Porcher Island Cannery was originally built by Lewis Hogan for the Chatham Sound Fishing and Packing Company in 1928. Construction began in the fall of that year, and the plant was up and running for the 1929 summer salmon season. The site chosen for the cannery was Humpback Bay, on the northeast tip of Porcher Island, near the Skeena River estuary and approximately 15 miles due south of the port city of Prince Rupert. The plant operated as a salmon cannery for only four years, producing its last pack in 1932, a casualty of the Depression.
Porcher Island is named after Edwin Augustus Porcher, R. N. (1824-1878), who served as Commander of HMS Sparrowhawk at Esquimalt Naval Base, Vancouver Island, from the spring of 1865 until he returned to England in the fall of 1868. While serving with the North Pacific Squadron, Commander Porcher made four summertime voyages to the north coast of British Columbia; in 1866, 1867 and twice in 1868. The route of the Inside Passage that the Sparrowhawk took from Esquimalt to the Hudson’s Bay Company trading post at Fort Simpson (the First Nations village of Lax Kw’alaams) would have passed close by the island in Chatham Sound that now bears the Commander’s name.
Beginning in the mid-1930s, the cannery site was leased (and later purchased) by the Canadian Fishing Company. For the next 35 years, Humpback Bay operated as a summer gillnet station, offering gas, provisions, boat repairs and net maintenance services to approximately 100 fishermen. Although the station closed down in 1968, when gillnet operations were transferred to North Pacific Cannery, Porcher continued to serve as a net storage site until the 1980s, when the Crown lease was sold to private interests.
Today, there is little that remains of the cannery at Humpback Bay, as winter storms, decay and the encroaching rain forest have all taken their inevitable toll. But not so long ago, when the Nass and Skeena Rivers overflowed with sockeye, pink and chum, Porcher was a thriving, diverse and highly productive community, whose inhabitants assembled each spring and dispersed in the fall, at season’s end.
This website is a tribute to the men and women who spent much of their working lives at Porcher Island Cannery, and to a way of life that is gone from this coast forever.
Almost 80 years on and two of the three main cannery buildings are still standing, if only just; a testament to the builders, and to the durability of creosote pilings. Although most of the 200 or so salmon canneries that stood at one time or another along the BC coast were of wood construction, the Chatham Sound Fishing and Packing Company chose to clad its Quonset-like structures with corrugated sheet metal. This combined with hardwood flooring made for a substantial weight to support entirely over water.
But once the buildings were stripped of their original canning machinery, they were able to house countless gillnets, each one tagged and mounted on a pallet board, ready for the coming season. Whatever the outside weather, a stroll through the net lofts was always dark and cool, smelling of tar, twine, burlap and dried remnants of the sea. Here, on the upper floors, the likes of Dorothy Robinson, Mercy Robinson, Helen Gonu, Dora Johnson, Mary Wesley and Elsie Johnson would hang the gillnets, stitching corkline and leadline while working large plastic needles with deftness and speed. These cavernous spaces also provided recreational opportunities for the Porcher crew, as they were ideal locations for a ping-pong table or a basketball hoop.
At the entrance to the far cannery building, the one that blew down several years ago in a Skeena gale, stood a hydraulic winch that was used to load gillnets onto the vessels below as they became needed by their owners, a constant activity during the four month salmon season. This was also where the weekly supply boat unloaded mail and cargo from Prince Rupert. These were then hauled by hand-truck a short distance along the boardwalk to the company store. Back then, the products of the North Star Bottling Company (cream soda, grape soda and the like) were packed in open wooden crates that jostled and rattled as they were trundled along the uneven boards. Not every bottle made it safely to the store.
Sometime in the late 1940s, a boat hoist was built alongside the main cannery buildings. This facility, powered by an ancient Ford engine, was designed to raise any of the Porcher gillnetters that paid five dollars for the privilege. Once hoisted, the vessel could be scraped, patched, caulked or painted, or have repairs made to the rudder, propeller or net guards. These latter devices encaged the propeller to prevent it from becoming tangled in a net.
