Fishing with the boys

Sonia - August 13, 2015

By August, Shaun has spent a good chunk of his summer away from his family, fishing alone in very isolated parts of this coast. It’s lonely, exhausting work. Last week, he suggested I bring the boys for the final night of fishing in Alberni Inlet near Barkley Sound. At first, I was hesitant. Lyndon is only 4 years old and has never been out commercial fishing, and Oliver’s first trip was last year when he was 6. If you haven’t read that story, check out this blog post from last year before Oliver went fishing and this follow-up story! I’m always incredibly busy with running the land part of the CSF. How could I just up and leave at the last minute? But, in an unusually spontaneous move for me, I decided to do it!

Sleeping bags, rubber boots, life jackets. Check. I loaded the boys and the gear in the truck and headed for the Horseshoe Bay ferry Wednesday afternoon. The boys were so excited they were practically vibrating in the back seat. Oliver had been out fishing with Daddy and Opa before and was instructing Lyndon on all he would need to know to become an experienced fisherman like his brother. After about 5 hours of travel, we arrived in Port Alberni, got settled on Kor Wes, and shoved off.

DSC_0018Oliver (7) giving orders to Lyndon (4)  as we cast off in Port Alberni.

The weather was unusually calm and warm as we motored out into the inlet. On our port side, we could see James and his dad, Alec, cleaning fish and getting into position for their next set. We waved and they called over “I see you have some new deck hands tonight, eh, Shaun?” The boys beamed proudly at being referred to as deck hands.

Oliver sat, stone faced in the captain’s seat, looking through binoculars and watching for debris, nets, and other boats. He was clearly very proud of his knowledge of what to do to be helpful and wanted very much for me to be impressed! Lyndon bounced around on the dinette seats, calling out orders “Mommy, get me my life jacket!” “Daddy, go faster!” “Let’s go catch some fish!”

Our plan was to let the kids stay up late enough to help set the net around dusk. When the sun sets, a lot of the migrating sockeye salmon come to the surface as they sense the water cooling. We could see fish jumping all around our boat so this was an exciting sign that the fish were coming up. Shaun motored around and selected a place to set his net. The boys jumped up to help, fetching the marker buoys that would flash at the end of our net, helping us locate it and not confuse it with other nets. The first marker light was fastened to one end of the net. Oliver brought daddy the “scotchman” – the bright orange buoy that marks the end of the net – and together, Shaun and the boys dropped the markers over the stern. Then Shaun slowly ran the boat along his desired path while the net unravelled from the drum into the sea. When we got to the end, Lyndon brought the second marker buoy and helped Shaun fasten it and drop it overboard. The net was set!


DSC_0066 The boys watching from a safe distance as their dad sets the net.

We went into the cabin and made a late fisherman’s dinner of macaroni and cheese, and cups of hot chocolate. When I looked up from the table, it was dark out, past 9:30, and both boys were rubbing their eyes and falling asleep in their food. We decided to put the kids to bed in the bunks and there were no objections from either of them. PJs on, teeth brushed, and zipped into their little sleeping bags down below, it was only a matter of moments before their still giddy chatter, wiggling, and tossing subsided and silence settled over the boat.

I sat with a steaming cup of hot chocolate as Shaun ran the boat along the net in the now pitch dark, and was baffled by the process. The inlet, forest, and sky were an impenetrable inky sea punctuated by tiny lights, some flashing, some white, some red, some green. Hundreds of little lights, all signifying something that was a vague mystery to me. Shaun pointed out which lights were our net, which were James’, and which were other fishermen’s. He pointed out a tug boat in the distance with its 3 stacked white lights. He told me stories of the past week’s night fishing where numerous recreational boaters, unfamiliar with the nightly ritual migration of commercial nets and vessels, found themselves trapped in the inlet and unsure how to navigate around the traffic. Some of them panicked like trapped animals and sped over fishermen’s nets, causing thousands of dollars of hit-and-run damage. Others wove their ways cautiously until fishermen shouted out tips to help them get into port safely. Shaun explained that we couldn’t just hang on the end of our net since we needed to help other boats see where our net was, so we ran up and down along side our net for the full soak. We leaned over the edge of the boat, shining a headlamp into the water, counting the ghostly shadows of fish ensnared in the net.

When it came time to pick the net, I was completely turned around and could no longer tell which way was out to Barkley Sound and which way was back in to Port Alberni! But Shaun knew and found it a bit humorous how the dark made me so confused. I tied on my rubber apron and slapped on a pair of gloves, just grateful for Shaun’s confidence and competence.

20150805_235250It’s dark out there. Really dark. Shaun gets ready to pick the net with just one overhead work light.

We hooked up to the net and began to reel it in. The first fish to come over the rollers are always so exciting! The flap and flop around in the net. If you’ve never seen it done, picking the net is also an incredible feat that fishermen manage all day every day. The net is all pulled together like a tightly stretched hammock, and the fish is wrapped in it like it’s taking a siesta in there. Fishermen just grab the cork line or the lead line and start walking their fingers along the net. Somehow, their fingers find how the fish is trapped, sometimes it’s trapped in a little pocket they have to spin out, sometimes it’s wrapped over and under. With a few twists and a quick shake, out pops the fish, slapping around on the deck at our feet. We slide them under the drum and keep picking.

