In this memoir Steve Kink describes growing up in Bellingham's Slav fishing community. Steve's grandparents, Paul Kink (originally Kinkusich) and Maria (Evich) Kink, emigrated to Bellingham from Croatia. His father Mitchell Kink (originally Kinkusich) was born here and he, his brother, and his cousins comprised the second generation. The "Uncle Dick" mentioned here is Dick J. Kink, who was a state legislator from Whatcom County for 12 years during the 1950s and 1960s. All took part in the commercial fishing industry of Bellingham.
A Croatian Fishing Community
My grandparents were immigrants from Croatia and arrived here in the early 1900s. They came from the town of Komiza on the Island of Vis. Many Croatians settled in Bellingham, other port cities in Washington, and elsewhere on the West Coast. Those who came to Bellingham settled on the Southside and referred to themselves as "Slavs." The vast majority of the Slav community was involved in the commercial fishing industry throughout Puget Sound and Alaska. The first generation born here included my father, aunts, and uncles. My brother and I, along with a multitude of cousins, comprise the second generation. The following are but a few memories growing up in the Bellingham's Slav fishing community.
Spring was a great part of the year because the Slav fisherman would be getting ready for the fishing season. Dad would take me down to the web-houses where all the fishing nets were being made ready for the season. They were located just south of the docks at the end of Taylor Avenue. These big buildings held all the fishing gear for the purse-seine boats that fished in Alaska and Puget Sound. Dad would be working on the nets and I would help by running errands and putting corks on the cork lines. Later, I became good enough at hanging nets to get paid for the work.
I remember the smells of the nets. Early, when the nets were made of cotton, they had to be dipped in tar to preserve them during a season of salt-water fishing. The corks were made of actual cork. The smell of tarred nets, corks, and lines on wooden boats is unforgettable. Later, nets were made of nylon, corks of styrofoam and lines of synthetics like polypropylene and nylon. They were more efficient and longer lasting but lacked the smells of the originals.
It was hard work mending and putting together nets, but it was fun because all the Slavs would be talking about the upcoming fishing season and share great stories about those seasons past. The crews would also get the boats ready for the season. They would make repairs and usually paint them. Some captain was always trying some new invention that made the job easier and requiring some adjustment to the boat. When the boats were ready, the nets loaded, and the supplies aboard, it was time to leave. This is when the blessing of the fishing fleet would occur. A priest from the Sacred Heart Church would come down to the docks and say some prayer asking for a bountiful and safe season. Once the fleet was blessed, it could leave for Alaska, where it stayed most of the summer.
As a little kid, I remember the days the fleet would leave. All the Slav families would gather on the docks saying their good-byes to husbands, sons, brothers, uncles, cousins, dads, grandfathers, and friends. People would be laughing and crying at the same time. As the boats left the docks, their whistles and horns would overcome the sounds of people shouting goodbye, a few for the last time. I always wished and wondered when I would get to go.
The return of the fishing fleet was equally exciting. Many of the boats would plan to arrive from Alaska at the same time. They would call ahead on ship-to-shore radios and the families would pass the word as to when the fleet would round Pt. Francis by Lummi Island and soon reach the docks. After two or more months away, families reunited and things were safer for another year.
Commercial fishing was a major industry in northern Puget Sound as well as Alaska. Bellingham had several fish canneries. At one time the Pacific American Fisheries (PAF) cannery on the south side of town was the largest in the world. Columbia River Packers was on the north side of Bellingham Bay. The major cannery in Blaine was Alaska Packers. The PAF cannery is now the terminal for the Alaska Ferry system and Alaska Packers is the Semi-ah-moo Resort.
Almost all of the Slav families were involved in the fishing industry. There were dozens of boats tied up to the docks. It is estimated that there were 300 purse seiners in Puget Sound, and Slavs owned about 80 percent of them. Ma, my grandmother, and many other Slav women worked in the fish canneries. I remember, as a little kid, visiting Ma in the cannery. She operated a machine that put lids on cans of salmon.