A woodworking bench and metal lathe spanned the length of one side of the interior of the boat hoist. Overhead belting transferred rotary power to the lathe, and to two industrial band saws and a table saw.
The Porcher gillnet fleet of the 1950s and 60s required constant repair and maintenance to keep it functioning throughout the season. This was partly due to the age of the boats, many of which dated from the 1930s and ‘40s. The fleet was also subject to normal wear and tear from being at sea four or five days a week, the usual length of a salmon opening in those days.
Even though many of the fishermen eventually traded in their older vessels, buying larger and more modern craft, with reliable engines and gear, there remained a small fleet of company-owned rental boats that required the dedicated efforts of the two shore engineers, Don Kugler and Pat Ruxton, along with shipwright Monse Husum, to keep them afloat. And although they had become scarce by the 1960s, one or two of the older boats were still powered by Easthope marine engines. With their distinctive green glaze and massive, hand-cranked flywheel, these single and double cylinder engines could make five or six knots at best. The resulting exhaust was discharged from a port just above the waterline, producing a stately cachuga, cachuga rhythm.
The Porcher Island Cannery site occupied approximately 20 acres, extending along a rocky shoreline, with Humpback Bay on one side and the great temperate rain forest on the other. It took about 15 minutes to walk from the gas dock to the abandoned boathouse at the far end of town, depending on whom you met, or what might be happening on the front wharf. If you included a hike to end of the floats and back, you could double the length of your evening stroll.
Back then, Porcher Island had not yet been logged, so that the landward view was everywhere one of dense, old growth forest, and of bald mountains topped with patches of snow in early spring. Looking out across Chatham Sound, one could see the red and white buildings of Lawyer Island light station, with the towering peaks of the Coast Range in the distance.
The manager’s house stood at the north end of the site, and next to it the head bookkeeper’s house. Then came the home of Danny and Peggy McLeod, followed by two smaller houses. Next was the company store with an attached storage area for the weekly grocery supplies. A small suite at the rear was reserved for the storekeeper.
All of the wood-frame buildings at Porcher were painted in Canfisco colours; white siding with red trim, a reverse of the original scheme of white trim on red siding, which can be seen in cannery photographs dating from the 1940s and before. Then as now, the seiners, packers and gillnetters that were owned by or fished for the coastal fishing companies flew the company’s house flag. Canfisco’s banner was red/white/red horizontal. The BC Packers’ flag was green/white diagonal. The Nelson Brothers’ ensign was green/orange diagonal, while the ABC packing company flew red/white diagonal colours.
Past the company store, the boardwalk led between the cook/bunkhouse on the right, and the stockroom on the left. Next was the powerhouse. This building contained a large diesel-electric generator, which provided power to the camp. It was started by the night watchman at daylight and shut down around midnight, when silence descended on Porcher and all those still awake would light their coal oil lamps and switch on their battery radios.
The boardwalk then ran past two rows of small apartments, occupied by the handful of single men who lived at Porcher year-round. Among them were Alec McLeod, Bill Christiansen and Jack MacKay. Several of these apartments also served as quarters for married fishermen who brought their families with them to Humpback Bay for the salmon season, such as Wally and Skippy Hudson and the Murrell clan, among others.
The next building along was a cookhouse that catered to the substantial number of Porcher fishermen who were of Japanese descent. This was open at weekends and served the men traditional Japanese fare. Adjacent to the cookhouse was a large, deep cedar hot tub in which several men could immerse themselves and soak in hot water up to their chins.
The next three houses were also occupied by fishermen’s families, including those of Edward and Dorothy Robinson, and their son Tony and daughter-in-law Mercy, all of Kincolith.
Along the far side of the Robinson’s house, an elevated wooden path led to the community’s reservoir and dam. This small dark lake, surrounded by huge cedars, provided Porcher’s drinking and bathing water, which, when even ankle-deep in a tub, was the colour of strong tea. Now and then, a cutthroat trout would find its way into the water pipes, and would need to be extracted when its remains clogged the works.
