"It looks like a great day for fishing," he said.
At 10:00 AM, the sun was already bright in the clear blue sky over the San Juan Islands and a light breeze ruffled the water.
|Fisherman Charles Chevalier|
Photo by the late great Josef Scaylea.
Date stamped verso 1978
Original print from the archives of the
Saltwater People Historical Society©
Charles Chevalier is a part-Indian, sixth-generation reefnetter. His comment about the fish conditions was based partly on instinct, inner knowledge. It proved to be accurate.
A grebe, floating in front of him, took a dive deep into the water to avoid Charles' boat as it headed out of Friday Harbor around the bay bound for Stuart Island. Chevalier was in a hurry. He wished to meet his crew at the reefnet site well before high tide at noon.
Though bare-foot, Charles had tossed his tennis shoes into the seat in front of him, together with a light jacket and a sack lunch. He would not be home until dinner, and the late afternoon wind on the cold waters of the San Juans could be chilly.
Charles passed a few gillnetters coming in late from their night's fishing off the salmon banks. Purse seiners, their huge nets wrapped around hydraulic drums, beat past him.
And all around him, first in one direction and then the other, a quick eye could catch the flash of silver spray as the beautiful sockeye jumped out of the water to take a look around.
Stuart, the most westerly of the San Juan Island group, is close to the Canadian boundary. Here off a kelp bed near the entrance to Reid Harbor, Charles came upon his reefnet rafts. His crew was already there cleaning drift out of the lines.
This reefnet location has been fished continuously by members of Charles family for six generations. It is licensed by the State––one of 71 stationary sites still being fished commercially in Puget Sound waters. 
Reefnet gear includes two canoes or rafts anchored parallel to each other 200' from shore in a spot where the ebb tide and floodtide currents will carry salmon into the 50' square net spread between the canoes or rafts.
Setting out the net was the job Charles and his crew set about doing. The net was heavy; its four-inch mesh had been dipped in black tar so that the fish wouldn't 'tangle up in it.'
The crew pulled one side of the net tightly between two rafts, the line stretched taut on the surface of the water. The opposite side of the net, secured to anchor lines, was held down in the water by weights.
A few salmon, running ahead of the tide, evaded Charles' net. The current was not yet strong enough to make the net 'bag back.'
"Fish traps blocked most of the reefnet sites by 1890, and many of the native owners of the locations were forced out. But in 1934 fish traps were outlawed and some of the old locations were reclaimed.
Our spot at Stuart has been fished continuously for as many years as we can search back. I've fished it myself since I was 12––some 35 years."
"Grandpa Bill Chevalier and his partner, Al Drouillard, started fishing this site in 1905," Marge went on. "Grandpa made a ceremony out of setting the anchors for the nets.
He would pick the huge rocks carefully for their shape, wrap cedar-branch cables around them, lash them to the canoe and wait for the tides to float the rocks to the reefnet location."
Charles' father, Alfred Chevalier, and his uncle Louie (like their ancestors) used to 'call' fish to the net. They learned the call from Charles' Great-Great Uncle Ned, a medicine man.
|Marge Chevalier Workman|
Cousin to Charles Chevalier.
Photo by Josef Scaylea.
Original print from the archives of the
Saltwater People Historical Society©
"You have to feel it, they say. You have to be in tune with the fish. It's almost a spiritual thing."
Traditionally, the first salmon caught is accorded special respect.
"In days long ago," Charles says, "our people believed that the salmon had come to feed the people with their own flesh. So the first sockeye of the season (sockeye being the most powerful of all fish) received the special rite."
Charles and Marge recall that no one would ever step across the first fish caught and that as the fish was cut, people would give thanks for the survival of the fish and the related survival of the people.
Marge's father, Bill Chevalier, who is 81 and still living on San Juan Island, followed another custom which may have been unique to the area. He always took his first salmon of the season and laid it out for the yellow jackets, knowing that when there were lots of yellow jackets, there were also good salmon runs.
