Friday, April 15, 2005


Living Legends

[Publisher's note: Due to the large volume of e-mails received clamoring for more short stories, the Skookum Editorial Board has obtained permission from the author to republish the following story which first ran in the February 2002 issue of Pacific Fishing magazine. No additional stories from the forthcoming collection Life As Festival will appear here. We hope our readers will understand.]


For those of us who’ve suffered the anxiety of gearing up physically and psychologically for an intensive fishery, such as the West coast roe herring harvests, the postponement of the first opening of the season can be either tormenting, or a welcome relief—a chance to double check gear and plans, as well as to do a little socializing at anchor. There’s something invigorating about the sense of anticipation and camaraderie of the fleet—seiners, gillnetters, and tenders—as they wait on the fishing grounds for the word from Fish and Game.

The roe herring fishery fleet in Washington state, during the mid 1970s when I participated as a tenderman, was primarily based in Anacortes, Bellingham, and Blaine, east and north of the San Juan Islands. The fleet was split between mostly non-Indian seiners, and mostly Indian gillnetters. The seine boats averaged around 40 feet, with a crew of five. The gillnetters were a mix of one and two man boats, ranging from 25-foot boats with cabins, down to 16-foot open skiffs with outboard motors.

A group of Lummi Indians, most of whom fished from these plywood skiffs, often loading them to the point where waves threatened to swamp them, were my charge, if you will, one particular May. By this, I mean, they had contracted to sell their catch to the seafood broker who’d hired a fleet of tenders--including mine--to serve them. Our job was to go where they went or keep track of where they were by radio if they split up, and attend to their various needs, which might include replacing a net, fixing an outboard, resupplying fuel, relaying messages to their shore support, keeping coffee hot and beer cold, as well as testing and unloading their fish expeditiously.

As such, we became adept at spotting our fleet of skiffs, as they raced up and down the coast, dumping their nets into schools just offshore. Being that most of these skiffs were identical in shape and size--having been built by a local craftsman who specialized in them--we were aided in identification by the distinctive colors and names given these vessels by their owners. Additionally, after working with Fuzzy, Skipe, Gabe, Toby, and the other fishermen for a while, we were able to recognize their profiles as they sped around standing in the stern of their skiffs with their hand on the throttle of their outboards.

It was on a serene May evening in 1975, at anchor in the fleet of tenders with skiffs tied along side, that our familiarity with the color-coding of our fleet would come in most handy. We were between openings, reveling in the rest and relaxation of food, beer, card games, and storytelling on the foredeck, and marveling at the beauty of Lummi Island from Hales Passage, between the island and the Lummi Indian Reservation. Only occasional eagles flying by, or radio messages from other vessels interrupted our solitude.

Nixon had resigned the previous year; herring prices were great; and the new fad of “streaking” was at its peak—life couldn’t have been better.

As I was about to help our cook, a lady named Joan, unload another pot of steamed clams that Gabe had dug, we heard an outboard off in the distance at full throttle. We turned to look down the passage toward the boatlift at Gooseberry Point, and could just make out a skiff heading our way. While I grabbed another round of beers off the tote of ice in front of the wheelhouse, Joan got on the radio to invite some ladies on the other tenders over for steamers. Meanwhile, Gabe’s stories on deck had everyone in stitches, and I headed back to get in on the tale.

As all the ladies were standing by at the railings of their vessels, waiting for one of the skiffs to taxi them over to our party, the skiff in the distance was closing on us rapidly. Anticipating good news about the next opening, another case of beer, or perhaps both, we all paused and stood to greet the new arrival.

Ordinarily, when approaching other vessels at anchor, it is customary to slow way down so as not to rock everyone with your wake, as well as to give everyone a chance to hail each other in a dialect unique to maritime culture. But this skiff was bearing down on us at full speed, or baring down, if you prefer, as the operator of the vessel standing at the throttle was completely naked. Unless, of course, you counted the paper grocery bag with two eyeholes draped over his head as attire.

The belly profile looked familiar, but I couldn’t quite make out the skiff, that is, until it turned to run circles around our vessels at high speed, sending us all into hysterics. The boat had no name painted on the bow, but had a black hand print on the stern, the only skiff so painted in the fleet. By this identification, it was obvious this was Joe Labeau, a playful, uncomplicated, Lummi fisherman, who would now go down in the Streak Hall of Fame. But not as quickly as his outboard—evidently in his haste to perform his newly-found talent, Joe had neglected to chain his outboard to the transom, and as he made a third pass, this time right through the middle of the boats, his outboard jumped free of his boat and promptly sank to the bottom, leaving a not-very-well-disguised Joe standing before us—buck naked, and dead in the water.

In time, Joe recovered from this embarrassment, and even made an unscheduled “appearance” at a local tavern, but after being chased out by a broom-wielding barmaid, he retired his mask and sneakers. But he’ll always live in the memories of those of us who were present at his debut, at anchor, one evening, in May of ’75.

--Jay Taber


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