Past the Robinson’s house, the boardwalk crossed a stream and wound through a marshy wood dotted with pungent skunk cabbage, then three more houses and a large apartment building, home to several other fishing families.
The southernmost cannery structure was a disused and dilapidated boathouse. Entering this building was like stepping back in time, as it contained scores of old linen gillnets, strung to the rafters, as well as several molten lead molds used in the making of leadlines from scratch. And there were ancient implements I couldn’t identify, but which were once the tools of the shipwright’s lost art.
The elevated boardwalk that linked the two ends of the plant was typical of those found at most BC coastal salmon canneries. The planking and railings were never painted and thus the wood was permanently weathered to a dull grey sheen. And long after they were needed, sturdy spikes protruded from the upper railings, relics of a time when cedar floats were dipped in preserving tar, and left to dry on strings hung from the nails.
The boardwalk survived intact for many years after gillnet operations had ceased at Humpback Bay, before sections of it began to collapse in the 1980s. During the years that Porcher was an active gillnet station, it took all the carpentry skills of the plant foreman, Ingvold (Nels) Nelsen and an assistant, to repair the winter’s damage, shore up the timbers and beat back the encroaching bush.
The Porcher office originally shared a building with the company store, but was later relocated to the northeast corner of the main cannery building on the front wharf, where the view from the manager’s desk was much improved. A succession of junior bookkeepers spent their early careers at Porcher, where they learned the ins and outs of fishermen’s accounts under the guidance of Terry Olson, an experienced Canfisco manager. The position of senior bookkeeper changed less frequently. Among those I recall best were Don Hamilton, Roy Cunningham and Dan Amskold.
When fishing was in progress, the Porcher office was a hive of activity from eight o’clock in the morning until well after ten in the evening, ending with the nightly conference call among the Canfisco managers stationed along that part of the coast. During the day, manual typewriters and mechanical adding machines clattered away to a constant background chorus of marine traffic, emanating from the radio room.
The twin economic pillars of the BC gillnet fishery were credit and production. While the more successful fishermen invested their earnings, and over time became financially secure, others returned each spring impoverished from a long winter of inactivity, and therefore dependent upon company credit to finance their participation in the coming season. This credit was extended in the form of a gillnet, a rental boat in some cases, and company scrip. These were printed coupons, which could be redeemed for provisions only at the company store, or for fuel at the company gas dock.
In exchange for these advances, the fishermen undertook to deliver their catch to Canfisco packers only, thereby guaranteeing the company’s salmon production for the season. The value of each man’s catch was recorded in his fish book at the time of delivery. At season’s end, each man received a settlement based on the difference between the total value of his deliveries and his accumulated debt to the company.
As should be apparent, the whole system depended upon detailed and accurate accounting in order to function.
At weekends, the company store was a social hub for the fishermen of Porcher. On offer was a variety of provisions that reflected the men’s preference for plain food, as well as the obvious limitations of space and time when cooking over a tiny stove aboard a cramped and tossing gillnet boat on the fishing grounds.
Their menu consisted chiefly of steaks, chops, hamburger, potatoes, onions, eggs, bacon, sausage, Spam, canned vegetables, ground coffee, cube sugar, jam, white bread and Pacific brand condensed canned milk. Candy bars and soft drinks were big sellers, and so were commercially baked pies and cinnamon rolls. Cigarettes were sold by the carton and makings by the tin. Copenhagen snuff was occasionally requested, as were solid plugs of chewing tobacco.
This substantial diet, and the quantities consumed, was needed to sustain the arduous work of setting and hauling a 200 fathom-long gillnet several times a day.
The store stocked a few dry goods as well; such as hip waders, union suits, banockburn pants (a heavy and durable tweed weave), suspenders, flannel shirts, checked wool overshirts, oilskin jackets, sou’wester storm hats, and a popular style of slip-on leather shoe known as a Romeo.
