‘The season where hope comes back:’ Praying for a good catch on Lake Erie

George Gibbons understands that saying a prayer over his fishing nets may not guarantee a good catch or keep him and his fellow commercial fishermen safe on Lake Erie’s choppy waters.

But it can’t hurt, either.

“We’re a superstitious lot,” said Gibbons, who has been a regular at the blessing of the nets ceremony at St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Port Dover since the early 1970s.

“We’re not superstitious enough to believe that God’s going to anoint our year,” he said. “But you never take a chance.”

The annual church service is dedicated to the fishing families of Port Dover, which was once a bustling freshwater port and still retains a small fleet of commercial tugs that will return to the water in March.

While blessing the large nets draped on the pulpit Sunday morning — a wooden ship’s wheel leaning against the altar behind him — Bishop Barry Clarke prayed that Dover’s fishermen and women “be delivered from all perils” and have an abundant catch “through their perseverance and tenacity.”

“It’s tradition. It’s what I grew up with, coming to this service,” said Gibbons, who fishes for perch and pickerel aboard the Eau Clipper, the same boat captained by his late father, George.

Among the approximately 60 people inside the church — with more watching online — were active and past anglers, and townsfolk whose relatives sailed the seas.

“You see them come back year after year. And then you have the newcomers who really enjoy the tradition,” Gibbons said.

“The connection to the lake, that plays a big part in this community.”

St. Paul’s has long been associated with Port Dover’s fishery. In yesteryear the steeple of the venerable church was used as a marker for sailors approaching the harbour because it was the tallest point in town.

“Jesus chose fishermen as the ideal person to be a disciple for him — realistic, brave, intimately involved with life and death,” said Janet Ternes, a divinity student who is training for the priesthood.

“Because when you go out there, you are risking a lot. The winds can change, and despite everything, it can be dangerous.”

Joe Zimba, who catches smelt aboard the Donna F., knows all too well the risks commercial fishermen take every time they leave the dock. He was in the wheelhouse on the morning of March 23, 2020, when fisherman Michael Smith was lost at sea.

“I come because it’s part of the heritage of the community, and part of my life, my livelihood,” Zimba said from his pew at St. Paul’s.

“It gives you more of a sense of security, if you’re a spiritual person. Almost like you’ve got the touch (of God) — the blessing that everything’s going to be OK. But then sometimes it’s not.”

Zimba appreciates how Doverites support the handful of local fishing families still plying the waters.

“It’s good that the people really acknowledge the industry,” he said. “I think it’s good to have this.”

Much of the local catch is sold nationally and overseas, though fresh fish can be found in Port Dover’s restaurants and at the Pleasant Port Fish Company, a weekly market across from the pier, which opens for the season on Good Friday.

Ternes sees the blessing of the nets as a turning point for those who make their living on the lake.

“There’s an off-season, and then there’s the season where hope comes back and they start fishing,” she said.

J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator