Lummi Island reefnetters making a haul.
Photo by Mary M. Worthylake; dated July 1949.
Original from the archives of the S. P. H. S.©
Before the white men came, Indians were reefnet fishing. They made nets with string woven of the inner bark of cedar, fished from their dugout canoes.
Now we have string nets, ropes, plank boats, lead for weights, but the principle of reefnetting hasn't changed a particle.
When traps were outlawed in this state, fishermen began to take to reefnetting by the hundreds. But Dad Chevalier has been reefnetting off the same bluff of Stuart Island for 45 years. Before that, when he was only 18 he began fishing, making his nets with cedar bark as the Indians taught him.
The principle of reefnetting is based on the rather tragic fact that salmon hug the shores on their historic run for their home spawning streams. They swim around every shore, a little way up into the mouth of every stream until they find their own stream, when they go on up and up, over every difficulty, to make their shallow "nest" in the gravel on the bottom up where the stream is shallow, clear, swift, clean. There they lay their eggs, die, and yield up their own bodies as feed for whatever young are just then hatching. Thus, each salmon feeds young salmon, though never its own, for by the time its young are hatched, its body is long since consumed. The body of mother salmon is there ready, however, in this unique cooperative borning and dying. So that in reality, in this wholesale nature's way, each salmon does feed its own young with its own dead body.
Hugging the shore, in search for the home stream, the salmon run headlong into the reefnets hung there between two long boats. This is how it works:
You have two very long, narrow, deep, dory-like boats––oh, 35-ft long. At the bow of one you build a high platform on which the fifth man of the crew stands for hours, looking down into the water to watch for fish. Two men in each of the boats wait for the watcher's signal, when they start pulling with all their might, hauling up the filled––or sometimes empty––nets.
Down between the boats, the net swings for 24-ft below the surface. Out in front of the boats, reaching out down the bank for 30, 40, 50-ft or more, depending on the location, there is a rope lead, long rope, top and bottom held 18-ft apart by floats and weights. Ropes six-ft apart are strong between them, making a squarish lead which the salmon obediently follow right into the net. Now and then the ropes of the lead must be taken out and washed so that the salmon will stay between them––afraid, you know, of the bright rope lines of a fence that isn't a fence––like the ones we'd stay inside of too, for lack of imagination and courage to get out.
Right down the rope fence with pickets six-ft apart, the salmon swim. The watcher gives the signal. The men back in the boats, make ready. The watcher says when. They begin to haul in the nets. If it is heavy they begin to gloat, to shout, to jive, to holler, and laugh. If there are watchers on shore, we begin to shout, too, as if we were at a ball game, egging on the players.
It doesn't take long to pull in 24-ft of net. One of the boats is already full, say. We'll dump the load into the other boat. The men in hip boots do not mind the wet, slithery, spray that comes over the gunwale to fall all around them. They haul away on the lines, bring in the last beautiful sockeye. If it's 500 fish they've got on that haul, all the men shout and wave their hats. The men on the other two locations shout in sympathy––and wish it had been their boats that had made the haul.
The boys and men––now and then a woman––fishing at this Stuart Island location are mostly Dad Chevalier's sons and grandsons and the Indians and their sons who have worked for him for 50 years. Johnny Sam is his bookkeeper. Old General is now pensioned, but he gives up his pension for the reefnetting––he wouldn't miss this fishing season if he starved the rest of the year!
The men share and share alike except that Dad gets a share of each location for his boats and gear. Last year was the best they ever had. Each man made $2,000 a share on No. 1 net. In nine weeks of fishing, that isn't bad unless you're depending on that for your year's income as some do. Some years the fishing is woefully bad. This looks to be a bad year, so far, but it may pick up. (Though by the time you read this, it will be nearly over and the tale will be told, whatever it was.)
Bill and Alfred, Bill's and Alfred's son, all Chevaliers, are fishing this year and General, and old Isaac, the rain maker, and General's sons, and Johnny Sam and Louis Smith. On three locations, 15 men are employed. Norman Mills, a son-in-law, is on his own boat, the ALOMA, buying fish.
Norman Mills' 46.8-ft fish tender ALOMA (O.N. 243877),
buying salmon from reefnetters in 1943,
the same year ALOMA was launched In Friday Hbr, WA.
Original, dated photo from the S. P. H. S. ©
See you tomorrow"