Although Marge and Charles, being three-eighths and one-fourth Indian, respectively, no longer follow many of the ceremonies of their Indian ancestors, they say that descendants of the tribe on San Juan Island would like to get together and teach their children the traditions they've learned.
But it was time to go back to work.
Chugging down Speiden Channel was the 50' fish packer PRIMO, skippered by Clarence Meads. Clarence is the fish buyer for Whitney-Fidalgo at Anacortes, and it is he who makes the rounds of the reefnet positions daily during sockeye season.
He maneuvered the PRIMO close to the rafts and the crew put off the salmon, using dip nets called 'brailers' to throw them aboard the fish packer for weighing.
Clarence passed down a fish ticket indicating how much money would be credited to Charles for his day's catch.
Is reefnetting a profitable venture? Both Marge and Charles laughed.
"It varies," they agreed.
"I remember one year," Marge said, "when I made $25 total. It was during WW II when all the boys were in the service. Grandpa asked me to come on up to Stuart and help him fish.
Financially, no, it wasn't rewarding, but I love these islands and I love being here."
Marge was born on Waldron Island, lived on John's Island and went to school on Stuart, rowing across the bay and walking three miles through the woods to the little one-room schoolhouse. She played on Henry Island and visited her grandmother often on Speiden Island, which the family owned.
In the late afternoon sunshine, rocking gently on the reefnet raft, the two cousins reminisced.
They remembered their grandmother's cousin Sara who used to fish from a canoe with a three-pronged spear.
They repeated tales told to them of their great-great-grandmother who was from the Songish tribe and lived to be almost 100 years old in a little cedar-shake shed on the north end of Speiden Island. She always sat on a little box by her fire in the shed, never wore shoes and never learned to speak English.
Their great-grandfather, Robert Smith, was a British marine stationed at English Camp on San Juan Island during the Pig War. He bought his way out of the Marines for $20 and married the old Granny's daughter, Lucy, establishing a homestead there that would be occupied by the family for many years.
The Smith's daughter, Mary, (Charles and Marge's grandmother) was a beautiful woman who married Ed Chevalier, and together they 'ruled' for many years what became known as their 'island kingdom.'
According to the book, Pig War Islands, Ed and Mary Chevalier were as widely known and loved as anyone in the San Juans. With their family of five children, they raised turkeys for market, tended a fruit orchard, grew all their own produce, kept sheep and horses, milked two cows, logged and cut wood. In addition, Ed built boats and held down a full-time job at Roche Harbor, rowing the two miles or so to work and back each day in fair weather or storm.
He also fished commercially, and did so well at developing the technique that 'islanders looked on him as the local father of reefnet fishing.'
"Grandmother," Marge says, passed down many of the Indian ways to our generation.
She had regal bearing and a very gracious manner. I remember Sam Buck, Sr.. saying that he would like to take her to WA, DC, to present her to the President. She knew so much about the history of these islands."
A maternal great-uncle of Marge's, Prosper Graignic, was "reputedly the most successful rum-runner on the Puget Sound." His father was a French sailor who jumped ship in Victoria in the 18870s, marrying an Indian girl from LaConner and settling on Waldron. "The large family they reared on Waldron grew up, it would seem, with sea water instead of blood in their veins. One of Prosper's brothers is said to have sailed the family sloop to Victoria and back at the age of 7. Another, although deaf, earned his way as a fisherman. His knowledge of local tides and currents is described by island people as uncanny. Even the girls in the family learned, early on, to be as much at home afloat as on dry land."
While they were talking, Charles had pulled the reefnet out of the water and stowed it away, tying it down, and securing the lines.
Their day's work was over now, in their ancestors' "gentle way to fish."
Above text was written by Patricia Latourette Lucas
For The Seattle-Times, 1978.
Charles R. Chevalier (1930-2015)