Like an answer to prayer Canada is hauling in its greatest catch in history, packing it all for Britain and starving Europe…
By Gregory Clark, October 17, 1942.
Captain Joe Katnich is 40. He is master and owner of the 63-foot fishing boat Westview, home port, Vancouver. In 10 days, Captain Joe and his six chosen crew netted 50,000 sockeye salmon averaging seven pounds apiece, in this greatest salmon run, this most miraculous salmon run, in Canada’s history.
Captain Joe owns the boat, but, for the salmon season, charters it to the big canning company which takes his fish, so as to put himself and his crew on the old-established co-operative basis with the cannery.
The catch is divided into 11 shares. That is tradition. To the boat, 2 1/2 shares. To the net, a vast, complicated seine, 1 1/2 shares, making 4 shares. The remaining 7 shares are divided equally among the seven aboard, master and six of crew.
50,000 fish at 6 1/2 lbs.
325,000 lbs. at 13 1/2 cents.
$43,875 or, with “scrap fish” added, $44,000. Each share, $4,000.
For 10 days’ work, each of the crew gets $4,000. The net belongs to Captain Joe, so he gets another 1 1/2 shares, or $6,000 more.
For 10 days work, in this miracle subterranean blizzard of precious sockeye storming up from the Pacific, Captain Joe gets $10,000.
From the 2 1/2 shares belonging to the boat, he gets a rebate, for chartering it to the company, of another three or four thousand.
High Man of the Run
For 10 days, then, of this incredible gift of the sea to us poor, food-rationed, anxious and bedevilled humanity, Captain Joe Katnich is somewhere near $15,000 richer; his crew of six, plain, strong, brave men of the sea, Slavs, Swedes, Natives, walk up the catwalk to the cannery offices and draw a yellow cheque each for $4,000. And, in the day and night humming cannery, vast and white by the teeming. stupendously generous, life-giving river, by the action of these seven men from the 325,000 pounds of fish they caught, stream out more than half a million cans of salmon, one pound, half pound and quarter pound.
To go to Britain! To go into food reserves on our coast, and in Britain. Food reserves for a starving Europe. One of the mightiest weapons of war. The promise to France, Belgium, Holland, Russia – them all.
“But,” said Captain Joe with one of those permanent Slav grins, “don’t think I’m rich. When the government gets through with that $15,000 – poof! – taxes!”
“Where do you come from, captain?”
“1925. I take one look. I made a couple hundred. I go right back and get my wife and baby.”
“Did you learn fishing here on the Pacific coast?”
“No, SIR! My family have fished the Adriatic since olden time; since the Romans.”
“You glad to be a Canadian!”
“Ohoho yes!!! Who isn’t? And it was not hard to be. In 1930, five years here, the company (packing company) think I am safe man, so they choose me for master of one of their boats. In 1936, I got enough money to buy my own boat. This is her. The Westview – 63-foot. The best.”
And best she is. For, unless the incomparable storm of salmon runs far longer than any one dreams, Captain Joe Katnich is high man of the great 1942 run, with his 50,000 big fish.
The Canneries Glutted
There were any number of other boats that made over 30,000 fish catches, some over 40,000. A few boats landed square into the middle of the run, even though it had passed up the gulf past the hordes of State of Washington seiners, and made one-day hauls of 12,000 fish. One captain got 15,000, had his boat filled to the point of sinking and then threw his seine again and filled it and had to wait until the “packer,” the company boat that comes around and takes some of the fish off the seiners, arrived. He had nearly 3,000 corralled in that net, overflow.
Of course, it is silly to try to depict this great miracle of the fishes in terms of one boat, one master, a few men.
Over 45,000,000 pounds of sockeye salmon were caught in this one swift run of only a few days. The canneries of the B.C. coast were glutted. Day after day the government had to order “cease fishing” to the seiners so that the fish would not be wasted, so terrific was the catch and so hopelessly swamped were the canneries.
All this miracle came following the dedication of the whole catch to Britain. Was it a miracle? Was it answer to a prayer? And what these Canadians have done, the Americans have done equally, in the lower American waters through which the mighty Fraser salmon run has to pass.