Most of the Slavs lived between 11th and 15th streets on Bellingham's south side in what used to be the town of Fairhaven. Some of the family names in the Slav community were: Kink, Evich, Zorotovich, Mustappa, Karuza, Tomich, Costanti, Glenovich, Zanchi, Stanovich, Gajzea, Kuljus, Radesich, Zuanich, Muljat, Elich, Pecarich, Xitco, Repanich, Vitalic, and Sarich.
The fishing boats owned by these Slavs had names like: Peter E, Clio, Red Feather, Irene L, Providence, Andrew Z II, Yankee, Yankee Boy, Yankee Girl, Sweet Home, New Moon, Terry K, Phoenix IV, St. Paul, Dutchie C, Tajlum, Katherine, Texas, Louis G, Independence, Secure, Kemo Sabe, Indiana, and Valiant Lady. My uncle, Dick Kink, would lease a boat each year and some were the Inventor, Moonbeam, Oceania, and Jackie A.
Sometimes we would get to go on the purse seine boats out to Lummi Island for family picnics. We would all get aboard at the south-side docks in front of the web-houses and then head out to Deep Water Bay.
They would anchor the seiners and then we would get in the skiff and be ferried to the beach. We would stay there all day. When we did this I knew it was getting close to Dad leaving for the summer. He would leave in late May for False Pass in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. We would not see him until late July or August. Then he would go out fishing in Puget Sound for the remainder of the summer.
When I finished the 7th grade, it was time to go fishing. I fished on my uncle's boat, the Inventor. This boat was unusual in that the drum "reel," which let out and wound in the net, was placed on the stern in a vertical position. All other drum seiners had their drums in a horizontal position. This was an experiment in commercial fishing technology. However, this did not work very well because it was extremely hard on the net when it was let out and when it was brought aboard. It caused a lot of twisting in the net and would sometimes tear it, requiring us to repair it. We would put into the dock at the Alaska Packer cannery in Blaine to mend torn nets because it was closer to the fishing grounds than going all the way back to Bellingham.
I first worked as an assistant skiff-man and then worked into being the skiff-man. My job was to have the skiff ready to make sets at anytime. The skiff would be used to help pull the net off the boat while setting the net, tow one end of the net in a semi-circle until it was time to close the net into a circle and then keep the boat in position to haul in the net. The skiff-man was alone in the skiff during the sets while the rest of the crew was on the bigger boat. The seine boats were around 50 feet long but the skiffs were only about 16 to 18 feet and open to the weather. If was stormy or raining, the skiff-man was out alone in the elements during the set.
I loved this work. A typical day would start around four a.m. when the crew would roll out of their bunks. This was just before daylight. The crew would have a quick breakfast, usually hotcakes, eggs, bacon, toast, and be ready to start fishing at daybreak. We would fish until just before sunset. Sometimes, if fishing was poor, we would travel from one place to another during the day. My uncle liked to fish from Lummi Island to Point Roberts, just south of the Canadian border. Then we would find a fish-tender and unload the daily catch, which would be taken to the canneries in Bellingham, Blaine, or Anacortes. Then we would anchor and hit the sack for four, or if lucky, five hours of sleep and start it all over again the next day. In the late 1950s, we would usually fish from late June into September, five, six, and sometimes seven days a week.
Since 1953, Dad had been gillnet fishing during most of the summer in Bristol Bay, Alaska. He would come home in August, join the crew on my uncle's boat or most often fish on another boat. It was my uncle who really taught me all about commercial fishing on purse-seiners. He taught me how to be part of a crew or team. I learned how to be responsible for my part of the work. I learned about different personalities and how they responded in crucial and dangerous situations. I learned to recognize danger on the water and respect its forces. It made me grow up fast in my working life. There was something about being around danger from time to time that developed a sense of taking risks in less life-threatening environments. Aboard the boat, it was usual to play all kinds of practical jokes on each other. An abundance of coarse language resides in the Slav culture but it is particularly prevalent on fishing boats. All of these things were instrumental in the development of my personality and behavior.
