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Left Handed Hammers. Children and Herring Jigs.

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Hello all,

This is a post from my occasional blog I thought some of you might enjoy.



I’m the first to admit that I am not much of a fisherman. I don’t have the patience or the skillI and I’m think I’m slightly ADHD. My friend Mark used to take me salmon fishing but when I spent my day propped up against the side of the boat reading old National Geographic magazines, and only casting an occasional eye toward my rod tip, he got disgusted and has seldom asked me again.

But I do like to eat fish. So when my wife and took our sailboat to Alaska for the first time I was excited, Alaska was a place where the salmon were so plentiful that even a rube like myself should be able to catch his dinner. And I didn’t come entirely unprepared, I had the fishing pole I owned since I was a kid, and an oddball collection of tackle, lures, spoons, flashers, hooks, lines and sinkers. And a few jigs.

But things didn’t go well. After a week of dragging assorted gear through the water and nothing to show for it except lost gear, I was getting discouraged. We had traveled almost 100 miles through pristine Alaskan waters and while I hadn’t fished all of it, I had given it some serious effort. No old magazines here.

We reached Petersburg, a bustling fishing town, and tied up among the fleet of commercial fishing boats, some clean and shipshape and others barely afloat. Right next to us was a dirty white troller its deck littered with gear, which while afloat, did not look like the highliner of the fleet. No one was aboard her when we arrived and we left and toured the town.

When we returned we heard the banging of tools deep in the bowels of the troller. Soon an older fellow, unshaven, hands greasy, in a dirty sweatshirt and pants emerged from the fish hold. We had met our neighbor. Like almost everyone in Alaska, he was ready to talk. After hearing our story, he spied my salmon rod attached to the backstay and asked me the fateful question,”How’s fishing?”

I actually felt relieved that I could unburden myself and tell him about my failure at one of the manly arts. He immediately offered advice. First he asked where we were heading, and I told him west, around Kupreanof Island.

He said, “Here’s what you want to do, when you get to Pinta Point, about this time of year the silvers should be there, you’re gonna troll with a white hoochie, six ounces of lead with a little piece of salted herring wired onto the hoochie. I guarantee you’ll catch fish. You can tell Mama to fire up the canner.”

He asked me if I had any hoochies, I didn’t. So he immediately took out a new white hoochie out of his gear, carefully measured a leader, tied a hook on it, took a piece of salted herring out of a Ziplock bag, cut off a thin strip and wired it in place.

He gave me this rig and said, “Now have you got any herring,? You’re gonna need some more.” I didn’t. He said, “Not to worry, just get yourself a herring jig and you can catch some right off the dock.”

Finally, here was my chance to show him I wasn’t entirely unprepared, I had jigs. I rummaged around in my tackle box and pulled out what I understood to be a jig and held it up for him to see. He gave me a look as if he had asked if I had a hammer and I’d handed him a wrist watch.


It turns out jigs have hooks that are sized proportionally to the size of the fish’s mouth. I’d shown him a halibut jig, a herring would have had to drive itself full speed onto this hook in a suicidal frenzy to even have a chance of getting caught. With this he handed me his Ziplock bag of salted herring with a sorrowful look that one might give to a fool heading off on an errand saying, “Here, you better have these. I can get some more.”

I thanked him and tried to assure him I would do just what he advised. But I’ve never been sure he was convinced.

We did go west and at Pinta Point I did troll that white hoochie with six ounces of lead and it’s little strip of herring tied to its belly and sure enough I caught salmon. We didn’t have a canner, so Mama never fired it up, but we ate salmon for the next few days and I am forever grateful for his help, advice and grace.

Now, I may not know fishing, but I do know woodworking. My fishing tackle collection pales in comparison to the tools I own. Had my neighbor actually asked for a hammer, he would have been impressed by one of the several I had onboard or the couple dozen I have at home. And like those who fish for the thrill of it, not the eating, when it comes to tools I struggle with just when enough is enough.

Recently we visited Japan and I came across a second hand store with a wooden crate filled with an odd selection of old tools. Since we had to carry anything we bought I limited my selection to just a small two ended square faced hammer that is used for carefully tapping on chisels. I already had a larger one but I liked this one for its size and more importantly because its wood handle had the silky polish that comes from years of use by some unknown craftsman.

At home I cleaned it, tightened the head and tried it out. The heft was perfect but for some reason I could never seem to hit the chisels just right. I fussed with it, roughing up the faces, and I tried other hammers to see if my aim was off. But it wasn’t me.

Examining it closely I noticed that the previous owner had carefully customized the handle. It had a subtle twist carved in it instead of the normal symmetry of a hammer handle. It was made to fit in the left hand. It was a left handed hammer.

I never imagined such a thing could even exist. And it made me think that there are a lot of other things, ideas, and ways of thinking out there that I’m just as ignorant of.

I am a teacher and to those of us who teach, our students come to us right handed and left handed, tall and short, beautiful and plain, troubled and content, rich and poor; and prepared for what we are trying to teach and unprepared, or at least unprepared for what we feel is important.

There are kids who fail in science class but excel in woodshop. For some a halibut jig may be more relevant or important than the difference between a proton and a protein. As teachers we know we should individualize instruction, and I try my best. But the hardest part for me is to notice, and accept in the first place, that there are kids who work best, not with the tools everyone else uses, but with the left handed hammers.

And for those kids, like the fisherman helping a hapless sailor, I also need to show patience, understanding and grace.

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