Cathryn Klusmeier holds a fresh salmon fillet aboard the F/V I Gotta (Photo provided)

Sitkan Cathryn Klusmeier has been commercial fishing for nearly a decade. When she’s not on the boat, she’s writing, pushing toward her first book one essay at a time. She recently won a prestigious national literary award, the Pushcart Prize, for an essay that contrasts fishing and her experience grappling with her late father’s chronic illness.

KCAW spoke with Klusmeier about her process and what it feels like to swap a keyboard for a gaff hook every summer. 

When the salmon aren’t biting—which is a lot of the time—Eric and I sit with blood caked on our faces and talk about neon squid lures and diesel engine mechanics and my father’s unraveling brain. As we wait—and even when the fishing is good, we do a lot of waiting—we talk about wind speeds and water temperatures. We talk about gaff hooks and hydraulic gurdies. We wax poetic about properly sharpened filet knives and salted herring threaded on barbed treble hooks.

Cathryn Klusmeier grew up in Northwest Arkansas, in the Ozarks– lake country.

“My dad was a very big outdoors person, and so we were just constantly outside,” she says. “We spent most of our time on the rivers and on the lakes, actually. We were always, always, always on the lake, on the water.”

She says that’s why she feels so at home in Sitka. She was living in Sitka in 2014, finishing up an artist residency, when commercial fisherman Eric Jordan offered her a job.

“Eric had long fished with Sarah, his wife for forty-something years. And Sarah finally said, ‘I’m retired, I’m done.’ And she’s like, ‘I’m stepping off the boat.’ And so Eric, for the first time, he’d always fished with his family. And so for the first time, he was like, ‘Well, I need to find crew.'”

It was a tumultuous time in Klusmeier’s life. Her father was suffering from a chronic illness, and her family was struggling to keep up with his medical bills. She says that summer in Sitka, and on the boat, was “stabilizing in a strange time.”

“I was thinking just constantly about life and death and sickness, and all of these things that felt very heavy and weighted for a really long time,” she says. “And it made me terrible dinner party conversation, because I was just unable to talk very normally because my life was so immersed in all of this.”

“When I stepped on the boat, and I started fishing, we were cleaning all these fish…I remember thinking like, ‘Oh, this is this feels familiar to me.'”

And conversations with Jordan were easy.

“Eric was somebody that I immediately connected with for many reasons. His father had passed away when he was very young,” she says. “And so he just implicitly understood the situation that I was in, which was just, like, financial precarity and just a lot of emotional things going on. And we just started going fishing together.”

She’s been fishing with Jordan for seven years now. That’s what her essay “Gutted” is about.

Every morning from May through September we rise at first light to discuss the state of the tides, the swells, the current. We talk about how much sleep we haven’t gotten, how much food we have left. We discuss very seriously the right angle to place the knife so it glides down the salmon’s belly just so. We never talk about how bad the other person smells.

In the writing, Klusmeier draws parallels between her experiences fishing and searching for her father amid a mysterious illness that took years to diagnose. 

“And it caused him to basically just stop talking one day when I was around 18 years old. And we spent years looking for answers to what was going on. We didn’t have insurance at the time, he had lost his job,” she says. “Doctors couldn’t seem to tell us, we were doing all kinds of scans and everything.”

“I just have memories of us searching. We were constantly searching for answers,” she says. “It was like we were looking for my dad.”

Ultimately he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. He passed away in 2016.

“I’ve found — and I guess this is just the way I’ve processed things — but I feel like I do a lot of the processing in the moment,” she says. “And so I’ve spent so many years like thinking through a lot of what happened to us and to my family. So by the time I’m now writing about them, it feels like I’m doing something with all of this pain that we went through, you know, and all this pain that all kinds of people who have chronic diseases and chronic illnesses go through.”

“So when I’m writing about it, I feel like I’m doing something with it,” she says.

Klusmeier says she hopes her writing can give comfort to readers who have faced similar experiences. She’s currently studying at the Iowa Writers Workshop, where she’s working on a longform project. She says “Gutted” is an intense section of a book she’s writing about her father and fishing and finding healing in unexpected places. 

Read Klusmeier’s Pushcart Prize winning essay “Gutted” here