Out of the Past
Nick Jerovich Jr., A Third Generation on the Oregon Coast
I watch Nick Jerkovich Jr. skillfully guide his Delta seiner Pacific Raider under the Megler Bridge in Astoria, Oregon and out across the Columbia River Bar into the mighty Pacific Ocean. The sardines are back in the area again, you know, and one can be damned sure that Nick and his Pacific Raider will corral their fair share of today’s market.
Nick Jerkovich has been a top producer in practically every known fishery, from the Bering Sea in Alaska to Southern California. But this is a different and exciting adventure for Nick and his Pacific Raider, an opportunity to become involved in a harvest of a new fishery. Nick will take full advantage of that opportunity to be sure. No Southeast Alaska salmon scales aboard the limit seiner Raider the last couple years. Sardine fishing is Jerkovich’s prime focus recently.
But a brand new fishery? Wait a minute here. Nick’s grandfather John Jerkovich Sr. was crossing the Columbia River with his first purse seiner Washington and fishing for sardines, or pilchard, here over 76 years ago. No, this is not a brand new fishery. We all know that. But so many years have passed since the sardines abounded in such great numbers out of this Oregon port, that only an older generation will vividly recall the excitement of those prosperous times in another era of the fishing industry. More on that in a moment.
Once the Pacific Raider is beyond the bar and out in the ocean, Nick is in constant contact with the pilot of his spotter plane. This is strictly a daytime fishery, unlike sardine fisheries off the California Coast those many years ago. The pilot will watch for brown spots and “flippers” in the ocean. Those indications of the presence of sardines may occur just a short distance beyond the bar perhaps, but at other times the signs may appear in a more distant area.
Once the fish are spotted, the pilot will direct the Pacific Raider to that precise location, even indicating to Nick, exactly where the net should be dropped. A basic round haul is made at that point, with no towing of the net unless a problem might occur. The spotter pilot has replaced a lonely and daring man of another era. A man who was positioned precariously in the crow’s nest, high atop a swaying mast, performing the task which the airplane pilot routinely does so easily these days. Yes, perhaps not a brand new fishery, but certainly a modern and advanced version of one long past.
The Pacific Raider is a modern and advanced participant in a modern and advanced fishing industry. In the expansive pilot house, the array of electronic and computerized equipment makes me wonder if I haven’t accidentally wandered onto a set of a Star Trek movie. Computers, plotters and other innovations that would surely have made Nick’s grandfather’s head spin in disbelief. The elder Jerkovich first crossed this bar in 1926, with only a small compass and a foghorn to assist him in working this demanding area of the West Coast. Yes, John Jerkovich Sr. would not have believed it was possible.
And how does one begin to learn to make use of all this hi-tech stuff I wonder? But for Nick Jerkovich Jr., it’s simply another aspect in the handling of his productive fishing operations. No big deal for Nick Jr. It is readily apparent that this is a young and determined man who knows what he is doing. Perhaps a slight indication of why Nick is considered by his peers to be one of the top skippers in the fishing industry.
And although all the modern equipment aboard the Pacific Raider may not have been available to Nick’s grandfather in those early days, the vessels of the Jerkovich fleet have consistently continued to be state of the art for their time. The family has always believed that in order to be successful, it is necessary to be in a position to challenge your competitors with the finest boats and equipment available. Throughout the fishing community, it is well known that the Jerkovich family will settle for nothing less, in striving for their ultimate goals. It’s first class all the way.
“The sardine operation is a very efficient and clean fishery here.” says Nick Jerkovich. “There were several boats fishing for sardines this summer and we had an observer on board at least a dozen times. The by-catch is practically non-existent and we work together with the observers to try and affect a continued and expanded fishery. We deliver our fish to the Astoria Holdings Company in Astoria. The sardines are used almost exclusively for longline tuna bait and the product is shipped literally around the world.”
Nick spoke of the great care that is used in taking only the amount of fish needed to fill the day’s quota perhaps. “There were times when we needed about 40 tons of sardines to complete the day,” Nick said. “The spotter pilot would often lead us past a school of a hundred or more. Soon, we would locate another school, which would provide us with almost exactly the 40 tons that was needed for our quota. There is very little waste in this operation and all of us involved are doing our best to protect the future and the expansion of this fishery.”
