We went fishing for a living
All I knew about fishing I’d learned in a lab. But my wife and I, with our young son, joined B.C.’s salmon fleet. It’s given us ten years of freedom and the life together we always wanted
John S. T. Gibson
Reluctantly I jumped over the stern into the icy waters of Smith Inlet. Following the now familiar routine, Mary lowered our sharpest knife to me on a string. I took a deep breath and went down to cut away the tangle of net and lines which formed a tight little ball around our propeller. I hacked at it till my breath was exhausted, came up for air, and went down again. As 1 sliced away beneath the cold water 1 almost longed for the comfortable office desk 1 had left behind. 1 was a biologist, used to considering fish from the academic angle, hut here we were, my wife and 1 and our young son, on one of the three
“It happened to us”
ITÍÍ* Is another of the series of j>erHonal-expertence stories that will appear from time to time In Maclean’s . . . stories told by Its readers about some interesting dramatic event In their lives.
HAVE YOU SUCH A STORY? If so, send it to the articles editor, Maclean’s Magarlne, 481 University Ave., Toronto. For stories accepted Maclean’s will pay the regular rates tt offers for articles.
thousand-odd gill-net boats of the B. C. fishing licet.
We had emigrated from England to look for a way of life different from the usual office routine, where we could work together. But the immediate need to earn a living had forced us to shelve our dream and I obtained a job with the Pacific Biological Station at Nanaimo. Then one day on a field trip up the coast I had scon the gill-netters drifting on calm water, waiting to haul in their salmon-laden nets, and it occurred to me that commercial fishing might provide the ideal life for us. 1 took the idea to Mary and she agreed enthusiastically. That was ten years ago.
Looking back we arc amazed at the slight importance we attached to our utter ignorance of fishing and scant knowledge of boats. We were to pay for this with a fair share of disappointments and misadventures at the outset, but we have not regretted our decision to trade security for the life we wanted.
Having made our decision we asked a fisherman friend to help us find a sound boat within our modest budget, and so. by appointment, we made the acquaintance of Irma, a thirty-foot gill-netter. The owner was on board when we arrived at the Fishermen's Co-op floats where she lay, and the single-cylinder marine engine was running. At the time we attached no ominous significance to this: later we suspected that he had not wished to demonstrate how that engine started when cold. Neither of us had seen the inside of a fishing boat before, and though we were secretly horrified at the vastness of the engine which seemed to occupy most of the minute cabin, we felt we must learn to get used to cramped quarters, so instead of criticizing we noted with approval the soundness of the hull and the massive construction of the machinery. The owner was retiring from fishing. and offered us the boat with some gear lor SI.675. Our friend advised us that this was a fair price, we were able to arrange the transfer of our savings from England, and we became the owners of Irma.
Meanwhile, with some trepidation. I told Dr. R. E. Foerster. then director of the biological station, of the plans we were hatching, adding that I supposed 1 should have to resign my biological post. To my amazement he advised me not to do that, but offered me four months leave of absence. to give the fishing a good try during the next summer. Perhaps he thought that would get the madness out of my system, and leave me ready to settle down to normal existence. I accepted his offer with alacrity, and we were ready to embark upon our new vencontinued on page 33
We went fishing for a living continued from page 26
‘When a fish struck it rang the bell like a bed-ridden aunt”
ture without the uncomfortable feeling of burning our bridges behind us.
Irma engaged most of our spare time that winter. The cabin which would have to sleep the three of us contained one single bunk. This I enlarged with an extension which could be folded down during the daytime, and built another small bunk for our son Peter over a locker. Then it was essential to construct an elaborate removable housing to protect Peter's exploratory fingers from the huge and fascinating engine. This bulwark made it impossible to open the oven door more than an inch or two. so Mary had to cook exclusively on top of the tiny oil stove, using the pressure cooker for an oven. To make the small dark cabin seem larger and brighter, we covered the drab brown paint with palegreen enamel.
Irma's modern conveniences consisted of a twenty-gallon fresh-water tank, with a tap a few inches over the cabin Hoor. There was no sink, wash basin or toilet. We wanted to install a marine toilet, but couldn't find room for one. In my innocence I thought it might fit into an empty space near the gill-net drum, until I learned that that was where we were supposed to put the fish. We settled for the primitive alternative of a bucket.