The last Porcher storekeeper I recall was a trim, quiet gentleman named Bob Balden. He sported a beret and kept a well-stocked, efficient store. Before him there was E.C. (Smokey) Crowe, a garrulous man who smoked a drooping pipe and always wore a waistcoat. His nickname derived from the executive position he had once held with the Trail Smoke Eaters hockey club, who’s team won the Allan Cup in 1938 and went on to win the world amateur hockey championship the following year.
A rare moment of hilarity occurred one day in 1960, when the Coca Cola Company introduced a soft drink called Fanta. As it happens, this word (or one very much like it) has an obscene meaning in the Norwegian language. So when the Norwegian contingent of Porcher fisherman heard about the new product, they descended on the store, bought up the lot and were heard toasting one another to cries of “Fanta.” A day or two passed before the rest of us were let in on the joke.
Ernie Bulmer presided over the Porcher stockroom for more than two decades. An ebullient but precise man with a shock of white hair and a perpetual blue work apron, Ernie knew the whereabouts of every gizmo, replacement part or obscure marine fitting in his stock. And there were thousands of these: screws, bolts, nuts, nails, wires, washers, nipples, nozzles, gears, belts, spark plugs and carburetors, all hidden away in recessed wooden cubbyholes, but available when needed to patch up the Porcher 42 or some other floating coffin, as the company rental boats were sometimes referred to.
The camp bunkhouse was home to about a dozen single men during the summer salmon season. Each occupied a small, private room, with shared washroom facilities. In the central common room, an evening game of cribbage was usually in session. If you wanted something to read, then a stack of True or Argosy magazines was always nearby.
The bunkhouse was conveniently located next to the cookhouse, which served three hearty meals a day, plus morning and afternoon coffee, as well as an early evening snack. The food was plain, well prepared, tasty and plentiful, with the emphasis on meat and potatoes. Everything was cooked on an enormous cast iron oil stove that never went out. And as if on cue, a delicious berry, apple or lemon meringue pie would appear most evenings on the sideboard, along with a wedge of cheddar cheese and a large tin of Fry’s cocoa. Fish in any form was seldom served.
Mah Kong Wing was the Porcher camp cook for many years, until he left to open a restaurant in Vancouver. After him, a succession of capable women worked in the cookhouse. Among them, Tina McLeod, Ivy Casper, Minnie Lien, Mercy Robinson, Skippy Hudson and Eleanor Ruxton. All were the wives of Porcher fishermen or crew, and so were accustomed to the culinary likes and dislikes of working men. There may have been complaints about the cooking, as often happens in confined, remote settings, but I don’t recall hearing of many. Perhaps the men were simply content to enjoy generous servings of a variety of nutritious meals. These were, after all, seasonal employees, most of whom had recently wintered on reduced incomes.
The Gas Dock
Sunday mornings at Porcher began early, with a parade of gillnetters to the gas dock. This ritual lasted well into late afternoon, as the men fueled up in preparation for the weekly salmon opening. This traditionally began each Sunday evening precisely at six o’clock, and was announced by a canon fired from one of the fishery patrol vessels. The men were then free to make as many sets as they were able before the fishing week ended, usually on Thursday or Friday evening.
Using company scrip as payment, each gillnetter that arrived at the gas dock took on gasoline or diesel fuel, then stove oil for the cook-stove, kerosene for lanterns plus spare cans of engine oil lowered down to the float by a hand-pulley. In the course of a summer, often the only cash sales recorded at the gas dock were those paid by American yachtsmen on their way to Alaska.
Once he had fueled his boat, the fisherman was obliged to climb a spindly ladder to the gas dock shack to pay his bill. And because the fall of the tide can exceed 24 feet at that latitude, the men sometimes entered the shack grumbling and out of breath. As the afternoon wore on, the prevailing westerly swell pitched and tossed the gas float alarmingly, threatening to sever any looping hose caught between the vessel and the float. How we escaped this ever happening I do not know. Whenever the attendant left the gas dock for any reason, the several three-inch diameter hoses, each with a large brass nozzle, had to be hauled up by hand and secured. Failure to do this was a hanging offence, so far as the manager was concerned.
