Gillnetter heeds siren call of the river
February 9, 2017
According to Mike Crouse, this story has been told a hundred times.
There is a siren song on the river.
Crouse heard it when he was a child in Skamokawa. In a home separated from the Columbia River by a white-tailed deer refuge, he knew when the commercial fishermen went out, because he could hear the music of their boats, even from that distance.
These days he can name the gillnetters from the distinct rhythm and melody of their motors.
What he hears is a call.
"I gotta get out there," he said. "It's always been in my blood. As long as I can crawl on a boat and they let me go, I'll go."
Crouse didn't come from a fishing family but he grew up in a neighborhood of fishermen in Skamokawa.
"For as long as I can remember I wanted to fish the river," Crouse said. "In kindergarten they had us make plates out of clay and I drew a gillnet boat on mine."
When he was 14, he asked his basketball coach, Bill Olsen if he could work for him on the river. At 15, he went to Alaska to fish during the summer.
"Paul Dretsch worked in a cannery up there and he told me to work there until I found a job on a boat," Crouse said. "There is a radio station in the Bristol Bay area, and every three hours job listings came up. After my second shift in the cannery, I called someone who was advertising for boat board fish picker. That was my first job up there."
It was everything he wanted and it was more difficult than he had imagined.
"The conditions were harder than I thought they would be physically," Crouse said. "You are cold and wet all night long. One of the boats I fished on? We would anchor up at night sometimes and wait for the tide. The man I worked for had a bunk and I had to sleep on the floor. Every time the boat would roll, there was a leak in one of the wood planks-it would squirt me. I woke up completely soaked."
The captain told him to take a match and break it off in the hole, Crouse remembered with a laugh. It worked.
"You're out in the elements," Crouse added. "Sometimes that's great, especially in the fall."
In his mid-40s now, Crouse works at Wauna four days a week and waits to hear when he can get back out on the river. He rebuilds boats and buys outfits from retiring fishermen when he can. He'll take what he needs and part and parcel out the rest to sell. His wife, Erla, drives a school bus and works at her coffee shop in Cathlamet, Waterway Espresso.
A new gillnet boat would cost around $200,000 these days, Crouse figures. Nets are $3,000 apiece. He has 15. There are all the licenses that need to be renewed each year, and maintenance for the boat, and gas. It's not an inexpensive vocation. There are launch fees and costs to travel to the locations where commercial fishermen are allowed to work, which isn't always at home.
"Fishermen always have a lot of hope," Crouse said. "You try to budget on a 10 year cycle with fishing because you never know what is going to happen. You have to have a portfolio to make it in the fishing business, because there are so many obstacles. Fish prices, how much they are going to let you catch. You have to have four or five fisheries and hope it's going to pan out."
He has fished for salmon and cod and more. He's crabbed the Bering Sea and off the Washington, Oregon, and California coasts.
"You have to have gear for them all to level your income," Crouse said.
He did sell all his stuff to get out one time. It was in the early 90s when the Endangered Species Act listings came out.
"We thought we were done," Crouse said of the fishermen. "I got out for three years, but I couldn't stay away."
When you can't stay away, the last thing you want to do is overfish, or have a big impact on the river fish runs. You want to have something to come back to next year.
Gillnetters want to have as little impact as possible, according to Crouse. One way to do so is to use a tangle net in the spring.
"It's a small mesh gillnet," he said. It doesn't fit behind their gills, it just wraps up around their mouth so we have a lower impact rate. We can catch more fish and do less harm. We use those in the spring and in the fall on silvers."
Gillnetters are also required to have a revival box. The box holds cold water which has a higher oxygen content, according to Crouse. Stunned fish that have been caught and are destined to go back into the river are placed in the box with the cold running water, in order to give them a fighting chance when they face predators, like sea lions, waiting below for an easy meal.
"We're regulated by mesh size, timing," Crouse said. "For instance, we don't want any steelhead by catch because some of those are on the ESA listing. We know when that summer run is moving through the system. We would like to fish on the front end or the back end so we don't mess with those. Plus we know steelhead are six or seven pounds so we use an eight or nine inch net because we want to catch salmon that are 15-20 pounds. You do get one occasionally. We try and handle those. We've had classes on how to handle those."
Crouse spends a lot of time trying to educate people about commercial fishing, while waiting for officials to debate how the catch should be divvied up. Like the other gillnetters, he is hoping for a better share and more time on the river, to be able to do a job that he loves, a job that once provided a decent income for local families.
"People don't realize the gillnet dollars that could be here," Crouse said. "I make $20,000-$30,000 here a year, which is great. I put it back into equipment or my wife's shop. If we could fish like we did 25 years ago, we would be having $150,000-$200,000 seasons right here with the amount of fish going past. In Alaska you see streams full of fish, but this is a big deep river and there are a lot of fish going past, you just don't see them."
"All these Lower Columbia River communities," he continued. "I can tell you how much business comes in here from outside sports fishermen. None. They're coming from the east, stopping at Safeway in Longview, filling up their tanks, grabbing their groceries. Yeah, they're dropping a fee at launch or maybe drinking some beer at the brewery or renting one of those cabins for two weeks of the year, but we're the ones paying property taxes and supporting local businesses.
"If we were a viable fishery, there would be 40-50 gillnetters here in this community, because there are still licenses that aren't active but get renewed every year. They would employ deckhands, there would be buying stations, people would be needed to drive trucks. It may not be a thriving community, but it would help keep the community alive. That goes for Naselle, Grays River, Chinook, Ilwaco and so on."
Fishing, family, community. That's Crouse's melody.