Well, to a stranger like myself, this spectacle at the Fraser’s mighty mouth looked more like some Wagnerian regatta of the gods than a mere industrial scene. When we speak of the large seiners like Captain Joe Katnich’s, it is nothing. There are only 100 of them. When we speak of the gill netters, in their little 30 and 40-footers, who do not go out in the treacherous gulf but labor in the more or less sheltered mouth of the Fraser, it is nothing: although there are literally hundreds of them.
They’re “Dollar Fish”
There were rowboats in this miracle. Little one-man dories. As we cruised with camera up and down the miles of river mouth in a speed boat, we saw and talked to kids, two in a boat, with a gill net 100 feet long, which they laid out over the stern of their skiff, who had got 160 salmon yesterday and had 60 more, at noon, as we passed; and they, like kids, hauling in their net into the silly little boat, with the high waves running, and taking the big seven-pound sockeyes out of the meshes and the 10 and 15-pound chums and an odd cohoe (“scraps,” says the cannery man, not meaning any insult to the fish) and one loner, a shy lad of about 20, toiling alone with a big net over the stern of a rowboat I wouldn’t go out on Toronto bay with! The sea running, the crazy little craft bouncing and rearing, with 20 sockeyes all over the floor of her, sliding; and 60 the day before.
At a dollar a fish. “Dollar fish is what they were called along the coast; although, at an average of 6 1/2 pounds, they came to 80 some cents.
“There goes a dollar,” yelled one gill netter indignantly, as our speedboat hove near and he, in paying attention to us, allowed one writhing, sea-bred seven-pounder to struggle out of his grasp from the net and back into the sea.
That sockeye, released from the mysterious net and from the hands of man, put on an incredible performance. In a vast arc, three hundred yards, at intervals of about 20 yards, it leaped along the surface, in terrific muscular leaps of 20 feet, a living torpedo, plunging, careering madly over the surface, either in terror or ecstasy; until it finally went deeper and leaped no more.
The seiners, the big boats, left at 4 a.m. from the Fraser and went as far out and down the Gulf of Georgia as they needed to meet the incoming miracle. Early in the run they went far down, near where the Americans were making their first, their choice skimming of the mighty crop. As the 10-15 day stampede drew northward to the great Fraser, home of them all, the seiners backed up, day by day. The seiners go forth in as much of a flotilla as they can, because the channels and the tides which the sockeye ride are well known to the captains, and the best captains are watched narrowly by all the rest of the flotilla.
Overside goes the dory: grabs a rope attached to the outer end of the piled seine net, with its thick corks to float it, and its big fat lead weights to sink it. And its brass rings, big around as a tea plate, to purse it when the fish are in the bag.
Past the American seiners, far more numerous, has come the silver tide. Past the seiners out of the Fraser it surges. And then the gill netters get their chance.
Besides several days of the run on which the government called a closure by reason of the glutted canneries, Saturdays and Sundays are also closed. This lets a share of the sockeye get safely past the perils of man and up into the Fraser to go through Hell’s Gate and hundreds of miles up into the rivers and lakes where they spawn and make their promise of another record run four years from now.
The gill netters are the little people of the miracle. But they have the most fun. The average gill-net boat is a chunky little craft of 32 feet, with a small cabin forward, a round drum amidships for helping haul in the net and a sort of slide or pulley at the stern over which the 150-fathom – or 300 yards long – net, with its floats and sinkers, comes, hand fed, but engine-drum hauled.
You will see little boats like them all over the waterfront of the world, in Muskoka, on the St. Lawrence, even up on the lumberjack lakes.
The reason we pick the Geddes boat, which is only a 28-footer, is because Mr. and Mrs. Lawrie Geddes were the captain and crew, man and wife, and mighty pleasant young people, too. Geddes and his wife come over to the Fraser mouth, 15 miles from Vancouver, for six months of the year. Then tie up their boat and come home to Vancouver for the other six months, where he works in the shipyards.
How the Gill Netters Work
We came alongside and talked to them, all bobbing up and down on the windblown Fraser fresh off the gulf. They had 165 fish in the boat at the moment. No. 167, because there were two threshing about in the net, half up over the stern, right where Mrs. Geddes had slipped the clutch as we hove alongside. Yesterday they took 300.
