Legends of Myself 130

Posted on January 20, 2020

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130. The Boneyard, 1965. High Boat on the River

One week while the fishing was on, a storm came to the Boneyard. It wasn’t the kind of storm that the motorized gillnetters on the river would have much trouble with, although it might make pilot and crews nervous, I suspect. A large boat or ship would just plow through it, hardly caring. But for a rowboat, it was a real storm, and for that my father needed me in the boat, because, under those conditions, fishing was too dangerous for a person alone.

We were fishing at night, I remember, and my job was to row while my father handled the net. That’s why I had to be there. It was impossible for him to do both. I had to keep the rowboat so that the bow always faced directly into the wave. If we went sideways, we’d be swamped. The waves were, I suspect, about six feet high. If I’d been so foolhardy as to stand, I doubt that I could have seen over them when we were deep in the trough. As for keeping our little skiff facing those waves, the waves and wind and darkness were motivation enough to keep my attention on the job.

The night of the storm was one of two occasions when my duties at the Boneyard extended beyond the shore. My second occasion was calmer, less nerve-racking, with no relation to the weather, and the story all began with a visit to the float at Haysport. Usually, when we went to Haysport, we didn’t visit the float unless we had specific business down there, such as catching a ride to Cassiar. That day we must have gone down to look at the halibut.

Somebody had been fishing off the float and caught the halibut, and when we got down there, it was lying on the boards, a hundred or a hundred and fifty pounds, a mass like a gigantic flounder that, to me, didn’t seem to belong where it was. I had no idea that the Skeena—although this was the Skeena estuary and a mix of fresh water and sea water—supported halibut at all, a deep sea bottom-dweller. It flabbergasted me that you could catch one by fishing off the Haysport float. But there it was.

I can’t remember with any certainty what halibut sold for per pound in those days. I know that it was more than you got for most species of salmon. Salmon start spawning in the spring and the runs start with spring salmon, also known as king, chinook and tyee salmon, followed by sockeye, coho, steelhead trout, humpbacks, and, in the fall, dog salmon, and their prices start high with spring and end low with dog, the latter of which produce a profit by coming in great numbers. Halibut, it seems to me, was more like spring salmon in price, which meant that the large mass I saw on the float that day was like hauling a lottery ticket out of the Skeena

As it turned out, it was my father and I, who had nothing to do with catching it, who mostly cashed out on that ticket.

I don’t know any details, who went to whom and how it was arranged, who caught the halibut, who bought it, and how they sold it and got the wine so fast. There didn’t seem any way anyone could have gone to Prince Rupert and back in the period of time in which it all happened. Was there a bootlegger somewhere that I had missed, their back room lined with galloons of cheap red wine?

(Galloon was the nickname of an imperial measure 160 fluid ounce jug of inevitably cheap wine with a thumb ring handle at the top. You could put the full gallon on your shoulder and tip it back into your mouth, as I’ve seen done.)

As remote and seemingly uneconomical a location for commerce as it was, Haysport did appear to have a bootlegger somewhere, sometimes available, though I never did find anything more about it

Within a day of the halibut being caught, it was cashed out and the party in Haysport started. Eventually it must have been almost everybody’s party, and dug into funds that had nothing to do with the halibut. The halibut launched it, and it carried on from there. When opening day arrived, the party was still going on, and nobody seemed inclined to leave it. None of the little fleet from Haysport motored round Mowitch Point to the fishing grounds, and my father and I for once found ourselves alone in the Boneyard.

For that week and the next, I fished regularly with my Dad. There must have been conditions when he was fishing with other little operators around him that weren’t there when they were gone, and that’s why he needed me there. I can’t really say. But there I was.

Fishing from a skiff is fundamentally an extremely low-tech version of what you do when you fish from a motorized gillnetter. A gillnetter has a drum to hold the net, a motor to turn the drum, rollers over which the net passes into the water, and a motor in a boat to tow the net and stretch it out, with the cork line and the lead line keeping it upright in the water. Then you and your net drift and the fish are caught by pushing through the gillnet till their gills got tangled in the nylon. Then you watch for the splash where the salmon hit the net, ideally all along the net, and you haul them in. You use a gaff hook to control the fish close up, using the gaff on the gills so as not to damage the flesh. A club—in our case a stick with lead inserted at the tip to give it heft—was used to knock out the fish once they were in the boat, to bring the flip-floppers under control.

