My father’s father was always telling ‘old’ stories of back in the day. Down by the wharf, on the stoop of his fishing store, or at the supper table.
It didn’t matter where he was, what he was doing or what anyone else was talking about. If he had something to share, he did just that. While us kids loved it, it oftenannoyed my father. He’s roll his eyes, sometimes ever say something like, ‘OK pop,’ in a way that essentially said ‘give it up’ without actually saying those exact words. Funny how now it’s my father who has the gift for those-were-the-days chatter. Of course me, being a writer, never tire (OK, hardly never tire) of hearing his tales.
One of dad’s favorite topics? The fishery of course. While my father’s only connection to the fishery these days are when he heads out to get a few scallops or to participate in the recreational fishery, he was once a fisherman. As area fishers get geared up for their season, traveling back and forth in front of his sea-side home on quads and in spiffy trucks, bright lights and sound systems blaring, dad sometimes laments the ‘quieter days’ of the fishery. Gone are the still mornings when men wandered down the harbour on wood-stoved-warmed rubbered-feet, toes cushioned by home-knit woolen socks. The crunch on the gravel roads of the early-houred, hard-working men have long been replaced by big wheels on now well-worn pavement. The herring fishery is often a favorite topic of my father’s. In my time, herring was merely ‘bait’ for pots and traps and a scatter feed for my mother who adored the tiny fish, but my father’s memories are quite different. He often spins his tales of an abundant herring fishery and the battle he was involved in to bring it back from near oblivion. 50 years ago when my father was a boy in Harbour Mille, there were three herring factories in his little community and the employment opportunities brought men from English Harbour, Terrenceville and Grand Le Pierre to earn their living.
In these factories, herring would be filleted, skinned and packed into 200 pound barrels. “I can remember times when both sides of the road were lined with barrels full of herring and us boys would walk the length of the harbour and all around by the old school on the tops of them and back again on the other side,” my father laughs, adding that if they were caught they were non-too-gently “fired out of it.” The boys weren’t driven far as the factories always needed extra hands. The young fellas were hired on to peel the skin off the picked fillets. “We would go down in the mornings for a few hours before school, and be back when school let out,” my father recalls. They would spend their Saturdays there- too short to reach the table they stood tall on tubs and buckets, the salt burning their young hands- for .25 cents an hour. “We were happy to have that money,” he says, “there was work here then for anyone whowanted it, not like it is now.” Bar seines spoiled the herring fishery in Fortune Bay. These catch-all nets all but cleaned out the waters when my father was around seventeen. “No one bothered with the herring fishery here then, it just wasn’t worth going at,” my father recounts. My father left the fishery for other endeavors.
All that changed the year I was born. My father, married with two small daughters, returned to his roots and the fishery. He did well. “We made $3.50 a tub of herring and that was good money back in ‘69,” my father chuckles. “There was enough herring that we could make $100 dollars a week. That was great money and we were pleased to get it.” But then the herring went away again. 1969 was the year Joey welcomed boats from B.C. into Fortune Bay. “You could look out the harbour and see the lights of these big boats,” my father recalls, pointing to where the lights could be seen in the bay. The lights would shine down trough the depths, the herring would swim up and the seines would cut through the lot of them, he recounts. My father, and fishermen like him, had no problem with the herring these boats caught-it was the ones they left that bothered them. “When the boat would be full they would dump the seine and what they couldn’t take would be left there dead,” he says. “You could take a 10 foot paddle and put it through the dead, wasted herring down in Bay D’East. It was something else.” The only herring the local fishermen were getting were what would randomly swim into their nets. If they got a bucket full to bait their pots they were lucky, but the fishermen just didn’t bother. “You just took what you had and did the best you could,” my father says, but things changed when the boats were not only “raping” the waters, but also began damaging equipment. “In their quest for the herring these big boats started to tear up our gear or take it altogether,” he says.
The Fortune Bay fishermen were pissed. “Ren Pardy from here and Eric Banfield from Bay L’Argent and I got together and started making phone calls.” The three got the attention of Don Jamison, their fella in Ottawa. Between the “jigs and the reels of it all,” a meeting between the big boat owners and the in-shore fishermen was held in St. John’s and the Fortune Bay fishermen, my father included, walked out with money in their near empty pockets. They had coin to replaced their lost gear and $35 dollars a day for any time they lost out fishing because of the damaged nets, but better than the money, my father says, was a promise made- and kept. “They drew an imaginary line in the bay and no boats were allowed to come in past Big Head, so the bottom of Fortune Bay was kept free of the big boats,” my father explains.
Did the herring fishery improve? Not really, he says. “By then, the damage was done and you have the herring fishery here that you remember, which wasn’t much of one, was it?” he asks. Yes. Dad is right. Since I could walk, I often went out in dory with my fisherman father as he fished for cod and lobster, and even salmon, with his father and brother. But herring? I have no memories of that. But thanks to my father’s gift of story telling, something he himself was gifted from his own father, those stories will never be lost. Happy Father’s Day dad. Keep those stories coming.