Herring Fishing in Kodiak, Alaska
Having graduated from Fairhaven Junior High in 1958, it would be onto Bellingham High School in September. However, commercial fishing came first and it would be special, scary, and a huge growth experience for me. Uncle Dick got a contract to fish herring in Kodiak, Alaska. He talked my dad into going along as the engineer and I was again in the skiff. The company provided a 50-foot seiner called the Oceania for the job. The cannery also contracted another boat and crew. Their boat was the Maria Rose and it was about 65 feet.
There were eight of us on the crew and after some tearful family goodbyes we were on our way to Alaska. Of course, my dad and uncle had taken this trip several times before but it was a first for me. The trip was going well until we blew an oil line and had to be towed into Alert Bay, British Columbia. As we came into the harbor, I noticed that the Native burial grounds had totem poles and burial platforms above ground. After the oil line was fixed we were off again. The Inside Passage from Puget Sound to Alaska was awesome. We stopped at glaciers, Ketchikan, and Juneau before heading through Icy Straits, by Glacier Bay and then into the Gulf of Alaska. The snow capped mountains, the thousands of islands, and the whales and eagles were unbelievable and beautiful sights. I had only heard stories of this and now I was seeing it for the first time.
The crossing of the Gulf was uneventful until we got close to the Barren Islands located between the Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak Island. That's when one of the strangest and most frightening events in my life happened. It was here in this area that the second highest tides in the world come rushing out of Cook Inlet. When a storm comes from the Aleutian Islands up Shelikof Straits and slams into a nearly 30-foot ebb tide from the Inlet, all hell breaks loose. It just so happens that we found ourselves caught right in the middle of this environmental event. The waves were around 25 to 30 feet high. The wind was blowing around 50 to 60 miles an hour ripping the crests of the waves into white spray covering the water.
Although we were all battened down for weathering storms, the Oceania was taking a beating. My uncle, Dad, and I were in the pilothouse and the crew was in the galley. We were all holding on as the boat rose to the swell only to drop off the crest of the wave and slam into the oncoming trough burying the bow into the next rising swell. Sediment from the fuel tanks was stirred up and found its way into the fuel lines, killing the engine. When this happened the boat would be thrust broadside into the next swell and heal over on its side. One minute you would see sky and the next minute you would be looking straight down into the sea. The boat had stabilizers designed to limit the rolling of the boat. However, we had not put them out because the storm came upon us suddenly. This was very dangerous because we were at risk of capsizing without any power to keep the bow into the swells.
That's when it happened. Dad went down below deck to the engine room to clean out the clogged fuel line and my uncle decided that he would climb up to the top of the pilothouse and put out the stabilizers. He left me to take the helm and told me that when Dad got the engine started to immediately steer the boat into the next oncoming swell. I had run this boat for hours on this trip and I think that my uncle had faith in me to do the job. However, I had never been in any weather like this and I was scared but not in a panic. Then we took a swell broadside and I thought that we would roll over and capsize. Dad got the engine started and yelled from below to go. I put the shift wheel into what I thought was forward and began turning the boat into the next oncoming swell. We rode out the next swell and then I realized that I had inadvertently put it in reverse instead of forward. I quickly swung the gear into forward and quartered into the next swell, which broke over the entire pilothouse.
A few minutes later, the crew dragged my uncle up through the galley to the pilothouse and put him in his bunk. Dad had just come up from the engine room and asked what the hell happened. As it turned out, when Uncle Dick was putting out the stabilizers and we were broad-sided by the swell, he was knocked off the pilothouse onto the deck rail and into the water. The crew was yelling, "man over board, man over board," but I could not hear them because of the howling wind and water splashing into the pilot house through a smashed-out window. It was then that the engine started and I had put the boat in reverse. When the boat was in reverse it backed up next to my uncle in the water and the crew reached over the rail, grabbed him and threw him on the deck. Then I put the boat in forward and off we went. All of this happened unbeknownst to me.
