Call Me What You Like, Just don’t Call Me too Late for Dinner

United States | Alaska | Sitka

Mary (Ganchoff) Smith is a Troller working out of Sitka, Alaska. She fishes and direct markets frozen-at-sea Salmon and has a lot to say about the terms “fisher”, “fishermen” and “fisherwoman”. Her website, where this post was originanly published, is

“Apparently I am not the only person thinking about the term “fisher” and what it means to people. Let’s get this party started. I hate that term. It makes me cringe. When I talk or write about fishing I use the term fisherman without fail. But why? I have been struggling to explain why. To others, to myself.

Might want to grab a snack.

Yesterday on Twitter I stumbled into some buzz about a paper entitled “Should We Call Them Fishers or Fishermen?” written by Trevor A Branch and Danika Kleiber. Hey, for starters, don’t call me at all unless you’re calling to tell me that you’re ready to order some #1, 10 and up H&G FAS King Salmon. (907) 229-9608. Or text me, it’s easier.

Let’s start with this quote from the paper:

“While the use of ‘fishers’ may be more inclusive, its use is not universally appropriate. In North America, both men and women who fish find the term ‘fishers’ offensive and self-identify as ‘fishermen’ (Reedy-Maschner).

I’m not going to go so far as saying that the term ‘fisher’ offends me, but I obviously don’t like it. I cannot picture myself using the term “fisher” in front of other fishermen. I image myself talking to (insert name here; Phil, Mike, Gary, or Jason. No women right? Because I probably wouldn’t feel as goofy saying it in front of Michelle, Tele, Mariah, or Casey). We don’t have all day here but that’s more about me than anything. I want to be accepted, I want my identity to be something I wear naturally and casually like an old sweatshirt. “Fisher”. It sounds fussy and academic. It sounds like you’re trying too hard.

Maybe worse. Maybe it sounds like you are one of ‘them’ and not one of ‘us’. I wanted to get on the boat more than anything. We need a couple of lawn chairs and a few gin & tonics for this entire conversation, but all I have is my personal experience and my journey from the land of them to the land of us. It’s a long one. It still isn’t over.

A lexicon already exists. Galley, deck, line, starboard. Learning that language isn’t any different that learning French. All you want to do is dream in it. I didn’t buy my first crew license until my late 30’s, but I am here now. Do I sound like a local? Am I one of you?

The paper touches on this, stating:

“Female-specific or gender-neutral words used by women in fisheries may reinforce their differences from the rest of the crew resulting in their marginalization. “One self-described fisherman from the Hawaiian bottom fish fishery explained: “Guess it seemed there were always so few of us [women.] [“]Fisherwomen[“] seemed contrived & awkward. [I w]asn’t into “making a statement”

But then it follows up with this statement which admittedly at first left me asking, “huh?”

…Thus the cultural value of the term “fisherman” is connected to the worth given to masculinity and the feminization of labour becomes synonymous with it’s devaluation.”

Let me work that out. If we start to use a feminine term, it implies (unfairly) that the job isn’t as valuable. Sure, I can see that. I mean we have the Tour de France which everyone agrees is a powerful endurance test like no other. We also had the Tour de Feminine, which is hard to say without conjuring up a bunch of pink tutus and white wine spritzers. Why isn’t the women’s race also called the Tour de France? Why don’t women just ride in the Tour? So the problem is a deep river running beneath the title. But I think we already knew that from simply walking the dock.

Branch and Kleiber sum it up for me with two words (out of context but the meat of the matter), “…inclusion and validation

Enter: Reality

5 long days into the summer king opener I am so exhausted that I can’t hold more than one thought at a time. The situation dictates that the only thought I can hold onto is “fishing”. Crawling out of the rolling bunk in the dark, putting on damp clothes, groping and weaving across the dark deck to the pit, putting out the gear to start the endless day. Then the big kings like thrashing bags of lead just past the tips of my tired fingers, my hip bones grinding into the rail, my back screaming, my lips dry. My husband tries to drag me into a pre-breakfast anxiety-fest of low prices and crappy sales and we haven’t even glazed our first load yet. I have a headache. I’m hungry. I have to change my tampon. Snot runs constantly from my nose. My wrists are chafed raw by my wet gloves and burn with each movement. It’s only 7 AM.

