Among that which falls within the expertise of fishermen are knives: There’s the ubiquitous Victorinox utility knife, bleeding knives, fillet knives, and knives to gut and clean specialized in shape and size to the species at hand, among many others. Learning how to use and maintain these blades is often part of the trade typically learned through experience.
But for Paige Bower it was a love of knives, or more precisely knifemaking, that brought her to her burgeoning career as a fisherman in Southeast Alaska. And after three short years of working as crew, she’s found enough satisfaction on the to start buying into fisheries even as she looks to invest in her knifemaking operation.
“One of the reasons I started fishing was to support my knifemaking,” says Bower, 25. “It is definitely doable — fish in summer and work on my knifemaking, leatherworking in the winter.”
Bower moved to Petersburg, Alaska, in 2018 from her home in Zillah, Wash., for adventure and to work with a community of knifemakers to further her metal-working craft. Petersburg also happened to be a bustling fishing port with plenty of work for those willing to work hard.
“Zillah is in the middle of a desert, and Petersburg is in the middle of a rainforest,” she says. “They’re very different, but both are small towns with a strong sense of community.”
Bower quickly made connections and hopped on a salmon tender in June 2018 to learn the ropes on the water. Tendering is slow compared to actual fishing, so in September that year, she joined a seiner to fish for chum salmon outside of Sitka. Her timing couldn’t have been better. For most in the fishing industry it seems the confluence of a stellar catch and market price happen just a few times a decade, but for Bower it happened on her first opener.
“I don’t think I’m allowed to talk about specifics of what we caught and how much we made, but I will say my captain looked at me and said, ‘This isn’t normal,’” Bower says with a chuckle. “I did realize how much opportunity there is in fishing, if you work hard and get lucky, you can make a lot really fast.”
After a winter of knifemaking and learning a new craft of leatherworking, Bower continued to develop her fishing career crewing on Dungeness crab and salmon seining boats in Southeast Alaska in 2019. The following year, she continued with those two fisheries, but also picked up longlining for halibut and blackcod.
This year Bower has been fishing Dungeness crab, salmon, halibut and blackcod, but added the purchase of a Southern Southeast Alaska herring roe-on-kelp permit and leased a sea cucumber dive permit — with the expectation of buying into the latter next year.
Her precociousness, self-confidence and skill has allowed Bower’s career on the water to take off quickly, but there have been challenges and learning experiences along the way — seasickness and stinging jellyfish notwithstanding.
“I think the biggest challenge at first was being teachable and open to criticism,” she says. “I had to change my attitude a lot to let things roll off and not take things personally.”
With so much time on the water and growing responsibility on boats, Bower hasn’t let go of the craft that first brought her to Alaska. She’s looking to downtime this winter to build her own hydraulic press, which would allow her to make layered Damascus steel blades in her own shop. If you’re interested in checking out Bower’s knifework, you can find her at shawleatherworks.com and on Instagram @shawleatherworks.