The Porcher gas dock was a Standard Oil concession, dispensing only their petroleum products. Pipes ran beneath the length of the dock from five large storage tanks, which were refilled every few weeks by a Standard Oil tanker. Then as now, the gasoline used by commercial fishermen was marked with a purple dye, as it was exempt from certain taxes. The gas was actually pumped into the storage tanks unmarked, but a sack of the powdered dye was then poured in at the top, dispersing throughout the tank of its own accord. I once acquired a packet of this dye (enough to mark 25,000 gallons) with the intent of doing mischief, but somehow never got around to it.
The gas dock shack was a drafty, sheet metal structure, cold in a sou’easter and hot on those rare days when the summer sun beat down. Along the far wall, a blue and white desk bore the carved initials of a generation of young men who had worked there. Because Terry Olson believed in nepotism, a procession of more or less eager nephews journeyed from Vancouver to summer employment at the Porcher gas dock. In addition to banking most of their wages, the nephews received life lessons that went largely unremarked to their parents.
Another duty that befell the gas dock attendant was to hand-fill the small oil tanks that stood behind each of the company houses. This fuel was used to fire the kitchen stoves and was poured out of five-gallon containers, each weighing about 50 pounds. These were trucked along the boardwalk, lugged up to the rear of the house and emptied into the tank.
The gas dock job also entailed some minor accounting, insofar as the attendant had each week to reconcile the pump meter readings with the amount of fuel actually remaining in the storage tanks. This was accomplished by dipping a long, coiled metal ruler tipped with a plumb-bob to the bottom of the tank, reading the fuel depth in inches from the meniscus, compensating for the current temperature and converting the result to volume. Tricky work, high atop the tanks in a gale, but it had to be done.
The gas dock shack still stands, dilapidated, rusted and weather-beaten. So does the hand-pulley, although at an erratic angle. The dock itself is in ruins and it won’t be long before the whole structure tips into the sea.
The gillnet boats that were built on this coast in the 1940s and 50s were sturdy, compact, sea-worthy and functional wooden vessels. As Spartan as they may have been, these craft represented a vast improvement over the hand-hauling sail skiffs of the early 1900s. With a power drum, adequate engine and rudimentary electronics, Porcher fishermen could venture north to Dundas Island, east to the Skeena River, west into Hecate Strait for halibut, and down the long southward reach of Principe Channel in search of salmon. This fishing range increased steadily over the years with the advent of larger boats and improved engines, even as the duration of the weekly salmon openings became shorter.
Fifty years ago, a typical coastal gillnetter featured a small cockpit between the drum and stern for setting and hauling; pens for fish storage along each side of the drum and a hold amidships. Forward was the wheelhouse, forecastle and bow. The length of most of these boats was in the 30-35 foot range, with a distinctly narrow beam. The forecastle did triple duty as galley, sleeping quarters and engine room. There was no toilet.
Rigging consisted of a mast, short boom and sometimes a set of stabilizer poles, which suspended hydroplanes along each side to keep the vessel trim in heavy seas. Once, I was on board a gillnetter when the forestay snapped, plunging the port stabilizer downward into the ocean. It all but capsized us.
Around 1950, Sterling Shipyards of Vancouver, then a Canfisco subsidiary, built 20 gillnetters using Philippine mahogany throughout. Among those sold to Porcher fishermen were the Don Mar, Ruth O., Orion, Silver Cloud, Ocean Beauty and Black Mallard. These handsome boats proved to be especially durable and seaworthy and, in the hands of the highline fishermen that bought them, they repaid their original cost many times over.
Also during this period, the shipwright team of Smitty and Sparks hand-built serviceable gillnetters for the Porcher rental fleet. These two men had joined the crew at Humpback Bay following the closure of nearby Carlisle Cannery in 1950.
Another source of new boats for the Porcher plant was Monse Husum, a master shipwright who passed his winters single-handedly crafting gillnet boats in a small boatyard near Hammond, on the banks of the Fraser River. His distinctive design featured a high, flared prow with a wider beam, a more spacious interior and an expanded cockpit at the rounded stern. In short, a solid and expertly constructed fishing vessel.