I had docked seiners dozens of times and knew the difference between forward and reverse. Why this one time and one time only did I put the boat in reverse instead of forward? By making this mistake, backing up to my uncle, his life was saved. By all logic, Uncle Dick should have died then and there. No one without a life jacket, who ends up in the water, away from a boat, and in that kind of a storm survives. Yet, he did.
Obviously we made it to Larsen Bay on Kodiak where the herring processing plant was located. This was our base of operations for the summer. Although we stayed on the boat, we got to eat in the mess hall with the process workers. Larsen Bay is a beautiful place and protected from the onshore winds that blow from the south in Shelikof Straits. Our job was to catch herring and bring them to the processing plant where they were put into vats and left to decompose. Then they would be crushed to get the rich protein oil. The rest would be dehydrated and turned into meal. The oil was used in women's cosmetics and the meal was used for mink food.
Herring gather in huge schools called "balls." When we found them in this concentration, we would set the net around the ball. These herring balls have enough fish in them to fill two boats full and have deck loads as well. We did this several times during the summer. When fully loaded, we would head to the plant and unload the catch.
One day when it was too rough to fish, we were sitting on the boat and heard crashing sounds in the brush. This side of Kodiak Island had good size brush and small trees. It also has some tall grasses. This was an ideal environment for the Kodiak Brown Bear. A sea lion carcass had washed up on the beach and the bears were coming down to feed on it. A huge male burst out of the brush and headed for the sea lion. Three of us jumped into the skiff with cameras to get close ups. We got to within a few yards of the bear when he charged us. I slammed the skiff in reverse and we backed away into deep water. The bear got out of the water, went back and literally picked up this huge sea lion and drug it off into the bushes. I had never seen a bigger bear before then or since. Some days we would see 10-12 bears on the beach at once, fishing for salmon.
We finished our contract with the herring plant and headed home. The return trip was uneventful except for the continuous environmental beauty of Alaska and British Columbia. I vowed that I would return. We got back to Bellingham in the middle of August and swapped the herring net for the salmon net and went fishing in Puget Sound. The fishing was so good that year I decided to keep fishing into the first two weeks of school. This was a big deal because it was the start of high school.
From San Diego to Bristol Bay
The summer after my junior year in high school would prove very challenging in many ways. Instead of purse seine fishing that summer, I went to work for August Mardesich. Mardesich was attorney, legislator, fisherman, and venture capitalist from Everett. Dad had contracted with "Augie" to gillnet in Bristol Bay, Alaska, and had done so since 1953. However, this year Augie was taking two large boats up to Alaska to freeze salmon in Bristol Bay and bring the fish down to sell in Puget Sound. One boat was the 110-foot White Sea, the other was the 75-foot City of San Francisco. Both were converted tuna boats. Augie convinced me to go, with the promise that I would make $2,000 for the summer to crew on the White Sea. That was supposedly a sure thing compared to purse seining and I was ready for a new adventure.
The boat was located in San Diego, so off I flew to help take this boat from San Diego up the coast to Seattle for outfitting and then across the Gulf of Alaska to Bristol Bay. This was a big deal because I did not know anyone I would be working with and it was the first time I had flown on an airplane or traveled on my own. It was truly an adventure. When I got there, I found that the captain and the engineer were the only ones with any kind of experience on boats. There were two high-school-aged crew members, besides me. I was the only one with experience, so I was made the deck boss. My job was to work with the captain to get the boat ready for sea and the trip north to Seattle and Alaska.