Then we had to consider fishing gear. Our boat had a power-driven drum on which to wind a net, but we were appalled to learn that a new net would cost about six hundred dollars. It we gill-netted for the whole season we should need several with different size meshes for the various species of salmon, and of special colors to match the water in each area. One second-hand net was all we could afford, and after consultation with my biologist friends we decided to concentrate our gill-netting efforts on the July run of sockeye salmon in Smith Inlet, and ordered the appropriate net from the Fishermen’s Co-op, for two hundred dollars.
As this would only occupy us for about three weeks we planned to troll for coho and spring salmon for the rest of the summer, so we began to learn about trolling, and the gear needed for it.
We listened intently as a fisherman gave incomprehensible directions for rigging cotton lines—cheaper than the more usual stainless steel — for Irma's four poles. He repeated the instructions, but we remained little the wiser. At last he gave up trying and suggested we walk up with him to the little store on the wharf. Here he showed us what to buy. then returned with us to the boat. Mary made the inevitable coffee "mug-up,” and we sat around on the deck watching our friend build up fishing lines from the assorted pieces we had bought. Fight dawned as we watched his demonstration and now his instructions made sense to us. All the fishermen we talked to were amaz.ingly helpful and patient with our abysmal ignorance. They were very kind to Peter too. as he played on the float while we worked, and many were the toys and cookies he collected from them.
In practice we found that the cotton lines would not go deep enough, so to increase our efficiency I improvised a heavier line from the assorted bric-à-brac left aboard by the previous owner. I attached it to one of the bow poles, put a bell on the end of the pole, and every time a fish struck, it rang so sharply and
insistently it reminded us of a bed-ridden aunt demanding service. Many a time I was awakened from a cat nap by a call from Mary that "Auntie” had a fish.
Our trolling began with the opening of the blucback season in the Strait of
Georgia—bluebacks arc small coho salmon that remain in the sheltered waters of the gulf between Vancouver Island and the mainland. We stayed near home for a few days, getting used to fishing and to living on a boat. Then we laid
in a supply of groceries, including a considerable reserve of canned foods which we stored in the hold, filled up with gas and fresh water, and were ready to go to Hornby Island, some forty miles north, where the fish were said to be bigger. Peter was perfectly content playing on the little deck, his life jacket on, and with a line to the mast. He took a great interest in the fish, and a less welcome one in throwing articles overboard, to watch their mysterious disappearance.
We trolled from dawn to dusk in these calm waters. Our catches were small.
but we had not expected to master the art immediately, and at least we. were earning expenses. Each evening we sold our fish at the Fishermen’s Co-op camp at Hornby Island. These "camps” owned by the fishing companies and the co-operative arc positioned at strategic points all over the B. C. coast. They usually consist of a scow with a small store, an icehouse for keeping fish, and quarters for the camp-man. and may also supply fresh water, gas and log floats to which boats may tie. Once or twice a week a fish packer collects the fish and brings fiesh supplies.
Troll-caught fish are usually sold on the fresh-fish market or frozen, and so fetch a better price than net-caught fish which are all canned. The small bluebacks we were catching brought us sixteen cents a pound when we delivered them, the Co-op making a final settlement when the pack was all sold. For that year it amounted to an additional two cents a pound. The "high-liners” were making up to a hundred dollars a day; for us ten dollars was a good day.
It was hard work hauling or winding our lines by hand with ten or twenty pounds of lead and a struggling fish on the end. At first we landed the fish very clumsily, and often had them flapping around in the cockpit with us, tangling lines into a hopeless snarl and spreading blood and scales everywhere. In time we learned to club them with the gaff, and to bring them in more tidily. When business was slack one of us would steer and the other was free to attend to other duties, to read or to sleep. When the lines began to jerk everything else would be forgotten in the excitement of catching fish. We found much satisfaction in steadily improving our technique, and above all in working together.
Toward the end of June it was time to leave for the gill-netting and we sailed with a horde of boats through the Yuculta Kapids for Smith Inlet, a long indentation in the mainland coast, about two hundred miles to the north. We were well equipped with charts and, though our knowledge of boats was small. 1 was able to adapt the navigation 1 had learned as a pilot in the RAE. A few nights later, two gill-netters with whom we tied up gave us our first lesson in gill-netting. We had led them into an anchorage as they, though experienced fishermen, carried no charts, but navigated by following other boats.
