Book review: New essay collection hooks into the meanings of community, gender and risk in a small-boat fishery

“What Water Holds”

By Tele Aadsen; Empty Bowl Press, 2023; 149 pages; $18.

Tele Aadsen became a “boat kid” when her parents, veterinarians in Wasilla, built a boat in their backyard and then launched the family as salmon trollers in Sitka in 1985. Although her parents eventually went on to other ways of life, Aadsen made a career out of deckhanding and today continues trolling out of Sitka with her partner. She markets their frozen-at-sea catch the rest of the year.

Aadsen’s debut book of 26 short, lyrical essays examines her life’s work, with insightful reflections about the passions that drive it, the questions that demand attention, and the community that small-boat fishermen share. The author is a regular participant at Astoria, Oregon’s annual FisherPoets Gathering, and most of the essays originated as presentations at those events.

Trolling, most Alaskans know, is not to be confused with trawling, the dragging of nets through the water. The salmon in trolling are caught on hooks one at a time from small boats crewed by one to three people, often family members. The fish, handled individually and delivered on ice or frozen, are known for their high quality. “Trolling,” Aadsen writes, “is thinking like a salmon — anticipating what they’ll want to bite, what lure will be fishy on any given day, considering influences of time, tide, weather, current. A practice precise and intimate ... trolling’s value is its values: hands-on reverence, a commitment to every fish receiving the same attention and exacting care.” Elsewhere she describes trolling as being “beautifully inefficient ... this ridiculously laborious, detail-obsessed business of coaxing fish to bite a hook one by one.”

In an early essay titled “Trolling,” the author describes in exquisite detail the clanging of a bell that means a king salmon has struck a lure and the ensuing activity aboard as she and her partner land, kill, and care for the fish. As she whispers her gratitude, she reminds herself that salmon “are more than a commodity; they are silver-robed ambassadors of home and hope, risk and return.”

Other essays take readers along through various fishing episodes, some sublime and some harrowing. They vary from the rescue of a shearwater with a sportfishing treble hook imbedded in its wing, to sharing salmon heads with a friend, to the fleet’s coordinated actions to get an ill man to safety, to nostalgia for the days of VHF radio chatter and the storytelling culture fostered by it.


Yet other essays reflect back on her childhood, including the years she and her mother fished together. In “The Rock with My Name,” she examines the time when, at age 13, she fell asleep on her watch and drove the boat aground, piercing its hull and nearly sinking it. Three decades later, when she passes that spot, “giving that hard shore a wide, respectful berth,” she thinks about the other rocks in life and the gift of grace her mother gave her.

“The Man in the Fish Tote” recounts in edge-of-the-seat detail the author’s participation in the rescue of a man who survived the sinking of a boat during a storm. “How We Will Weather This” tells of a storm the author and her partner fought through the night, when you “can’t see anything beyond the next wave’s toothy leer seconds before it snaps shut.”

Elsewhere Aadsen interrogates the insecurity of a fishing life, the “graying” of the fleet, and the roles of women. In “Fishing While Female” she recalls some repugnant experiences with men in her youth and repercussions years later when she meets one of those same threatening men on the dock. “He forced me to remember that in a world where gender, power, and violence are all connected, even the strongest fisherman’s vulnerability is never quite as distant as she’d like to imagine.”

Fishermen are acutely aware of the environment in which they work, and Aadsen frequently references aspects of weather, climate change, and marine system variations. “Ryan’s Tuna” specifically discusses the marine heat wave of 2013-2015 that brought schools of tuna into Southeast Alaska. When a dying friend asks them to catch him a tuna, Aadsen and her partner try their luck. They not only locate a school of 20-pound albacore tuna; they catch 40 of them to gift to 40 friends.

Near the end, the essay “Sustainable” speaks directly of the very recent situation in which a lawsuit to protect endangered Puget Sound orcas would have closed troll fishing for king salmon in Southeast Alaska. The closure was finally averted just a week before its scheduled opening this summer when an appeals court overturned a lower court ruling. In her essay, Aadsen displays her well-researched and balanced advocacy for science-based decision-making and the role that fishermen play in stewardship. “In Alaska,” she writes, “the challenge is protecting what is from what could be.” The what-could-be she finds to the south, in Washington State’s “explosive population growth, degraded habitat, dammed rivers, polluted waters.”

“What Water Holds” holds a great deal of clear-eyed consideration, even wisdom, about the values to be found in a fishing — or any — life.

Nancy Lord

Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days," and "Early Warming." Her latest book is "pH: A Novel."