After minimally provisioning the boat and putting old equipment into working order, we headed out of San Diego and north toward Seattle. We settled into duties and wheel watches, a schedule for each crew member to spend time steering the boat during each 24 hour period. Things went well up the California coast until we hit Oregon. We ran into strong northwesterly winds that slowed us down to 3 knots for nearly three days. We would find out later that the reason we were also taking on a lot of water was that two outer planks had been ripped off of the bow just under the waterline during this time. Eventually, we got into Seattle, put the boat in dry dock, fixed the hull, loaded it up with supplies, took on three more inexperienced high school crew members and headed for Alaska. I would serve double wheel watches because a couple of the crew were seasick. One got seasick as soon as we got to the Straits of Juan De Fuca and was sick for a week.
The trip from Seattle across the Gulf of Alaska, through the Aleutian Islands, and into Bristol Bay was long and tedious with one exception. About halfway across the Gulf and five days from any land, the bilge pumps failed and the 110-foot boat started sinking. We spent the next 20 hours bailing out the boat using five-gallon buckets. The engineer finally repaired the pumps, and we were off again.
We anchored in Bristol Bay and Dad met us in his gillnet boat. We made the White Sea ready to take on salmon from the gillnet boats. This required setting tie up lines and bumpers to protect the boats unloading salmon, building wooden funnels to slide the salmon into the freezer hatches and getting the freezer units working. Finally, we were ready to take on fish. Usually, the gill netters would come along side and we would tie them up and they would pitch their fish into our funnels. This was hard, especially when the seas were rough. When they were fishing, this process would go on 24 hours a day. Then we would get a fish scow loaded down with 15,000 or 20,000 salmon and we would have to unload it. This involved getting on the scow, knee deep in salmon, using a fish pick to unload the scow by pitching each salmon, one by one, onto the boat for freezing.
The fish pick was a thick broom-handle-like stick with a sharp, slightly bent steel point that would be stuck in the salmon's head to lift and throw it onto the boat. Each salmon weighed about 4 to 5 pounds. It was hard and monotonous work and after unloading 20,000 fish our arms ached and we were beat. We did build up some strong arms and wrists. When we were all done, we had loaded about 65,000 salmon on the White Sea and about 40,000 on the City of San Francisco. I went fishing with Dad one time just before we left for home. I enjoyed that much more than working on the White Sea.
I kept my sanity though all of this by talking to the fishermen, reading and sleeping when I could, and writing to and getting letters from my girlfriend. She would tell me what was going on at home. Although this was a huge adventure for me, I really missed her and the guys back home. I was ready to head back and it was decided that Dad and I, along with three other crew members, would take the City of San Francisco back to Seattle. This was good for a couple of reasons; One, I got to spend time talking to Dad while on wheel watches and two, we went down the Inside Passage again. The bad part was that the boat only went about 6 knots and it took forever. The final straw on this trip was that Augie only paid me $1,500 instead of $2,000. I would get even later! [Editor's note: In 1978 Steve Kink, representing the Washington Education Association, was a key organizer in pro-union Larry Vognild's successful campaign to win the seat of Washington State Senate Majority Leader and pro-business incumbent, Augie Mardesich.]
Commercial Fishing in Bristol Bay
From 1962 to 1969 I went to Bristol Bay, Alaska, every summer to fish with my dad and later my brother. I have mentioned Bristol Bay before because I was up there in 1960 but was not there to fish. Bristol Bay is located on the west side of the Alaska Peninsula where it meets the mainland. It is a desolate area and has several rivers that spill into the Bay. The Kvichak River is the largest and reputed to produce the largest number of salmon in the world. Other rivers are the Naknek, Nushigak, and the Egegek. All of the rivers produce salmon. There are very small towns, more like villages, located on these rivers and their economy is primarily tied to the fishing industry. Each of these rivers had salmon canneries on their shores with the Naknek having the most.
