In a previous entry I described my childhood trips up the BC coast to the once numerous commercial fishing camps of the mid-coast inlets. For this post, I want to describe what it was actually like to fish an opening as a kid in the summer of 1977.
On Saturdays the fishermen would usually help each other spool the gillnets back onto their boats from the net racks on the floats. Holes and tears from the previous week’s fishing had been mended up and the process of tearing them up was ready to start over again. A trip to the fuel barge topped up our tanks with gasoline and stove oil, although many other boats were already switching to diesel for heating and power. After picking up supplies from the company store we were ready to go. By this time we already had a small propane refrigerator and decent little oven on board, which allowed us to cook simple meals like soup or oatmeal. Those without such luxuries did much of their food preparation before leaving the dock. Dad’s friend Ken Taneva, for example, liked to boil a dozen eggs and make a large batch of rice balls to eat throughout the fishery.
On Sunday morning, dad would haul my rowboat out of the water and secure it to the roof of his gillnetter. In the afternoon we would head out into the inlet to claim our spot for the first set of the opening, which always began at 6pm. Depending on the location of the fishery and time of the season, the first set could be very important. Some fishermen were adamant about getting their particular spots and would leave the docks early in the morning, or even the day before to anchor in their favourite location. Late-comers had to fight for the remaining spaces, careful not to set too closely in front of others and intercept their fish- “cork” them- as it’s known by fishermen. Even worse, they might set too close behind another net and cork themselves. We set the nets by powering the boat forward and spooling the net off the drum and out through the stern rollers. Once the net was in the water we towed the net to keep it in shape, ran the boat along the net to try to chase in fish (really!), and then reeled it in while disentangling seaweed, jellyfish and of course, our fish (a process known as picking the net).
As night approached everyone made sure to be ready for the all-important “dark set.” In many parts of the coast, large numbers of salmon come up towards the surface and start moving as darkness falls. This can make for the biggest sets of the opening and no one ever wanted to be caught with their net on the drum. Around midnight, after the dark set was picked, we would often make another set in open water. If no shipping traffic was moving around and we were far from shore dad would often try to “nap” for an hour or two, waking up and looking around every 20 to 30 minutes to make sure everything was ok. As I got a bit older I would often take the midnight shift and watch things for a couple of hours while dad got a bit of real rest. In exchange, he was good about letting me sleep well into the morning while he made set after set. While watching the net at night I kept myself busy trying to tune in far-flung AM radio stations that we could only ever pick up after dark. Usually San Francisco stations came in as strong as ones from Vancouver, and occasional I listened to a sports channel from Dallas.
Every morning at daybreak the company collector boats would move through the gillnet fleet looking up in the rigging for the identifying company flags of their fishermen. Few, if any of the small boats carried ice in those days, so 12 hours was about as long as we wanted to hold fish on board. Over night the air was always cool in the inlets, but during the day we routinely poured ocean water over the fish in the hatches to keep them “fresh”. No one was overly concerned about quality as almost all of our fish was destined for the canning lines, and the tendermen took little care with our catch, pitching the fish from boat to boat with pews. The pews were basically broom handles with spikes on the end. A well-placed pew through the head of a fish did little damage, but the flight through the air and rough landing did them little good. Misaimed pews through the tail or even the flesh of the fish were, sadly, not uncommon.
The mid-coast openings were usually scheduled for 48 hours of continuous fishing, although they could be 24 or 72 hours depending on the seasonal returns of the salmon. Regardless of the initial opening length, we all listened to our radios for announcements from the Department of Fisheries. These were broadcast around noon on the last scheduled day of fishing, and, depending on the catches and escapement numbers for the week, we were either told that the fishery was “closed as scheduled” or granted a 24-hour extension. If fishing was good and the weather was decent, the fishermen always wanted more time, while many of us young deckhands secretly hoped to get back to the dock and pick up the games we’d left off from the week before. Regardless of how long we were fishing, we always hoped to get through the opening without too much damage to the nets. Holes could be caused by logs, or more likely, propellers; either from your own boat or someone else trying to maneuver through the fleet at night. The most common and irritating source of net damage was backlashes. When some of the webbing got snagged as the net rolled off of the moving drum the result was an awful tearing sound, which always meant the loss of several hours of free time, since we would have to rack and repair the nets… again.
When fishing ended for the week the entire fleet raced to the camps and got in line to make our “clean up” deliveries. After that boats vied for the most convenient spots to tie up on the busy floats, and young deckhands like myself tried to convince their dads to launch their row boats before they hit the bunks for a long-delayed night’s sleep, leaving us to clean the hatches and hose the decks before finding where our friends had tied up for the week.