The 1960s also saw the introduction of affordable radar for the gillnet fleet. This device enabled safer night travel and easier navigation through the ubiquitous fog banks that have long plagued mariners up and down the BC coast. Previous technology that had helped to modernize the fleet included the radiotelephone, the automatic pilot and the electronic depth sounder.
It took some mariners longer to adapt to radar than others. On one occasion, I was standing watch as we were crossing Malacca Passage in a thick fog at dusk. I warned the skipper of an approaching blip on the screen, but he dismissed it as being the Genn Islands. Moments later, the white bow of the Princess Patricia loomed over us, not 30 yards away. “There goes Genn Island”, I said.
Maude and Terry
Terry Olson worked for the Canadian Fishing Company for more than 45 years, starting in the mid 1930s as a deckhand on company salmon packers, then as bookkeeper at canneries along the central coast: Bones Bay in Johnstone Strait, Margaret Bay in Smith Inlet and Goose Bay in Rivers Inlet. Following a season under manager Clare Salter at Carlisle Cannery in 1944, Terry and Maude spent the next five summers at Wales Island Cannery on Pearse Canal. In 1950, Terry was transferred to Porcher Island Cannery, where he spent the next 18 years as manager of the summer gillnet station. Terry Olson retired from Canfisco in 1983 as a vice president of the company. He died in 1991.
Maude Olson (née Watt) was a cannery wife, homemaker and mother of three children, whom she packed up each spring to follow her husband north. From her perspective, these summer billets were rustic and remote, but seldom dull. She loved her evening strolls along the boardwalk, stopping to chat with the watchman or dropping in at the cookhouse, before going down onto the floats to greet the men returning on the weekend from the fishing grounds. While the opportunity for female companionship was limited in coastal gillnet stations, Maude did form lasting friendships with Edith Dokka, Ada Nikolaisen, Minnie Lien and Peggy McLeod, and with Jo Christensen of Prince Rupert. Maude died in 2002.
Throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, scores of fishermen called Porcher Island Cannery their home port, and their names are as familiar to me as my own: Cart Secord, Danny McLeod, Harry Veale, Rolf Dokka, George Hanazawa, Gordon Johnson, Shoishi Nishi, Tony Robinson, Roy Pearson, Marvin, Bungy and Charlie Eckert, Herb Mills, Bill Lawson, Konrad Lien Knobby and Ronny Nishimura, Dan Gonu, Tommy Gorman, Nick and Henry Krutko, Alec McLeod, Bill Christiansen, John Inouye and many others.
These were, by and large, friendly, hard-working and self-reliant men, who at the same time were highly skilled professionals capable of wresting a living from the sea while engaged in one of the most challenging and dangerous occupations there is.
In those days, Porcher fishermen were a diverse lot; their antecedents being chiefly Scots, Aboriginal, Nordic and Japanese. There may well have been undercurrents among the men as the result of this mix of distinct cultures and independent personalities, but if so, they seldom surfaced to anyone’s notice. Mostly, everyone went about his business, anxious to earn a living during the brief four-month season that the cyclical nature of the fishery had allotted to them.
Credit for the harmonious tone that prevailed at Humpback Bay must also go to Terry Olson, who as manager dealt daily with the many demands, complexities and exigencies of the fish business, and who, it was generally agreed, treated the men with firmness, fairness and respect.
Porcher weather was either fair or foul. Fair weather came with a ridge of high pressure, sunny skies and a light westerly breeze that rose in late morning. By early afternoon, the breeze invariably freshened, blowing in from Dixon Entrance for the rest of the day, usually in the ten to 15 knot range. The wind fell in the evening, but always left a moderate Pacific swell that rolled noisily onto the shore throughout the night.
