The perch spot and the fisherman’s black book

 Charles R. (Bob) Hitz                                                       Oct. 29, 2012

In George Moskovita’s book “Living off the Pacific Ocean Floor” he mentions fisherman Jackie Ray.

“He was something, that fellow.  He went places in the fishing business.  He could catch fish so he had a good reputation and got to run the big boats as long as he lived.” (1)

blog2chartThere are certain fishermen who have an uncanny ability to know where and how to catch fish.  How they do it is a mystery to me, but one of the ways the trawlers did it was to keep track of where they made successful trawls, getting the net back without hanging up on the bottom, destroying it and losing gear like a trawl door.  This knowledge was kept in their heads or might be kept in “a little black book”, which listed successful tows as well as the hangups and snags encountered.  It also listed what was taken in each tow, and this information was very personal and secret.

F/V Panther, a small West Coast trawler

When Lee Alverson became the Director of Exploratory Fishing in 1958, he had gotten to know the fishermen by developing a Fishing Log system for the State of Washington Ground Fish Project.  It was a volunteer program that he put into effect by visiting each vessel and talking to the skipper, and after he became Director he continued to visit them whenever he had the chance.  I accompanied him on one of those when he hired me in 1960.

We were coming back from a meeting and were driving along the Seattle waterfront.  When he saw a trawler alongside the Main Fishing Company’s dock, we parked and walked along the wharf until we stood above her.  The crew was cleaning up after unloading fish.  Lee called down and asked if the skipper was aboard and, when they said he was, asked if we could come aboard.  When they said yes we went down the ladder and arrived on the deck just as the skipper came to the galley door.  He saw us and swore, as fishermen could, then asked, “What do the bug pickers want this time? Probably coffee, so come on in.”  I was quiet, wondering what we could learn from such a negative reception.  We sat at the galley table as he poured coffee and he and Lee started to talk about where he had been fishing and what was going on in the fishing business, how the Fishing Log was working and what was happening in Washington DC.  It became a very friendly meeting.  When we left the skipper said “Stop by anytime, it was great to see you again.”

The data sheet for fishing logs

Based on those friendships he developed, he discussed with them where the Cobb should explore for bottom fish.  They told him about areas where the bottom was too rough to fish on the continental shelf (out to the 100 fathom contour) and mentioned that once in a while when they tried some of those areas with an old net, if they got the gear back at all there were commercial fish in it.  Also that he should explore along the top of the slope deeper than 100 fathoms to determine what species lived out there.  On such information Cobb cruises were then planned, and trawlable grounds were searched for on so-called ‘untrawlable’ grounds.  The information became public and was put out in an in-house publication called “The Drags of the John N. Cobb.”  It showed where snags were located and clear hauls made, along with the dominate species taken.  A transparent overlay with the hauls printed on it could be put over the matching navigation chart, transferring them to the chart.  The accompanying figure, “Use of Overlay and Data Sheet” shows how the drag information was transferred.  This idea came from the European Fish Charts supplied by the government for the North Seas trawl fleet with drag information printed on the chart.  Knowledge that the Pacific coast fishermen had collected over the years was too precious for each individual to pass on to his competitor, but the information that the Cobb collected during the exploratory bottom fish cruises was public and “The Drags of the John N. Cobb” became popular.  Any vessel could request to be put on the mailing list to receive the latest drag information.

Successful drags were part of the equation and the catch was the second part, the money-making part of it.  The fishhouse wanted a certain species and a certain amount and sent the skipper out to find it.  Based on the market, it would place a limit in pounds of a certain species of fish that it would buy from individual fishermen’s trips, so the skipper had to come up with the fish that he could sell at the time.  This wasn’t easily accomplished, and how certain fishermen like Jackie had the uncanny method of doing it is still a mystery.