The land is very flat and has permafrost several inches below the surface. There are mostly mosses, grasses, bushes, and some small trees. Lots of lakes feed the rivers. There is a variety of animals such as Alaskan brown bear, moose, fox, ptarmigans, and a variety of gulls and other birds. The mosquitoes are huge and all over the place. There are also Beluga whales in the Bay. The tides in the Bay are around 27 feet between high to low tide. The Bay is very shallow and if you are walking on the sand flats and the tide changes and starts coming in, or flooding, it will follow you as your walking back to shore. The winds can be extreme, either coming off the volcanoes on the east side of the Alaskan Peninsula or south from the Aleutian Islands.
There were fishermen from San Francisco, Astoria, and all over Puget Sound that fished in Bristol Bay. Fishermen came from all walks of life and cultures. There were Slavs, Italians, Norwegians, Swedes, Alaskan Natives, and as well as others.
Gillnetting and set netting are the two main means of salmon fishing in Bristol Bay. Set netting involves claiming a space on shore and getting a license to place a net from the beach to an anchor offshore. When the tides come in the net floats and fish get caught in it. The set netter then takes a large skiff and picks the fish from the net or waits until the tide goes out and walks along the net and picks out the fish.
The second method is gillnetting. This requires a boat with a 32-foot limit in length, a license and a gillnet that is 150 fathoms long. The gillnet is divided into three interchangeable sections called "shackles." Each shackle is 50 fathoms long and several feet deep. Dad has been gillnetting in Bristol Bay since 1953 except for one season in 1959. As of this writing, he is still going there every summer -- not to fish but to support my brother, Butch, from the shore.
Gill netters stuck together and were usually contracted with fishing canneries to deliver their catches for agreed upon prices. In the early 60s, the fishermen were getting more money for their fish than they get today.
There were also large ships in the Bay that would take on fish and quick-freeze for delivery outside of the Bay. During my time in the Bay, the majority of fish were canned at the canneries and then shipped to markets all over the world. There were fishermen who leased their boats from the fishing canneries and then there were others that owned their boats called "independents." All the boats were used in the summer months only and then stored inside warehouses during the winter. When the fishermen were not out fishing, they usually stayed in big bunkhouses owned by the canneries.
My first year fishing in the Bay was 1962. Dad had built a new boat the year before. It was a Uniflite 34-foot yacht hull that was cut two feet in the stern to be within the 32 foot limit. It was custom-made with a new cabin and deck design to accommodate nets and fish holds. The hull was reinforced so that the boat could sit on the sand at low tides. It had a Palmer truck engine in it and was fast for its time with a top speed of about 18 knots. The fish hold could pack between 3,000 to 4,000 salmon. Dad named it the Wild Goose and there were only three like it. Art Peterson and Augie Mardesich had the other two. We all fished together in the early years. Dad and Augie were considered "highliners," meaning each and every year they would be in the top 10 percent in the amount of fish caught per boat. There were about 1,300 gill netters in the Bay.
We flew to Alaska around the 10th of June and got the boat and nets ready for the brief season. The Fisheries Department would set open periods to fish. Sometimes it was open until further notice or it was set for a definite period like 24 or 48 hours. The major part of the salmon runs would begin around June 20th and last until about July 20th. The major part of the run was in the first week of July. We would fish the entire time during open periods in any kind of weather, including storms. One of the reasons that Dad did so well is that he would fish in weather that most other boats would not. He lived by the old Slav saying, "You can't catch fish (or make money) if the net isn't in the water."
Generally the process involved letting the net out or setting it in a place that you saw or thought fish would be. Then the net would drift along with the tide allowing the fish to swim into the net and get caught by the gills. The next step was to pull, by hand, the net full of fish over a power roller into the boat at the stern. The more fish in the net the harder it was to do. If it was rough, due to winds, waves, and tides, it compounded the difficulty of the job. Then it was important to work as fast a possible to get the tangled fish out of the net one by one and into the fish hold because that meant that while doing this you were not catching more fish. The next step was to speed full bore to unload the fish onto a fish scow or freezer ship so that you could get back out and set the nets to catch more fish.