Foul weather came with a series of southeast storms, which could blow continuously for days at a time, bending the tops of cedars and churning the sea. And the rain fell in bucketfuls; a pounding, driving rain that bounced off the boardwalk and soaked everything. Sometimes, between storms, a scotch mist descended; so called because it resembles the mists of the Highlands. This was rain so light that it hung in the air like a veil, neither falling nor rising, and created an aura at dusk around the bare light bulbs that lined the boardwalk on poles. A scotch mist might soak you every bit as fast as a southeast gale, but it was lustrous to behold.
On a sunny Sunday afternoon in May of 1966, I was preparing for the start of a 13-day halibut opening, when I noticed a pall of black smoke drifting out across the bay. The home of Danny and Peggy McLeod was on fire. Once the general alarm had been raised, a couple of men quickly entered the house and escorted Danny and Peggy outside, where they recovered from smoke inhalation. Immediately, the fire hoses were uncoiled and trained on the blaze, but this was more for show than anything else, given the feeble water pressure available at the hydrants.
Because the McLeod’s house had an aluminum roof, this metal cap contained the fire inside the structure for an hour or more. Then suddenly, like a bomb exploding, the roof collapsed and the flames shot skyward. All anyone could do was watch, and take photographs. By then, we spectators had retreated a safe distance from the house, as it contained a sizeable cache of live ammunition that fired off in random directions as the intense heat detonated the cartridges. The McLeod’s house burned to the ground without injury to anyone, and was later replaced with a Lindal cedar residence.
Danny and Margaret (Peggy) McLeod were long-time permanent residents of Humpback Bay, and the winter custodians of the Porcher plant. They were a kindly and generous couple who, over the years, welcomed the children of the camp into their home, myself included. Danny’s boat was the Don Mar, named for his wife and for his son, Donald.
Each spring, Danny McLeod and a few other Porcher fishermen participated in the Hecate Strait halibut fishery, which was divided into a series of 13-day openings, each followed by an eight-day lay-up period. This mandated schedule extended the halibut season from early April to mid-June, just prior to the start of the sockeye season. The fleet was based in Welcome Harbour, a sheltered bay on the western edge of Porcher Island and an easy run to the Hecate Strait Halibut grounds.
In preparing to fish halibut, the gillnet was removed and several miles of ground line were wound around the drum. This line had a three-inch, barbed halibut hook attached at three-fathom intervals to the end of an 18-inch length of twine called a gangen. As the line was paid out, the fisherman had to bait each moving hook before it passed over the stern rollers, an exacting and dangerous task in a pitching boat on a rolling sea.
The gear was divided into strings of up to two miles each in length. When a string was fully baited, both ends were anchored to the seabed, with their positions marked on the surface by a bamboo flagpole and an inflatable buoy called a scotchman.
The boat that I crewed on was the Orion, owned by Cart Secord. Depending on the weather, we normally ran three or four strings a day (six to eight miles of ground line; more than 2000 baited hooks). It took an hour to set a string and about two hours to haul it back, depending on the catch. In between setting and hauling, there were several hours of running to position the gear in the best fishing location, usually in about 40 fathoms of water.
The Pacific halibut (Hippoglossus stenolepis) is a strong, compact and symmetrical flatfish, mottled brown on top and white on its under side. It can grow to more than 500 pounds and is commercially prized for its moist, firm flesh.
While most of the halibut we caught on our gear were in the 80 to 100 pound range, we once landed a 220-pound specimen. This magnificent fish (almost certainly a female) floated placidly to the surface and put up nary a struggle as we winched it aboard. This was in sharp contrast to the behaviour of its smaller brethren, which fought hard against the rollers and loudly thumped away the last of their life on the Orion’s aft deck.
Because a baited longline will attract a variety of groundfish, we routinely hooked blackcod, greycod, rockcod, lingcod, red snapper, the odd wolf eel, the toothsome ratfish, the loathsome dogfish and the wily octopus. Although none of this bycatch was commercially viable, a chunk of octopus tentacle is irresistible bait to a hungry halibut and so this cephalopod was, for us, always a valuable catch.