At one point, a fish came up to the rollers that was hanging loosely from the net and which was also clearly dead. Just before it came over the rollers, it slipped from the net and splashed into the sea. Shaun jumped up as though a person had fallen overboard, grabbed the gaff, and hooked the fish expertly through the head. He pulled it aboard and slid it under the drum.

“If it was alive, I wouldn’t care,” he said. “It’s the fact that it was already dead that gets me. If we lost it, what an incredible waste of life it would have been.”

“I can kill fish all day long if it’s to feed people, and it doesn’t bother me,” he said when I pressed him farther, “but to kill a fish for nothing and then let it rot? It’s just wrong.”

And so we kept picking: 27, 28, 29. By the end of the net, we’d picked 33 sockeye salmon. Not a bad set, but not a great one either. And with that, it was time to set the net again, but this time, in the pitch dark. Now this was a different animal. The darkness meant I couldn’t tell where was land or sea or horizon. All the little lights looked to me like there wasn’t possibly a clear ¼ mile where we could set a net. But with the radar going, Shaun watched and expertly steered around boats and nets that I didn’t even notice, weaving up and down the inlet until he found just the right spot.

“Where?” I said, incredulous.

“There!” he pointed to the radar. “Each of these lines is a ¼ mile. There’s just about a ¼ mile between here and that point, see? We should be able to squeeze the net in right here.”

The radar was like a dart board — a black screen with orange circles around a central point (representing us). But like a well-used dart board, the rings were filled with blobs – some big and some small – representing the boats and rocky outcroppings of the inlet. It seemed impossible to navigate this mess and yet somehow, we were about to. Shaun plopped the buoy and marker into the sea and started to run the boat toward the point.

“Just keep an eye out in case we get to close to anything,” he said.


“Like what?!” I said, a bit panicked at having this level of responsibility bestowed upon me.


“Oh, you know, log booms, the shore.”


I did not like the sound of that and sat there with the flood light pointed ahead of us, straining to see through the pitch dark. And I realized, I must look a bit like Oliver just now, with that serious look on my face, while Shaun smiles, knowing he’s given me a bogus job and that if there was really any fear of running aground, he would be up there himself watching on the radar. But just to be sure, I kept a close eye out.


Sure enough, the log boom came into sight and I glanced nervously at the net that remained on the drum and the short distance between us and the boom, sure we would never make it. But make it we did. Shaun cut the engine and dropped the buoy and marker well before the log booms, and then drove the boat around them to show me how huge they were and where the shore was.


And so the night went on like this. Picking and setting, picking and setting. After midnight, I decided to try to sleep a bit and lay down in the bunk next to the boys. They seemed to have no trouble sleeping through the work, but I drifted in and out of sleep each time the revs on the boat changed.


At 4am, I got up to see how things were going. Shaun had just enough fish on board to cover the orders our members had placed, and had spent most of the night gilling and gutting them in the dark while he ran along his net. They wouldn’t be the most beautiful fish cleaning job he’d ever done, but with such a short turn-around – the pick-up was in just over 12 hours! – there was no processor who could get them cleaned in time for the pick-up.


The pitch darkness had turned a slightly faint grey, allowing us now to see the outline of the land as we headed back into port. We woke Oliver as we knew he would be mad if he didn’t get to help a little more before we headed home. He rubbed his eyes and was instantly awake, like a good little deck hand. He “helped” gut the last fish and work the winch to offloaded our fish onto the pick-up truck. We woke Lyndon at 5:30am, loaded the sleepy kids into the truck, and headed for the 7:45 am ferry to Horseshoe Bay.

 20150806_052313Oliver watches intently as his dad guts the last fish before offloading and heading home.

We headed home for naps and showers, and then headed back to the wharf in time for the member pick-up.


When people ask our kids what their parents do for a living, they proudly say, “We’re a fishing family.” I love that that is a point of pride for our kids, not something to be ashamed of. Fishing families do incredibly important work. They feed people. And they feed them honest, healthy, fair, local food.


Shaun’s skills and the skills of all the other small-scale fishermen are an incredibly rare set. There is no training program to teach you how to do what Shaun did that night and I, for one, am so grateful that anyone in our modern world can still do what he can do. Whenever I see Shaun at work fishing, I fall just a little more in love with him. He, like other fishermen, come to life when they are at sea. On land, their talents can get lost in our overly-computerized, modern world, but at sea, they are the masters. Even if our boys decide that fishing isn’t for them, I know that their memories of growing up fishing with their parents will stay with them forever, and they’ll never lose respect for the people who work so hard to produce fair food.


Sonia - August 13, 2015

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Fishing with the boys

Sonia - August 13, 2015

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