Petersburg shrimper and poet Dennis Sperl has been fishing and telling stories as long as he can remember.
“You get hooked,” he said of fishing. “It’s a lifetime illness. There’s no cure.”
He grew up in a house near Sheep Creek in Juneau, sometimes accompanying his father on his weekly mail run in a boat — the Yakobi — across Southeast Alaska.
After college, Sperl moved to Petersburg. He coached basketball, track and cross country for many years.
He has self-published two books, one built around stories from his father’s mail boat’s log books, and one on “life and trials of fishing fever in Alaska.” Some of those books are in rhyming verse.
“I used to rhyme a whole history lecture,” he said. “I didn’t think much of it, but I kept kids interested.”
As the captain of a mail boat, Sperl’s father had a special view into a bygone era, when people like Taku River miner and trapper “Tiger” Olson still lived. Sperl relates stories from that era in “In the Wake of an Alaskan Mailboat.”
In one story, old miner Sandy “No Pants” Wilson’s cat saved his life.
“He shuffled out in his slippers to get a load of firewood. The cat followed him … a bear grabbed him from behind, he yelled, and the cat jumped on the bear’s head and went bananas,” Sperl said.
Wilson managed to make it into the cabin, got a .38 special, and shot the bear — which had followed him — but the bear’s body blocked part of the doorway. He couldn’t move it.
A few days later, when Sperl’s father came with the mail, Wilson came out to ask for help moving the bear. He had puffy claw marks on his chest, Sperl said. Sperl’s father alerted nearby Coast Guard members, and they came over to help, skinning the bear and moving it.
“The Coast Guard guy said the bear had big gouge marks in its face (from the cat). It would have been blind in one eye,” Sperl said.
Sperl has plenty of stories of his own, many published in “Living to Fish, Fishing to Live.” He’s also working on other writing projects.
Out on the water, in addition to thousands of pounds of shrimp (his record day was 22,000 pounds) he’s caught some unusual things — a golf ball, a bicycle, a high-heeled shoe. And, of course, all kinds of fish. “Some of them you can’t even find the names for,” he said.
Last winter, Sperl was fishing when a couple of whales approached and, suddenly, the boat began to tip.
He pulled up the trawl and saw black skin and grease — blubber — all over the cable. “One of them must have caught a fluke on the cable,” he said. “That grease was on the cable for about a week.”
Fishing and storytelling are important to Sperl, but the most important thing is community: his family, his spiritual community, and the community of Petersburg itself.
While he gets praised for his contributions — like donating 700 pounds of shrimp for a Petersburg High School basketball fundraiser — Sperl said he’d almost prefer he weren’t recognized, because contributions are by no means one-way.
“Doing good things for each other — that’s what keeps our community what it is,” Sperl said. “Community members supporting each other, helping each other in times of crisis.… It’s a wonderful community. That’s why I’ll never move … you go down the street and you know everybody. You go down the dock, and it might take you an hour to get down to your boat sometimes.”
He and his nondenominational Christian “spiritual family” meet in homes, “just like in the Bible,” Sperl said. They also meet to discuss certain topics — one recent topic was miracles. Ministers travel from place to place.
“It’s like a potluck spiritually,” he said of some of the discussion groups. “I was lucky. I grew up with it.”
Sperl doesn’t have much competition from shrimpers in Petersburg.
“It’s a tough fishery, and it’s a dangerous fishery if you don’t know what you’re doing,” he said.
After years of teaching, and almost 30 years shrimping and selling on the dock in Petersburg, Sperl has a loyal customer base. He hasn’t ever changed his prices, he said.
“If I want to make more money, I just go catch more shrimp,” he said. “I don’t need (money). But people need more shrimp. … I try to keep it family, try to keep it low-key. Selling to customers is really rewarding. They look forward to your signs. They look forward to visiting with you a little bit. … You know everybody, or if you don’t, you find out in a hurry.”
*In case you were wondering, we meant to spell “Rime” that way. It’s an allusion to the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”
An excerpt from one of Sperl’s poems:
In the towns by coastal waters there is a dread disease,
And it’s easy to be infected, so visitors, be careful please!
The familiar fishing fever, once it gets in your veins,
Hooks you, whether done as a sport, or for monetary gains.
It’s contagious, worse than measles, the black plague or the flu,
Why you might catch it just by gathering, a round the old barbeque!
Infectious germs are in the air, like any other ill,
And people can catch the bug from the aromas off the grill!
Of course a taste of what’s been caught, given to friends or kin,
Can kindle a desire, for serious fishing to begin.
Samples of Lutefisk or beer bits, of salmon, smoked or fried,
Will just cause the fishing fever to be intensified! …
No matter how the illness is spread; by taste or hearing tales
Once hooked, a fellow is done for, when the love to fish prevails.