In a rowboat there’s no drum, of course. The net is in a pile at the back of the boat, which you let out over rollers. In the Boneyard in those days, and quite illegally, everyone anchored their nets. Gillnets were supposed to drift free under the law. We got away with flouting the law because the Department of Fisheries boats were too big, with too great a draught, to navigate the Boneyard and to come in and catch us at it.

Anchoring the net made it easier to make a set in the absence of a motorized drum to let out the net for you, but also, and perhaps even more importantly, so that you could position the net to avoid snags. All those dragon and dinosaur bones which, at low tide, explained the Boneyard’s name, were really, when you were fishing there, only so many snags, every one of which was a hazard to a gill net.

One time my father and I did catch a snag, and it was memorable in more ways than one. Imagine a net caught in the root of a tree, a root that you can’t see, hidden by muddy waters. It is possible, if you are lucky, to pull the net just the right way and get it free. So, working blind, you manoeuvre the net this way, you manoeuvre it the other, you pull, you tug, and after awhile, when it doesn’t work, you tear. Nylon is strong. It is meant to resist tearing. I had to sit at the front of the skiff during the most violent part of this process, otherwise my father’s ripping and hauling would have pulled the back corner of the skiff under or flipped the skiff over. My father fought that snag like King Kong fought the dinosaur.

Now, to place in context what happened next, my father’s version of swearing was “Holy cats!” He was usually as profane as Charlie Brown, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if, like Superman in the comics, he let go with a “Great Caesars ghost!!” occasionally. But the day we caught the snag, he improved my vocabulary by two or three words or phrases. Kneeling, stooped over the back of the skiff, tearing at the net with all his strength, suddenly I heard him spill out a long string of words, many of which I had never heard before—from him, from anyone—referencing all at once and emphatically several disturbing and unusual—to me—sexual concepts, which, during my 15 innocent and sheltered years on the planet, I’d never encountered before.

Oh my gosh, Dad.

Shock is such an inadequate word sometimes.

But it gives a notion of how nasty a snag is. And there was the aftermath where my father had to go out to his net racks on the mudflats, beekeeper hat on, and repair the net that he had just ripped and rendered in epic battle.

So, to return to my original point, that’s why they anchored nets in the Boneyard.

However, snags aside, fishing alone in the Boneyard means catching more fish. My father even learned something new about how the fish moved, obscured, I guess, when he had to share the space with competitors. I remember him talking excitedly about the way the fish came over the bar at a certain point of the tide, which, since I was ignorant entirely of the hydrology of the Boneyard, didn’t mean much to me.

As for catching more fish, even somebody standing on shore could have remarked on that if they saw my father and I rowing out that week to deliver our fish to the packer. All the canneries sent packers around to gather fish from the fishing grounds, so that the fishermen didn’t have to detour to the canneries to deliver them themselves. The Skeena was really calm, as it had to be, or we would have been in danger venturing out on the Skeena with our rowboat riding so low in the water. We had so many fish, all the compartments that my father had constructed around the rim of the skiff were full to the brim, and the leftovers were lining the floor of the skiff beneath us. We were five or six inches away from sinking altogether.

We came up beside the packer, they passed down two long-handled gaffs to us, and we started spiking the fish onboard. Meanwhile the packer crew caught them, categorized and weighed them as we went along. I remember that there were a lot of coho and steelheads. After awhile they were shaking their heads. The runs were bad and the fishing season on the Skeena was not a good one in 1965, and nobody was catching many fish, and that was part of it. But it turned out that that week, my Dad and I with the most modest and low-tech operation on the river, modest even by Boneyard standards, caught more fish than anyone fishing for Cassiar no matter what their gear.

We were high boat on the river.

The folk on the packer thought the whole thing hilarious, and they were quick to tell us. Our ridiculous little rowboat, just once (and that’s enough) had beaten them all.

We made $800 dollars that week. In today’s money that doesn’t seem like much, but we had by then already paid off our debt to Cassiar, and it was “all gravy” as my Dad said. And expenses were low, as I could testify since I had taken over domestic finances. It cost no more than $20 a month for my father and I to live in the Boneyard, and that was even taking into account the inflation of shopping at the company store using company coupons.

$800 was a windfall, and when we went into Haysport the following week, we saw the party was still going on. There was still wine in the galloons. Somebody had brought out their rifle and they were having a game of target practice on the front boardwalk. The halibut money was long gone, but the party continued through a second week of fishing, and my Dad and I, though not high boat the second time through, still made a further $500 in solo command of the Boneyard.

Which was fine, too.

That was one lucky halibut, if you ask me.