Our three boats set out together to cross Queen Charlotte Sound the next morning. There was a breeze and a big swell as we emerged from the shelter of the islands into open water, and after half an hour or so the other two boats turned back, their owners making up-and-down movements with their hands to indicate that it was UK) rough. We thought we knew better, for had we not been told it was always rough in Queen Charlotte Sound? It didn't seem too bad, and if we hung back today, it might be worse tomorrow. We chugged on. and all went well until we were about ten miles out. Then the seas became bigger, the wind got up. and a horrible noise from the region of our propeller suggested that all was no longer well. We stopped, ansi 1 discovered that one of the iron netguards, intended to protect nets if we aecidentally ran over them, had shifted and was fouling the propeller. Balancing with considerable difficulty in the heaving stern. 1 reached down with a pike pole and threaded wire round the loose netguard to hold it clear. We started up again, and the sea got rougher and rougher and every wave broke over the bow. We wedged a miserable Peter securely into his bunk, our equally unhappy selves
into the wheelhouse, and it»-! kept going slowly on. Abreast of Cape Caution and its wicked - looking rocks, the engine spluttered and almost stopped. We prayed fervently. It picked up again, and slowly the rocks dropped astern. A few minutes later I found why it had faltered; so much water had come into the bilges that the flywheel was dipping into it, and spraying the ignition. It was now essential to pump out, a job which I had hoped could wait till we were in calm water, for it was hard enough merely to stand on the deck now. With one arm clasped round a trolling pole, I worked away with the other at the primitive hand pump, changing arms periodically to relieve the ache. Unbelievable quantities of water came up, spilled over the deck and out through the scuppers, before 1 heard the welcome gurgle of the pump sucking air and knew the job was done. A few more uncomfortable miles, and we thankfully entered the calmer waters of Smith Sound and an-
chored in a sheltered and deserted cove.
Peter, happy again, came on deck, and we sat enjoying the stillness before dealing with the chaos our tossing had caused. All the cans in the hold had lost their labels, and this anonymity added interest to meals for the rest of the summer— it’s difficult to judge the contents of cans by shaking. Meat and vegetables that had been wallowing with trolling gear and bits of cardboard in the oily water were edible after much washing, though not at their best.
We found out later we were almost the only boat to cross the sound that day —over a hundred other gill-netters had stayed on the other side, waiting for the weather.
The next day a large fish-packer arrived. towing the camp which was to be our headquarters for the next three weeks. This camp was the biggest we had seen, with an upstairs containing the camp-man's rooms. A gill-net camp, though basically the same as a trailers’ camp, must provide special facilities for tending nets. In addition to the ordinary decked log-floats, to which boats tie, there are extra-wide ones on which stand racks for stretching out the nets so that tears may easily be found and mended. Other special floats support rows of "bluestone tanks," large wooden tubs containing a solution of copper sulphate to preserve the nets and kill minute marine organisms which would otherwise make the web phosphorescent in the water, and too visible to salmon.
During the afternoon other gill-netters began to arrive after a comfortable crossing of a peaceful Sound, and the cove came to life. By the time I had fixed the net-guards the net we had ordered had arrived on a packer from Vancouver. We wound it on our drum and were ready to make our fortune.
Gill-nets are set out as long barriers in the water, and the fish become entangled in them by their gill-covers. Wind and tide have to be watched when setting or picking up a net, so that the boat will drift away from, and not over, it. We found this much less simple than it sounds. The net, being wholly in the water, is affected by tide and not by wind, while the boat is influenced by a combination of the two. Much trial and error and many cold dives beneath the boat to cut net and line free did not teach us to judge these things with any accuracy. It was a horrid shock to discover that net-guards are to protect other people’s nets, not one’s own!
The first time we set the net we had no worse trouble than catching it slightly in the rudder and net-guards, the rest of the catch consisting of a small amount of seaweed and two jellyfish. But we soon learned that the easiest thing to catch was our own net in our own propeller.
Next to our net we found jellyfish the easiest things to catch. Millions of them would come in on the net as we wound it in. and slide oozily into the bilge where they decomposed, to be pumped out as a thick foamy liquor. Once we became so mesmerized by the constant stream of them that we failed to notice a large salmon until to our amazement we found it in the boat with us.
