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San Juan Islands, Washington State, United States
A society formed in 2009 for the purpose of collecting, preserving, celebrating, and disseminating the maritime history of the San Juan Islands and northern Puget Sound area. Check this log for tales from out-of-print publications as well as from members and friends. There are circa 500, often long entries, on a broad range of maritime topics; there are search aids at the bottom of the log. Please ask for permission to use any photo posted on this site. Thank you.

09 February 2013


This collage of three postcards depicts the early trap fishing
of the northern corner of the State, 100 years ago.

Below text by author/historian Lucile McDonald 
Seattle Times, December 1961.

"In fishing parlance 30 years ago, 'night buyers' were less politely known in enforcement circles as 'fish pirates'.
       This occupation went out of fashion in 1934, when Washington banned salmon traps. (The ban does not extend to fishing by natives.) It is difficult to find anyone who remembers the excitement these nocturnal gentry were capable of fomenting.
      Stan Phillips, 73, of Seattle, who spent 30 years in the state fisheries patrol, carries scars in token of his encounters with them. Walter Scott of Bellingham knew the reverse side of the picture.
      Scott, now in his late 60s, considers the night-buyer period merely a part of his long experience as a commercial fisherman. In his early teens he worked catching dogfish, to be rendered into skid grease, and since then he has rarely been far from fishing boats, still occasionally taking out one for a Bellingham company.
      The fish traps these men remember were placed strategically along the route of migrating salmon, the mesh anchored to piling and forming a fence which led to a central enclosure. The heart of the trap was brailed, that is, emptied by a large dip net, every two or three days. The brail dumped the fish aboard cannery tenders. 
      Regulations required closure of traps 26 to 48 hours over weekends to allow escapement of fish. In this interval, watchmen sometimes operated the trap for their own benefit, leaving the apron, or gate,  open instead of closing it.
      Scott said the watchmen were poorly paid and easily tempted. A few were too honest to play along with the nighthawks. One he recalled had not gone ashore from his trap in weeks, though fish pirates had tried all sorts of persuasion. Finally, they convinced him that he was overdue for a visit at a barber shop. He went ashore for a day and a night, leaving a well-filled trap. On his return with the needed haircut he found the trap had been trimmed, too.
      Frequently the night boats worked in pairs, becoming so efficient they arranged with a tender regularly to pick up their catch. Four men with two craft were known to brail 1,200 sockeyes a night at $1 each. They used a contrivance of their own invention called a 'Swiftwater Bill', made of stout poles and netting. Scott remembered one night when he and his friends took 5,000 salmon from a trap.
      In early years a sloop was used because it was silent and would carry a large load. Motorboats were better for quick pick-ups and get-aways, but they had to be muffled with a 'sneezer'.
      When a trap watchman could not be induced to relax vigilance, the pirates used forceful methods. Scott spoke of a watchman who had the habit of patrolling the plank walk around the trap. On a dark night, pirates slipped in silently, struck the trap a blow with their boat and knocked the watchman into the spiller.
      'He had to be fished out, damp and disgusted, along with the salmon. After that he practiced safety first and spent more time in his shanty and less walking the planks.
      If you were in one of the pirate clans, you soon were known by a nickname--Owl Eye Joe, Sleepy Eye Charlie, Shifty Sam, Lefty Louie, and Nosey Herman were some of the monickers.'
      Herman earned his name through numerous fistic encounters which altered the shape of his nose.
      Scott said that pirating was defended by the men who engaged in it as not a serious misdemeanor, because how could one steal fish from those who did not own them. A cannery might install a trap, but until the fish were taken out of it and placed aboard a tender or impounded in some other way, the pirates reasoned the salmon were still at large and in their natural element.
      Fish pirates generally operated off Legoe Bay on Lummi Island north to Boundary Bay and south to the west shore of Whidbey Island. On rare occasions, Canadians in formidable gangs crossed the border and raided traps. Phillips told of visiting a well-lighted trap near Lummi Island and finding no one around. Officers observed that the door of the watchman's shanty was locked from the inside.... They ordered the occupants out. Three men emerged, hands in the air. They looked relieved when they saw the patrol officers. 
      'We thought you were a gang of Canadian fish pirates. Are we glad to see you! Those other guys would beat us up, throw us overboard and clean out the trap.'
      Planes were in use for fisheries patrol work before the traps were discontinued. Phillips said it was possible to see from the air whether a watchman had left a gate open.
      A certain trap tender rigged a jerk line to the apron, so that he could drop it swiftly if he saw persons approaching. During a weekend, he had gone peacefully to sleep while sipping whiskey and paid no attention to the sound of the amphibian plane overhead. The officers dropped down and paid him a visit, finding him snoozing, with the jerk line tied to one hand.
      Often a trap watchman, having turned his back to allow 'the boys' to take some company fish, became the victim himself of the outlaws, who would carry off his tools, clothing, and food along with the salmon.
Fish traps located in the Pacific NW.
Six images from the archives of S.P.H.S.©

     The pirates outdid past feats when several boats moved in one night, loosed the lines on a pile driver and a barge which had been working at a trap and towed them a few hundred yards away. The cook was asleep in his shack on the barge, unaware that his flour, sugar, canned goods, sides of bacon, and fresh meat were being stolen, and that the engineer's tool shed had been cleaned out. As a final touch, a thief reached under the cook's pillow and pulled out a new suit of underwear he had purchased in town 
that day.
      From the inception of the Washington Fisheries Patrol in 1889, its men were considered fair game for pirates and poachers. It was a rare enforcement officer who did not get dunked in the water sooner or later. A favorite device was to string a wire across a channel on a dark night and attract the attention of the patrolman. If he followed the pirates, as they hoped he would, the wire more than likely would sweep him overboard to icy water and give them free reign for the rest of the night.
      Finding water or sugar in the gasoline tank of a patrol boat was no surprise. One officer was barely away from his moorage at Bellingham on a tour of inspection when his craft started to fill. Pirates had put a hole through the stern transom, inserted a plug and tied it to a piling. When the boat drew away, out went the plug and the patrolman had to bail fast in order to get back to port.
      Few legitimate buyers asked where fish came from. Often they paid cash to the pirates for salmon just caught by their own company's equipment.
      One of the nighthawks discovered a way to get fish with a minimum of effort. He ran his boat beneath the Alaska Packers Co. wharf at Blaine, placing it below a loose plank. As fish were unloaded into a bin overhead, a certain portion of them slid through into the boat. The pirate then replaced the plank and when the coast was clear he would move over to the other side of the wharf and sell his load to the cannery."
Author note: This article is based on interviews and material gathered by Lester E. Banker, retired marine surveyor who possibly authored a book, Oceans of Fish.
McDonald writes of a manuscript Banker had ready for publication. Web admin checked with the WA. State Fisheries office in Seattle and they have no knowledge of a published or unpublished fisheries book by Mr. L. E. Banker.

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