The “Perch Spot” which was described in the blog posted on Sept. 17, 2012 titled “Surprise from the Deep” is 40 to 50 miles SW of Newport, Oregon and is an example of whether fish are caught by chance or not.  Each haul made in the northern grounds and in the southern grounds is shown in the accompanying figure.  In northern grounds, for some unknown reason the POP were schooled up in large concentrations available to the trawl in haul #20 so that a catch of 11,000 pounds of POP was taken, while hauls made during the same period at slightly shallower or deeper depths only averaged about 1,800 pounds of  POP per hour of fishing.  Two weeks later when haul #41, a 20 minute haul, was made to see if the POP were still in the same location as #20, a surprising catch of an estimated net splitting 40,000 pounds was made.  The southern ground produced catches that were characteristic for the area, averaging about the same as the northern grounds with the exception of hauls #20 and #41.  Was there a reason they concentrated at that spot?  Pete the skipper would say, “They have tails and move, so who knows?”

Al Pruter, Lee Alverson’s newly appointed assistant who was aboard as chief scientist, kept a personal log as part of the cruise data.  He called three trawlers working nearby, the Ruth Ellen, Washington and Trego, to let them know the position of the Perch Spot just after the net exploded on Sunday, May 28, 1961.  On late Monday he went back to check the Perch Spot and found that a differentvessel, the Madeleine J had fished the spot and had a floater of POP alongside.

Checked the Perch spot again on Tuesday and observed the Kiska, Dave II, New Mexico and Oregonian fishing on known grounds just north of there.  Talking to the Kiska via marine radio, they reported they had fished the Spot that morning but that small blackcod had set in.   He said that some of the boats had worked the spot successfully, but that others had torn up on coral.  The Kiska gave them information about a snag made in 116 fathoms in the Spot area, so the Cobb made haul #49 in 117-118 fathoms and snagged during the tow, ripping the net badly.  There were 1,500 pounds of POP remaining in the net.

On Friday June 2, 1961, on the way into Astoria to pick up Lee and start the AEC project off the Columbia River, Al talked to Gordon White on the Destiny, who thanked him and the vessel for the good work, saying that he hoped that the Cobb would be able to do more work in this area in the future.  Cliff Hall on the Pacific Queen compared fathometers and loran readings with the Cobb, saying that he was going to try some of the Cobb drags.  At the time, boats fishing out of Newport were on severe limits.  The photo is of the Panther, a typical west coast dragger of the time characteristic of the Oregon trawlers.

We do know that trawling grounds found in untrawlable grounds called “The Spit” area off Washington, when the John N. Cobb explored the area on her exploratory cruise the year before, found a concentration of Petrale sole (Eopsetta jordani) in two drags made on May 13, 1960 which averaged 1,150 pounds per hour of fishing.  In another area they found Dover sole (Microstomus pacificus) in three hauls made on May 28 and 29, 1960, which produced an average of 2,200 pounds per hour. (2)  This information was passed on to the local trawl fleet soon after the catches were made and the Cobb had moved to a new location.  The fleet landed over 300,000 pounds Petrale sole and Dover sole from the above areas before the completion of the Cobb Cruise which ended in June, 1960.

Fishermen know the sea bottom better than their own back yards and know the behavior of the fish, some better than others.  They kept it secret to themselves or in their little black books.

(1)Moskovita, George:  Living off the Pacific Ocean Floor.  Self Published Astoria Oregon, 2000.

(2) Hitz, C.R., Johnson, H.C., and Pruter, A.T.:  Bottom Trawling Explorations off the Washington and British Columbia Coasts, May-August 1960.  Commercial Fisheries Review, June 1961, Vol. 23, No. 6 Washington 25, D.C.

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About finleyc

I'm a writer and a historian of science. I'm interested in the intersection of science and policy in the oceans, and especially around fishing.
This entry was posted in Dayton Lee Alverson, Environmental History, Exploratory Fishing Base, Fisheries policy, Fishing, History of Science, History of Technology, Maritime History, Ocean fishing, Pacific Fishing History Project, R/V John N. Cobb, Rosefish, Sebastes rockfish, World History and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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