We caught seven salmon the first week, and by Friday evening we had decided we did not like gill-netting, and were quite ready for the weekend closure. Enforced by the federal government as a conservation measure, this is the weekly period during which no net fishing is allowed. Its length varies according to the abundance of fish and the intensity of the fishing effort. In this case it lasted from six p.m. Friday till six p.m. Sunday. We ran back to the camp and tied up at the floats among a crowd of boats.
We found the closure anything but a holiday. Horribly early on the Saturday morning our neighbor knocked on the wheelhouse door and woke us with the unwelcome news that he had just finished with a bluestone tank, and if we wanted next turn at it we'd better grab it quickly. We thanked him and soon had our net in the tank. This dipping of the net was one of the most vital rituals of the gillnetters’ weekend. When that was done we spread it out on a rack and mended a multitude of tears, a task which we performed slowly and unskillfully. By the time we had the net wound back on the drum the first day of our weekend had gone. A great number of minor jobs remained for our attention the next morning. and these were scarcely finished before it was time to set out again for the Sunday evening opening.
Our engine seemed to dislike gill-netting as much as we did. Hitherto it had not usually taken more than fifteen or twenty minutes to start, now it frequently took two or three hours and it was a most exhausting process. 1 never did have much affinity with engines and I felt that that inert mass of metal hated me as much as I was growing to hate it. At full speed it sounded like a cross between a pile driver and a pneumatic drill, and in reverse it made such an extraordinary grinding noise that it had been known to bring Mary up from the cabin, thinking we had gone aground.
We caught thirty-four fish in the sec-
ond week, thirty in the third; improvements on the first week's seven but, at an average of a dollar twenty-five a fish, hardly an adequate return for our labor. We still did not enjoy this method of fishing, for we disliked drifting at the mercy of wind and tide, and the net seemed such an unwieldy thing, intent upon entangling everything except salmon.
We longed for the joys of trollingpoles jerking and bells ringing, and live fish to be played on the end of a line, instead of these sad - looking drowned creatures which occasionally got caught in our net. So we dumped the net on the camp, arranged for it to be sold for whatever it would fetch, and feeling years younger, rigged our trolling gear again.
After a couple of days we set off to explore further north. En route, the carburetor developed a leak, so we anchored off a sandy bay, and Mary rowed ashore with Peter while 1 mended it. When the job was donc I swam after them, and we all ran around in the sun in our birthday suits and holiday mood until we saw a boat approaching, its occupant studying us through binoculars. We must have been a funny sight running back for our clothes, and later we met the man, who told us with a leer that he had seen us playing on the beach.
We went on up Fitz Hugh Sound to Idol Point, near a village with the picturesque name of Bella Bella. Here we found a fleet of trailers and a snug anchorage a mere ten minutes’ run from the fishing grounds. We stayed for three weeks and experienced again the pleasures of trolling as we had known it at Hornby Island, with the added attraction that we were now catching larger coho salmon, and in commercially profitable quantities. Our monstrous engine seemed to like the change as much as we did, for its reluctance to start quite disappeared. At trolling speed its ear-splitting racket was reduced to a gentle soporific thumping.
Often we would fish all day, but sometimes when the fish stopped biting around noon, we would anchor and go for a walk ashore, climbing through the trees to open blueberry-covered slopes above. When the expedition was too much for Peter's short legs, he rode comfortably in a rucksack on my back. Occasionally we would break the day with an afternoon trip to Bella Bella, to replenish our stocks of fuel and provisions. After these excursions we went back, refreshed, to fish for an evening bite before returning to the anchorage and delivering our catch.
In late August, when this run of cohoes came to an end. we made our way south, fishing a little as we went. This time we were careful to pick good weather for crossing Queen Charlotte Sound, and the trip was smooth and uneventful.
We returned to Nanaimo, and for a few months I became a biologist once more. It had been a memorable summer, and although gill-netting had not been a success we were sure that trailing would provide the life we sought. We traded Irma in part payment on a real trailer with modern gear and room to live in comfort, and when the next summer came round I resigned my post and we embarked in earnest on our new life.
That was ten years ago. Since then we haven’t grown rich, but that was never our reason for fishing. It has, however, provided an adequate living. We work during the summer months, and in the off-season the three of us sometimes travel, for Peter takes his schooling by correspondence. But more often we just enjoy the peace and quiet of the home we built in a small fishing village on Vancouver Island’s west coast, it