Mrs. Geddes was about 27. Lawrie Geddes about 30 or 32. Six of the spring, summer and autumn months, they fish together for a living, with gill nets, as now, in the great sockeye run; with plain trolling when the huge spring salmon or tyee are on the move, 20 to 80-pounders. They have a happy and amusing life. When we took our picture of them. Mrs. Geddes said, “Goodness, I haven’t even had a chance to redd the place up.” The place being this little boat which, with its cabin, is their home for months of every year.
Nothing like this 1942 sockeye run of the dollar fish have the Geddeses ever seen; for it was 1913 when the last great sockeye run was recorded. They make enough, in ordinary seasons, to keep them happy and paid for their time. This year, they will probably pay off all the family debt.
They feed out their net both day and night. Picking a clear spot in the crowded river, they start feeding their gill net, 900 feet long, over the stern. Mrs. Geddes lets the engine slowly pull ahead while her husband feeds its neatly folded length over the roller at the stern. Once they get a few yards of it out, it is easy to feed the rest off. They may lay it straight out, in a line; or curve it; or make a letter S of it. For this net does not enclose the salmon. The salmon, running this and that up the river, now fresh water, hit the net, shove their heads through, are caught by their shoulders. And if they try to back up, are trapped by the gills.
On the end of their net is a small wooden buoy with a bright cloth flag on it. At night, they put a lantern on it. This to warn the fishermen not to foul their net, although most of the fishing boats have a guard or skeg around their propellers, so they can ride right over a net. And if they do, okay, for sooner or later, in a madhouse like this, somebody is going to run over somebody else’s net,
The net is fed out to its full length. With its corks holding its top edge up and the weights holding its lower edge down, there it rides, 12 feet deep in the river.
Some of the gill netters leave it only half an hour. Others leave it two or three hours and have a nap in the little cabin of their craft, or eat a meal. It is all a matter hunch.
Just When They’re Needed
Of the little rowboats and skiffs we were able to get little information beyond the number of their catch which they could shout to us, because we dared not run to close in on them, due to the rough sea in the river mouth. They were all being run by boys, some of them appearing to be under 18.
They did not bring their catch into the big canneries, and we were unable to locate them along the shore. But they were having the most fun of all, their feet braced on the gunwales, as the crazy little craft bucked and leaped. If they got as much each day of the run as they had when we passed, they would make several hundred dollars; their license costs them a dollar; and their net, new, $300 from the company; or a second year net, $150. One young fellow in the Western Leckie Co. which makes nets, took his holidays in the upswing of the run, bought a fishing boat for $350, got a net for $150, caught $900 worth of fish, sold the boat for $450, and came back to work much refreshed by his vacation. And besides, he will sell nets much more efficiently from now on!
It would be nice to take another couple of pages of The Star Weekly to tell the why and wherefore of this miracle of the salmon run of 1942. For there is a why and wherefore. Twenty years ago, the salmon industry in B.C. was a $20,000,000 producer. Ten year ago, it had fallen to a mere $3,000,000. The scientists and the business men got busy. They are finding out new things about salmon every year. Why, when they dwindled to the vanishing point, this colossal resurgence of the sockeye in 1942, this year of crisis and of need?
Well, maybe the editors will let Norman James, the photographer, and me go rampaging around, at their expense, to view more miracles. This is a miracle at Hell’s Gate, on the Fraser. There, 130 miles up from the mouth, these billions of sockeye have to negotiate a terrible door. Some years it is closed. Some years it is open. Sometimes, the day, the week it is open the sockeye are not there. They are miles away, hundreds of miles, at sea. Or strewn downstream dead, from having assailed Hell’s Gate a week too soon, or too late. Then, one year, they arrive and find it open. And they are in plenty. And they go through. And then the miracle blooms. For down, the next year, come their billions of babies. And on the fourth year, return again in the marching myriads.
Then we get the miracle, like 1942.
And in 1942, it is miracles we need.
Editor’s Notes: This story was published in the middle of World War Two.
A seiner is a boat that fishes with a seine, a large net with sinkers on one edge and floats on the other that hangs vertically in the water and is used to enclose and catch fish when its ends are pulled together or are drawn ashore.
To “redd up” means to tidy up.