And it was the octopus, of all the species that we snared from the bottom of Hecate Strait, which seemed to struggle most to save itself. As it emerged from the deep, it would wrap its tentacles around the lower hull and hold fast. Then everything would stop until I poured a kettle of hot water on the creature. This loosened its grip and on it came, to be dressed, skinned and sectioned into bait.
When out on the fishing grounds, Cart and I never ate halibut. If we ate fish at all, it was always red snapper, a superior meal in every way.
Long-lining halibut from a gillnet boat in the middle of Hecate Strait was hard work. We rose at four in the morning to eat a quick breakfast and listen to the marine area forecast. Then we set out for the fishing grounds about two hours away; past Seal Rocks to starboard and due west towards the Queen Charlotte Islands. Enough bait had to be cut during those first two hours to set the first three strings of gear. The day was then taken up with setting, hauling, dressing the catch, cutting more bait and grabbing a bite to eat when you could. Sixteen hours after starting out, we would arrive back at Welcome Harbour to deliver our catch to the company packer, have supper and sleep. And so it went for 13 days at a time.
Mercifully, this grueling routine was punctuated now and again by weather so foul that Cart (always reluctantly) declared a harbour day and sleep, precious sleep ensued. This lay-in was always followed by a late pancake breakfast. Then, while Cart smoked a quirley and monitored the radio traffic, I slept on, tucked up in a down bag on my narrow bunk as the waves lapped against the Orion’s hull and the wind howled through the forest that ringed Welcome Harbour.
One year, on the last day of an opening, we awoke to an ominous forecast: storm-force winds were due to blow through Hecate Strait by noon. Normally we would have packed it in but that previous day we had left gear out in the strait and it had to be retrieved. Before setting out, we tied up alongside the Don Mar, where Danny McLeod and his partner, Jack McSween served up hot black coffee laced with a tot of overproof rum. Thus fortified, and despite Danny and Jack’s misgivings, we headed out.
As there was no bait to cut, I stood in the wheelhouse with Cart, listening to the radiotelephone traffic and periodic updates on the approaching storm. Soon, the sky began to blacken just as forecast, but the ocean remained calm until we began to haul up the string. Then it hit hard. The sea rose from flat calm to mountainous waves in less than thirty minutes, tossing the Orion like a cork and placing maximum strain on the stays that supported the twin stabilizer poles strung out on each side of the vessel.
When out on the strait, I had a rule of thumb that told me how heavy were the seas we were wallowing in at the time: When the crests of the waves eclipsed the horizon from where I stood just forward of the drum, then I knew it was a stormy day. And that day was about as bad as any I had seen in the seven years that I fished Hecate Strait with Cart Secord, although I’m sure he had seen worse.
We hauled that string in record time, helped by a light catch, and then made for home. Just astern of us on the run in was Tony Robinson in the Marpole. But as we couldn’t see one another because of the high seas, we stayed in constant radio contact in case one of us should go down.
The usual way into Welcome Harbour lay at the north end of Oval Bay, between Welcome Point and the Fog Islands; an extremely narrow and treacherous channel on a good day. On this day though, we veered northeast into Edye Passage, which in turn led to Welcome Harbour by the back way.
Unfortunately, this bight was also a blow-hole in a southeast gale, which could be seen from the sheets of sea water that were being sucked up by the wind that day and driven in vertical waves across the channel. No sooner had we entered this maelstrom than the fo’csle cover was suddenly blown off and drifted away. This of course had to be retrieved as we immediately began to take on water through the open hatch. So we circled around once or twice before I managed to snare it with a gaff. I then clambered up to the bow, secured the cover and crawled back to the wheelhouse just as the boats still anchored in Welcome Harbour hove into view.
Tying up alongside the Don Mar, I was never so glad to see anyone as I was those two weathered Scots faces that beamed up at us as Danny and Jack caught our lines.
In his day, Cart Secord was one of the most productive highline fishermen on the coast, and a good friend as well. Cart died in 1981. His son, John Secord, also a fisherman, was lost at sea during a fierce and sudden storm that struck the west coast of Vancouver Island in the autumn of 1984.