompanies his son as often as he can. “He doesn’t think the boat can go without him,” Jeff chuckles. “He could still grab your wrist and bring you to your knees.” He thinks about it for a moment, shakes his head, and says “They’re a remarkable breed.”
It is the way of the commercial fisherman to be immensely proud, but at the same time self-deprecating. Jeff Weborg is no less remarkable than his predecessors, his way of life founders on the reef of bureaucracy, we will all be the poorer. “You can’t go to the employment office and say ‘Give us five commercial fishermen.’ It doesn’t work that way. Once it’s lost, it’s gone forever.”