This process would be repeated continually as long as the fishing period was open. Sometimes we would catch 2,000-3,000 fish in one set of the net and others would require several sets to fill the fish hold. If you broke down or ruined the nets, you would lose valuable fishing time. During the height of the run there was little room for error, especially in the first week of July. You could make or break your season if you missed that time period. There was virtually no time to take off and eat or sleep. You might catch a short nap on the way to unload depending on the weather and how far you had to go. In one 48-hour period, I remember eating several candy bars and drinking canned orange juice and that was it for food and no sleep.
There were many experiences over the years that were memorable. But a few always come to mind. One day we were over on the west side of the Bay in a place called Deadman's Sands. It is appropriately named. The weather forecast was ominous but that never seemed to bother Dad. Deadman's Sands is very shallow and has small channels between the many sand bars. We let out the net in a major channel on an ebb tide and then planned to let the boat run aground on the sand at low tide. Then when the tide came in, with the fish, we would be in the best place to catch them while they swam through the channels. Sounded like a great idea.
However, a major storm came in with the flood tide. The wind kicked up to about 50 miles per hour and kept building until it reached gusts of 95 miles per hour. We could barely get afloat because the swells were slamming into us and we would rise up on a swell only to crash onto the sand in the trough. We finally were able to stay afloat without hitting the bottom. While all this was happening, the fish were everywhere and hitting our net and it soon sank loaded with fish. We were in real trouble. Waves were breaking over the boat and onto me in the stern while I was trying to get the fish-filled net into the boat so we could get out of there. We got about half the net into the boat but it made the boat too heavy in the stern and as each wave hit we were taking water over the stern. We were beginning to sink with all the fish and water in the boat. Our only move was to cut the net and let it go, fish and all, in order to stay afloat. I did so and then started pulling the net to the fish hold to help balance the boat. All the while, we were heading into swells that were breaking over the boat and now being kicked up by a steady 80 to 90 mile per hour winds.
Several other boats were also caught in the same place. I saw several boats sink. Most of their crew was rescued by other boats. We heard some did not survive. We were unable to help because we were fighting to stay afloat. A trip that normally would take about 30 minutes to get back to safety in the Naknek River took us several hours. We finally reached the river, anchored and began to pick the fish from the net to unload. I found out later that wind gusts were recorded up to 110 miles an hour! After the storm, someone found our half net and we gave him the fish in exchange for the net. It was the worst storm I experienced in the Bay. It taught me that it is foolish to take chances in stormy weather.
One day, we were fishing along the east side of the Bay between Johnston Hill and the mouth of the Naknek River. The fish were somewhat close to shore and we were in front of the set netter getting some of the fish that he would normally have caught. It's called "corking" in the trade. Then I heard a gunshot and a crazy guy was shooting at us from the beach. I jumped into the hold and Dad started towing the net away from the set netter's net. As we almost came clear, we hooked the end of his net and we swung around perpendicular to the beach. Just then a Department of Fisheries plane flew over and took our picture. Later we were given a citation for fishing in front of the set netter. We went to court in King Salmon. There were several fishermen who were given tickets that day in the same area for doing the same thing. Every one of them got tickets and had to pay huge fines plus the profit from the fish they caught that day. We were the only ones to get off. When I saw the picture that they used for evidence, I asked the Judge if I could speak. I showed him that our net was not in front of the set netter but perpendicular to his and therefore we were not catching any of his fish. The Judge said, "Young man, you have a point there." We were cleared but had the plane come over five minutes earlier we would have been found guilty. Dad, who seldom passed out any accolades, said, "Good job."
Another time we were fishing at night down at Johnston Hill. Augie convinced my dad to give it a shot. There were a lot of fish but they were literally just a few fathoms off the beach swimming in the waves just before they broke on the beach. The challenge was to figure a way to get the net anchored to the beach long enough to let the net out of the stern of the boat. I thought of using a bucket attached to the end of the net. We would back the boat into the beach until we hit bottom. I would throw the bucket onto the beach and it would grab in the sand long enough to hold the end of the net while we let it out. As soon as we did this, fish started hitting the net and in the first 25 fathoms closest to the beach the net was filled with fish. There were not any in the second 25 fathoms of net. We divided our 150 fathoms of net into three parts and would let each of them out on the beach. We would go get one, pick the fish out, reset it and go after the others. We did this until we filled the boat. No one was catching many fish that night and everyone wanted to know how we got a boatload.
