In the pink: Low-tech reef netters haul in best salmon catch in years
Reef netting pink salmon off Lopez Island is about as low-tech as it gets.
Seattle Times staff reporter
LOPEZ ISLAND, SAN JUAN COUNTY —
It's the Salish Sea's abundant season, a flashing, thrashing wriggling show as spotters on the reef netter give the holler everyone's waiting for: "Fish! Let's haul!"
Standing on spotting ladders 16 feet up, they see pink salmon headed for their reef net and the race is on. The fishermen have about 10 seconds to gather the fish before they get away.
Working just off the beach in the cold, green waters off Lopez Island, theirs is an ancient fishing technology.
Reef netting is about as low-tech as it gets: four guys on two barges with a net strung between them. They work in pairs, with a lookout atop the ladder on each barge, and a fisherman on each deck waiting for the call to action.
Some days, that's all anyone does: Watch and wait. And then the pinks boil in the net, and the fishermen haul for all they are worth to bring them up and onto the boat. A splashing applause of fish, the pinks thrum the deck, ankle deep, as the fishermen work to slide them into the opening to a net pen below deck.
The fish are brought on board selectively, with the fishermen pushing away anything they aren't supposed to catch. Their wiggling catch arrives alive, not smushed as in a purse seine, or ripped and bleeding from a gill net.
The boated fish zip across the deck, a mass of wet silver bright life, disappearing below to swim about in the net pen. It's not an efficient fishery: Pulling up fish 100 or so at a time is quaint by commercial standards.
"We are a floating museum," says Jack Giard, working his 54th fishing season. There are only 11 non-Indian commercial reef-fishing licenses left in the Washington state, with fishermen working off Lummi, Lopez, Shaw and Stuart islands.
Reef netters go out for silvers, chum, chinook and sockeye as well as pinks. It's the thrill of the hunt, the split-second timing and the prettiness of the catch that make this fishery so rewarding, Giard said.
Pinks usually run bigger in odd years, and this one was a boomer. This was the best fishing season on pinks Giard could ever remember, with 16 consecutive days of fishing on pinks bound to the Fraser River, more than 17 million fish strong. Fish managers set aside 3 million pinks for Washington fishermen to catch, to be divided equally between tribal and nontribal fishermen, a summer bounty of dreams.
Smoke houses on the island were hopping, processors and buyers were busy, and the fishermen were selling right off the docks.
Overlooked in the fascination with bigger, more glamorous chinook, pinks are a tasty fish, and the Sound's most reliable biomass. When they arrive in big numbers like this year, theirs is the signature of summer abundance.
"Watch it, they are getting out in front of you!" Giard yells, scrambling down the ladder, his rain gear flecked with silvery fish scales, for another pull of the net.
Reef netting is his favorite type of fishing, says Giard, who at 71 still works his gear barehanded.
"The fish have such a good chance, if we don't see them, we don't catch them," he said. "It's an exciting fishery to me, even more than sport because you can see them before they are even in the net."
Giard watched as fishing partner Steve Lovejoy kept watch on the tower. "Should be Lovefish," Giard said. "To me, love and fish go together." Lovejoy certainly wouldn't disagree: He was supposed to be on vacation this day, but said he loves fishing too much to stay away.
The electric winch — goosed by a starter from a B-29 bomber — ground as they brought the net up for another haul, the fourth of the day.
There were long periods of quiet waiting, too. On the other barge, fisherman Randy O'Bryant stood as still as an eagle on a branch, waiting for the shadowy shapes of salmon to show in the water.
"Some people can really see fish," Giard said softly. "Can tell what fish they are just by the way they move in the water."
They have their stoic days. Lovejoy said one recent day passed without pulling the net once — until the end, when they made their day with a big pull. "You never know, and that is what's fun about it," Lovejoy said.
O'Bryant called out suddenly: "Big school coming; it's a nice bunch!" Everyone froze, so as not to spook the catch before the fish entered the net.
Except for the ravens' gronk carrying from the forested shore, it was silent — then pandemonium as the fish hit the net, and O'Bryant and Lovejoy and fisherman Andrew Nason scrambled.
On they would go like that, watching, waiting and scrambling by turns, as the silvery bounty of pinks swept by the island in great shoals — bound for the Fraser River, a last bounty of summer.
Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736
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