This is the first in a series of blog posts by Skipper Otto’s co-founder, Shaun Strobel, about his experience growing up fishing on the BC coast with his dad, Otto. Stay tuned for further instalments in the series!
The 2017 fishing season will mark forty years since the first summer I spent gillnetting for salmon with my father Otto. While the process of setting and picking nets and actually catching fish has stayed largely the same, there have been dramatic changes in the way a small boat fisherman goes about his or her job.
Today the average fisherman in BC is 62 years old. That age would have qualified for “old timer” status in the 1970s. Then most of the gillnet boat owner-operators were in their 30s to 50s. Younger men got started on a boat from a fish company rental fleet, or got themselves an old wooden “double-ender” and tried to keep it afloat until they could save up for a newer boat. When the fleet wasn’t fishing on the Fraser or Skeena Rivers, we were often based out of remote fishing camps in places like Rivers Inlet on the mid coast of BC.
For me my fishing life started when I walked down the ramp onto the docks at the long vanished No. 2 Road Pond at the eastern end of Steveston. Dad had already loaded the boat and geared up so we said good bye to my mother and younger sister and untied to head out of the river and up the coast for three long days of travel to the fishing grounds. As was the custom, we travelled with a small fleet of other boats. Some were fishing partners who we would work with all season, and others were just fellow fishermen who kept an eye on each other as we transited open water on our way to the more sheltered inlets. Some of the boats were equipped with VHF marine radios, but we still communicated primary by “mouse” as the CB radios were called. We travelled 12-14 hours a day at 8kts or 9.2 mph. Dad’s little fiberglass boat could have gone much faster but we matched our speed to the slowest boat in our group.
The slowest boat in our group was Tom Ito on his boat Maverick. Tom was an older Japanese Canadian fisherman who had returned to fishing the coast in 1950 when the interned coastal population was finally allowed to move back to the coast. Their homes and boats had been seized and sold in 1942, so Tom, like many of the returning fishermen, lived on their boats or in company bunk houses in winter. They also spent long hours making their own nets by hand and doing all sorts of tasks that had been mechanized before I ever stepped onto a boat. Although there are few Japanese Canadians still fishing today, they comprised a sizeable segment of the fleet through most of the 20th century. It was Dad’s Japanese friends that first taught him how to mend nets and get his boat ready for his first fishing seasons.
One of these friends was Ken Taneva, whose boat “Waco” was the fastest in our little fleet. Ken was a small man, but a master of several Japanese martial arts and a one time national Judo champion. As a fisherman, he couldn’t afford to miss a salmon season and had been forced to give up on going to the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. Instead, he entertained himself and others by taking on challengers and tossing much larger fishermen onto the sand at the beach at the old fishing camp Namu.
The only other kid along for the ride was David Roberts, who fished with his parents Rod and Judy on their 32 foot fiberglass boat El Jebel. On calm travelling days Judy would often bake treats on her oil stove and hail dad and I to come along side and get a slice of cake or plate of cookies to supplement our rather limited diet of canned food and fresh fish. Sadly, Judy passed away a few years ago but Rod continues to fish, and has provided salmon to our CSF since its beginnings. The El Jebel has been renamed Silver Gill and is still fished by Bill Barry, another of our CSF fishermen.
That first season we travelled to Rivers Inlet to start our season. We transited the whirlpools of the Yucata Rapids on day one, the choppy waters of Johnstone Strait on day two, and the open water swells of Queen Charlotte Sound on day three. When we finally arrived at the fishing camp Wadhams, I was delighted to discover that there were plenty of other children around. Some lived in company housing and others were on boats. The dense Rainforest and thick undergrowth in the inlet made straying off of the boardwalks and floats impossible, and so with little room to run around, we all donned life jackets and played on the water in our little skiffs. We raced, splashed each other with our oars, and caught scores of Rock Fish with our fishing poles. We were also green with envy over the outboard motors that some of the older kids had on their boats and that let them range further a field. Of course, playing only happened between fishing openings, which I will describe in the next instalment of this series.