On one beautiful sunny day with the wind blowing about 20 knots, we were down fishing on the boundary line by Johnston Hill in mid-channel. Dad took pride in how fast he could get the net out and beat others to the best spot on the boundary line. This time things would not go smoothly. He gunned the boat and told me to let the net go. I did and moved out of the way as the net went flying over the stern into the water. I yelled at him to slow down because the net was beginning to catch on the power roller. When I turned back around some net caught on my sleeve buttons and started pulling me over the power roller and the stern. By the time Dad stopped the boat, I was over the stern and barely holding onto the boat with my feet while my face was in the water. I was stretched from my arm to my feet and could feel muscles snap down the right side of my back. When he pulled me out of the water and back into the boat, I was not scared but I was really mad. I also realized that I could barely move my right arm. Had I gone completely overboard, I could have easily gotten tangled in the net and suffered the same fate as the fish -- drowning. Wouldn't that have been ironic? After we unloaded, we went to the doctor and he said that I had probably pulled every muscle I had on my right side and put me in a sling and told me to go home.
I did fly home early that summer. Dad was going to run the purse seiner, Providence, in Puget Sound when he got home from the Bay. He stayed up in the Bay for a couple more weeks so I ran the Providence until he got home. It was a great experience. I was the captain with a crew of six. In two weeks, I learned a lot about managing people and running a purse seine boat. It felt great to have that much responsibility regarding the boat, equipment, and the crew. We had a great time and even caught enough fish to make wages. It took months before the muscles were back to normal.
I learned much from the time I spent each summer commercial fishng. From my dad, I learned that hard, persistent, risk-taking work usually pays off big-time. I also learned when not to take chances with your life. I gained an immense appreciation and respect for nature's forces. I learned that when things seem their worst, never give up. From others, I learned that there is a communal support among fishermen when someone is in danger. Yet, there is also a fierce competitiveness among them to catch more fish. There is pride and recognition for those that are continually the best at the profession. There is long-lasting animosity, sometimes violence, toward those that cross fishermen's basic values such as going out fishing when others are on strike.
When I go to Bellingham now, it is very sad for me. The Slav community was really a major part of my life and now there is little left today. My dad is one of the few first-generation Slavs left in Bellingham. The second generation, that is me and many others, have, for the most part, left Bellingham. The commercial fishing industry, which was the main Slav occupation, is virtually nonexistent. When I drive through the south side of town now, those small houses that once held Slav families are still there but the owners are not Slavs. Because we in the second generation were not taught the language, it is rapidly disappearing. I guess there is something to America being a "melting pot" because the Slav community has melted into something different than it once was.
On one hand, I am so glad that I was a part of that lifestyle, proud of it and miss it. On the other hand, the values and other things that I learned being part of that culture has provided me with the opportunity to have created an entirely different life for which I am also proud. I often think of the changes that my grandparents experienced and to them they must have been huge. However, they were able to maintain their lifestyle and cultural heritage. In my lifetime, change is so rapid that cultural heritage is much harder to maintain. Certainly each lifetime has its own challenges and rewards. I can only image what my grandchildren's life has in store for them.
Finally, the opportunity to fish commercially provided me with the money to attend five years of college and to supplement my teacher's salary. For this I will always be thankful and yet saddened by the fact that commercial fishing is a dying industry. Both of my sons were fortunate enough to have had at least limited experience fishing. However, this was not at the profit level that kept them interested enough to pursue it regularly. For me, I began to think that there must be something else for me other than fishing. For my brother, he still carries on the Slav family tradition today, but that too is short lived.