Deer Harbor, Orcas Island, WA.
A low res scan of an original gift from
long time mariner, Cliff Thompson.
Click image to enlarge.
The 84-year old French-Indian fisherman had been pulling salmon from these waters since 1878. Other veteran commercial fishermen who remember will tell you that 'Old Henry' can figure a salmon like no other man alive.
The last of the pioneer breed of fishermen, Cayou has caught more than 5,000,000 salmon in his time.
'There isn't a fisherman alive who has caught as many fish as Cayou,' says Robert Schoettler, State Fisheries Director.
'The way to catch fish is to figure out which current the salmon are working on. If you can do that, the rest is easy,' says Cayou.
The genius of this wiry, muscular octogenarian for knowing which underwater highways the salmon travel has earned him more than $100,000,000 in his career. In 1928, his best year, he cleared more than $100,000 in a season of fishing.
'I don't know how much I've made altogether. Might be close to $2,000,000 if I figured it up.'
As the salmon return to the spawning grounds with unerring instinct, so has Cayou. The name is French and means 'Well-rounded, worn pebble going downstream.' We returned to the place where he began fishing at the age of nine, at Flat Point on Lopez Island.
He straddled a log on the beach watching his four-man reefnet crew work in the water a few yards away. Up the bay, purse seiners were strung out on the shimmering water like a string of white pearls.
'Lord, I've seen some changes in my time. All this (he pointed across the uninhabited flatland) was an Indian fishing village. Out in that channel, the salmon used to run so thick you could walk across the water on their backs..."
Cayou's father, Louis, he said, was a French hunter-trapper out of Kentucky. He hit this country in 1859 in the wake of the big gold rush in the Caribou, BC. By trade, Cayou Senior was a 'bull-puncher,' who dragged logs out of the forest with oxen.
'He was too late for the gold, so the Hudson's Bay Co boss at Victoria hired Dad and another fellow named Bradshaw to go into the San Juans and hunt deer to feed the crews.' Cayou said. 'They built a bark shack at Deer Harbor on Orcas Island. Later on, they branched out and went into the shingle business for the Hudson's Bay people.'
At Deer Harbor, Louis Cayou met a supple Indian lass of fourteen and with the blessing of the chief of the friendly San Juan tribe, married her. Henry was the first child of this union, 4 August 1869, and was followed by six sisters and four brothers.[family records list his birth year as 1868.]
Young Cayou virtually was born to fishing. His Uncle Pe Ell was the chief fisherman of the San Juan tribe and when Henry was nine years old, Pe Ell made him a full-time fisherman.
In those days the San Juans were the chief fishing grounds, for the Indians of Western Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska with even the Bella Coolas coming down in their colorful 50-foot-long, 12-foot-wide red cedar canoe powered by 15 oarsmen.
'Those were happy times, Cayou remembered. We were all friendly and when fishing was good at one tribe's spot, they invited the rest of us to fish it, too. If we knew where the fish were, we never kept it a secret like today.'
The coming of the white man to Puget Sound produced a minor peaceful revolution among Indian fishermen. For centuries they and their ancestors had caught salmon to supply their immediate wants but now they found that the white man would pay him money for the salmon. We hauled 40,000 to 50,000 fish in one boat. Often we got two cents a fish. A price of six or seven cents was good.'
From his mother's relatives, young Henry rapidly learned their ancient fishing secrets. Patience was the Indian fisherman's touchstone. He could sit silently for hours and never move until the fish swam into his nets.
'The salmon is a smart critter, you make the slightest movement from the reefnets and a whole run of salmon will shift direction and get away from the nets in a flash.'
From the first, Henry Cayou (who later served 27 years as a San Juan County Commissioner) demonstrated his qualities of leadership. When he was still in his teens, he signed a contract with Alaska Packers to supply salmon to their Point Roberts and Blaine canneries at six cents per head, an excellent price. He quickly prospered.
Cayou was a pioneer in fish traps, a development that profoundly influenced salmon fishing before they were outlawed in WA and OR. 'In 1858, a fellow named Fredenberg came up from the Columbia and he drove the first trap in Puget Sound off Eagle Point.'
In the industry, Cayou is recognized as the all-time master among fish trap setters.
'As a kid, I learned from my Uncle Pe Ell how the salmon ran the currents and how they used the shoreline as a guide. I guess I had the knack for setting a trap just right in the currents so they would pay out.'
The old fisherman's uncanny ability for setting his traps right enabled him to make a modest fortune salvaging fishing sites that had been abandoned as 'worthless.'
'Henry had a genius for smelling out the fish,' Duncan McMillin of Pacific American Fisheries once said.
McMillin should know. Once he gave Henry the Mulligan trap off Point Roberts and told him he wouldn't catch a fish.' Cayou moved the trap around, fished it three years and netted $14,000 a year from it. Then he sold it to H.A. 'Bob' Welsh of the Bellingham Canning Co for $30,000.
"I've made an abandoned trap pay out many times.' It's just a knack I had. Some fellows can figure horses or ball players. I can figure fish.'
Cayou always remained an independent operator, never hooking up with one of the big companies. The fish pirates who used to raid the big outfits' traps never touched me. They knew I was small and left me alone.
Like other pioneer operators, Cayou made it and lost it. 'Henry was great with the fish but he never had much of a head for money, an old cronie remembered. 'He dropped $67,000 in a cannery enterprise at Deer Harbor when a fish run failed and he had to make good on payroll contracts. Later he lost ''another pile' at Dungeness when a storm shook loose a big boom of logs and smashed his traps.
But Henry Cayou is not the kind of man who regrets. 'I've been pretty lucky. Plenty of times I've been knocked into the water and have been just glad enough to get out with a whole skin.'
When Washington State abolished fish traps in 1934, Cayou moved to the Columbia, working out of St. Helens, OR. But the dams and civilization (and the traps themselves, he admits) had depleted the run and it wasn't like the old days when a man could catch 10,000 to 12,000 fish a day.
After Oregon outlawed the traps a few years ago, Cayou returned to Lopez Island to spend the late fall of his life fishing the place of his boyhood. 'Commercial fishing isn't a business or a sport, it's a gamble. You have to outguess the fish to make it.'
Text by Joe Miller. Published by the Seattle Times November 1953.
––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––1905: Reportedly built for Henry Cayou, a fish tender, SALMONERO (201957) also known as "Sammy." She was 54.4' x 11.3' x 4.3' with 75 HP. Built at Tacoma. She was still documented in 1935. Source; Robin Paterson, Gig Hbr.
A donation from
maritime historian J.R. Paterson
1909: County Commissioner H.T. Cayou expects to operate five traps during the coming fishing season, he has already let contracts for four of them. One will be located near Decatur, one trap off Long Island, at the south end of Lopez, and two just inside of Deception Pass. The fifth he expects to drive near Kellet Ledge. He has contracted his season's catch to the George & Barker Co., of Blaine." S.J. Islander 12 Feb. 1909.
1995: Notes from Ernie Thompson of Deer Harbor:
"As far as I know at this time, Uncle Henry had fish traps at West Beach, Orcas Island; Salmon Banks, San Juan Island; Port Townsend, Point Roberts, Lopez Island and holdings in Alaska." Files of the S.P.H.S.