Later, in October, when a guy at the bar says “so, now you have the whole winter off?” in that way that people say it, I want to punch him but my shoulder is still so sore I don’t want to lift my arm. What’s my point? My point is that on day 5 of the summer king opener I want to say unless you hang it all out there then don’t tell me what you’re going to call me. Later I still want to say it but not as cattily.

Anyway, when do you even become a fisherman, or a fisher for that matter? When you clean >50 halibut during a class 2 vomit session? When you finish your first midnight to 4 AM watch? When you don’t piss your pants in a situation you would later describe to your friends as “code red”, one eye on the survival suits, the captain screaming “PUT ME IN THE FUCKING LEE” as he leans over the port side rail into the wilding dark to deal with some impossible 2 AM nightmare entanglement? When you grab the wheel and put him in the fucking lee like a boss?

“What defines me”? I have been, at various times in my life, a “chef” a “cyclist” a “political activist”. One time someone asked me if I had ever run a marathon and I answered “no”. And then, after a moment or two, I said quietly, in utter sincerity, “well unless you count the one I did in the Ironman.”

Oh hey, let’s talk about the Ironman for a moment. When do you become an Ironman? It’s when you cross the finish line at a Ford Ironman Triathlon sanctioned event in under 17 hours after swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles and yes, running a marathon and someone drapes a medal around your bent and heaving body. And back to points 1 – 3, unless you’ve floated in the icy waters of the Tempe reservoir 1 mile into your swim hyperventilating in the sticky cloud of a panic attack, trying to count down from 20 to calm yourself. Unless you’ve wondered should I yell for assistance and nullify the last 6 months of my life I spent training for this thing or should I just drown? Unless you have thought “…oh come on you are not going to drown” as you are possibly really drowning then don’t ask me if I am actually an “Ironwoman”.

Ironaman, Ironwoman. Fisher, fisherman, fisherwoman. My college sports teams were called the Lumberjacks. Unless you were a woman, then you were a Lumberjill. Is that even a thing? It’s not. It’s a term someone made up so that women playing sports at a college in Northern Wisconsin didn’t have to be erroneously called Lumberjacks which apparently only applies to men. And because there isn’t a gender neutral term for someone who works in the forest for a living. Or is there? (Googles “Forestry Gender Research”) OMG there is! It’s a “Forester”. Figures. But who wants to play for the Foresters?

But there I am again sort of being disdainful towards academics. Oh, all you do is sit at your big desk all day in your corduroy pants and your deer skin slippers and do your research. “Shall we call them harvesters?” .

Did I tell you about the time the Captain said to grab the line holding up our 200 lb. outrigger pole and the block broke and I wasn’t wearing gloves and the line ripped though my hands at like 50000 miles an hour and burned my palms practically through to the muscle? And then I had to fish the very next day and each time I wrapped the mono around my hand it dug into my palm like a red-hot poker?

It’s you vs. me, it’s us vs. them. It’s breaking away from a desk to tie gear until your hands hurt at a galley table that’s just really another desk. It’s saying so long to the 9 to 5 only to find you’ve joined the 4 to 10. It’s a superstition that women bring bad luck to boats. It’s the fact that it took Grunden’s until fall of 2015 to release a set of bibs cut to fit a woman’s body so I can finally stop belting my baggy men’s size small to emphasize my hourglass figure.

I jest. I wear a belt because it has a knife on it.

But I’m starting to get it. It’s not about being a fisherman or a fisher, it’s not about being an Ironman or and Ironwoman. It’s about a world where when we offer up a female version of a description people automatically assume it’s less tough. If you told someone you were an Ironwoman it’s possible they would think the race was a women’s version. You know, just a 2 mile swim, a 85 mile bike ride and a 20 mile run.

Sometimes when we golf I refuse to hit from the women’s tee. Then after about 3 beers and 5 pathetic 30 yard drives I move up.

All this soul searching has me thinking maybe our time is better spent actually improving the lives of foresters and fishers everywhere instead of writing and researching and talking about what to call them in our research? I don’t care if you call me a killer if you can get me an extra .50 at the dock! Or some affordable health insurance! Take my captain, please!

And then the deeper connections between identity and self-worth and women even wanting to become fishermen or fishers or frankly ANYONE wanting to become a fisherman or maybe more to the point these days, desire has nothing to do with it. Its being able to even afford to break into fishing. No matter what your gender is.

I am a woman and I am a fisherman and I am an Ironman and I am ready to listen and learn and hear what everyone else has to say on the subject. Comments section is here, you know the drill.

P.S. I’m actually a troller. It’s gender neutral already!”


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