Back With His True Love: Fishing
By John Flesher
Associated Press - 05/05/99
Back With His True Love: Fishing
ISLE ROYALE, Mich. (AP) - Les Mattson became a fisherman when he was only eight, joining his dad in seeking Lake Superior trout and herring.
Years later, he still treasured that life, even after the government told him to hang up his nets. Overharvesting and the sea lamprey, an eel-like creature that sucks the insides out of fish, had taken their toll. The Great Lakes commercial fishing industry dried up.
``They were telling us, `You're gonna starve doing this, it'll never bounce back like it was,''' Mattson recalls.
For three decades he earned his keep in construction. But fishing remained his long-lost love. Finally they were reunited _ and the romance continues.
Mattson runs the Edisen Fishery, a demonstration project at Isle Royale National Park. For more than 80 years it was a small, family fishing operation, the kind that once was commonplace along the big lakes.
He was intrigued when park officials approached him about the job seven years ago, but there was a catch: He'd have to conduct regular tours of the buildings and grounds.
``I'm a fisherman, a construction worker, but a lecturer? Not me. I didn't figure I could ever talk to groups,'' he says.
But he'd be fishing for a living again, at last! It was an offer he couldn't refuse.
Now, at 72, he considers himself a fair-to-middling tour guide. Better yet, he and wife Donna still arise several days a week at dawn and load their gear into the small boat. They coax the motor to life and rumble across the placid channel to open Superior waters, where they let down the nets _ a ritual that long ago became second nature to them, yet never grows old.
``We'd go on forever, if they'd let us,'' says 64-year-old Mrs. Mattson. ``When a fisherman gets it in his blood, there's no getting it out.''
Les Mattson is short and slender, with a graying mustache and short, thinning hair. His face is lined and weathered, but his lively blue eyes twinkle merrily as he chuckles at one of Donna's jokes.
They've been married 45 years. One obvious reason for the longevity of their marriage: a shared passion for fishing.
``She's a partner,'' Mattson says, nodding across the kitchen table at his wife as she rolls a cigarette. ``In this business, you've got to have one.''
Both were raised near Munising, on Superior's southern shore. Mattson's father immigrated from Finland around 1915. His mother, also Finnish and Laplander, detested the seafaring life, fearing for the safety of her husband and sons.
With good reason. Commercial fishing could be dangerous. At times when they were miles from land, sudden gales kicked up waves that turned the big lake into a watery roller coaster. Mattson recalls crashing at least twice.
A storm once forced him, his father and his brothers to take refuge for three days on the Laughing Whitefish River, a dozen miles from home. They had neither radio nor food, and subsisted on wild blueberries.
The work was never lucrative. ``I don't think any fisherman I ever knew drove a Cadillac,'' Mattson says.
Still, they got by _ even during the Depression, when his father was more likely to swap his catch for butter or bear meat than cash.
But Mattson, like most other commercial fishermen, couldn't overcome the steep drop in lake trout and whitefish populations in the 1950s and later. He was still a young man when the state Department of Natural Resources shut down most of the Great Lakes fishery in the early 1960s.
He and his wife continued sending in the annual fee to keep their license current, just in case things changed.
``I even kept the boat for years, and all the gear went bad. It finally rotted away; I never got a penny for it. I really had hopes they would bring the fishing back, but they never did.''
Just when it appeared time would pass him by, opportunity knocked.
In the 1890s, two Scandinavian immigrants had built a small fishery near Moskey Basin on the eastern side of Isle Royale, which would not become a national park for 40 years.
Members of the Edisen family ran the operation until the mid-1970s. After they abandoned it, the National Park Service gained jurisdiction.
Officials asked Mattson, who was doing restoration work on the nearby Rock Harbor Lighthouse, to live temporarily at the fishery as caretaker. He and his wife stayed there off and on through the 1980s.
When park managers decided to restore and operate the fishery as a living history exhibit, Mattson was the natural choice for fisherman-in-residence.
``It's the longest running commercial enterprise out here since lumbering and mining went bust and the old private resorts went belly up,'' says Liz Valencia, the park official who supervises the fishery.
``We wanted people to see a real fisherman catching real fish and processing them, with guts on the table and scales on the floor. We also needed someone who could maintain the buildings, and Les does that.''
Nowadays, the Mattsons spend part of the year in a cabin at the fishery and the rest at their house in the Upper Peninsula town of Houghton. Three of their four children live nearby.
Mattson is clearly in his element as he escorts a visitor around the fishery grounds.
``The kiddies like this,'' he says, raising a trap door in the floor of the dockside fish processing house. Below, a large lake trout thrashes about in a holding tank.
The aging, musty structure's log walls are lined with fishhooks and coils of rope. The floor is littered with old boat motors, washtubs and lots of fish scales. Nets and oars hang from the rafters.
Outside lies a ramshackle 18-foot fishing boat. Mattson is fixing it up in his spare time, when he isn't repairing nets or doing other chores _ such as fishing. Always the fishing.
How long will they keep going? The Mattsons don't know, but say when they stop it will be for health reasons. They'll never get bored with the life they waited for so long.
``It's amazing, especially when we go out in the early morning, and it'll be real calm and the sun's just coming up, and you can see the net way down in the water and the fish coming,'' Mrs. Mattson says. ``If I get excited about it, I can imagine how he feels.''
She winks at her husband.
``Yeah,'' Mattson says. ``It does make me feel really at home.''