Also, the freshness of the product, from the catch to its preparation for shipping is truly amazing. “I take on 10 tons of ice every time I leave Astoria,” says Nick. “There are times when we have been able to head out fishing and are back at the Astoria Holdings plant in just a few hours. Working with other boats in our pool, one vessel is out in the early morning and one in the late afternoon. The product is quickly unloaded and immediately flash-frozento insure quality. It’s hard to imagine a fresher seafood harvest than that.”
Nick’s latest seiner is the fifth of the Jerkovich family vessels carrying the name Pacific Raider. And as mentioned earlier, Nick’s grandfather, John Jerkovich Sr., was operating a sardine seiner out of Astoria over 76 years ago. He had the 70’ Washington built at the Skansie Shipyard at Gig Harbor in 1926. She was powered by a 100 h.p. Washington diesel and was the forerunner of an eventual fleet of Jerkovich family fishing boats. John was a leader in the sardine industry and in the later years, he would pass the benefits of his knowledge and experience on to his sons, the late Tom, Nick Sr. and John Jerkovich Jr.
in 1937, Mr. Jerkovich decided to upgrade his fishing activities and he had the 78’ seiner New Washington built at the J. M. Martinac Shipyard in Tacoma. The durable Washington was sold and later became a fixture in dragging operations on the Oregon Coast for decades. She is still based in Astoria and current owner Ken Johnson is taking good care of the venerable warrior. The sleek, New Washington was powered by a 200 h.p. Washington dieseling Jerkovich would operate the vessel for the next five years. She was last seen in Anacortes just a couple years ago.
The 82’ Corregidor was the next step forward in Mr. Jerkovich’s continual upgrading of his vessels. Built at Pacific Boat yard in Tacoma, the Corregidor was powered by a 250 h.p. Atlas Imperial diesel and she was acquired by John’s brothers-in-law, Mike and Nick Castellan two years later. And, then in 1944, possibly one of the most graceful appearing fishing boats ever constructed was launched from that same Pacific Boat yard.
The beautiful and substantial sardine seiner was fully 86’ in length and powered by a magnificent, direct reversing, 400 h.p. Enterprise diesel. This classic sardiner was named Pacific Raider and, of course, her proud owner was none other than John Jerkovich Sr. The Pacific Raider was as efficient a fishing boat as one could possibly hope to own. As time went by, she was also a virtual training ship for John’s three sons, as well as a number of other fishermen who learned a great deal from this productive skipper.
The original Pacific Raider was the pride of the sardine fishing fleet for a number of years. When the sardines disappeared some years later, the Pacific Raider, along with the Corregidor, was sold to Canadian interests. The Corregidor is still operating in British Columbia waters. The Pacific Raider returned to American registry just recently when she was purchased by an Alaska-based concern. Her name was changed to Barren Islands and I saw her in Bellingham a few weeks ago. She remains a classic and beautiful example of wooden boat construction that occurred in the sardine heyday. And that good old Enterprise diesel is still below deck, still purring like a contented kitten after more than 58 years of excellent service.
After the original Pacific Raider was sold, the Jerkovich family concentrated their efforts in other fishing activities. Before long, John’s sons were beginning to make a name for themselves in the industry, too. Along with a number of other fisheries, the Jerkovich boats became positive forces in Southeast Alaska salmon fishing for decades. As Nick Jerkovich Jr. mentioned a couple years ago, “With my being involved in Oregon sardine fishing this year, it will be the first time in 45 years that a Jerkovich isn’t fishing in Southeast Alaska.”
But the family has enjoyed an ongoing representation in Alaska with the leasing out of the packer Howkan and their limited seiner Legend. For many years, John’s sons, Tom, Nick and John Jr. kept the family tradition alive and well, primarily with their Alaska fishing activities. Although John Jerkovich Sr. was for the most part a sardine fisherman, the knowledge he imparted to his sons served them well in every fishery they participated in. John had taught them well and Nick Jerkovich Sr. taught his son Nick in the same effective manner.
And as for Nick Jerovich Jr., fishing and fishing boats have been his life since he was just a child. He has never worked in any other endeavor, nor did he ever have any desire to do so. He recalls going out fishing with his dad when he was just eight years old. While Nick was still in high school, during summer vacation, he was again aboard his father’s purse seiner in Southeast Alaska.
Martin Skrivanich was running the Frisco that year for the Plancich family of Tacoma. Martin suddenly became ill and had to return home for a few weeks. Amazingly, although he was just a teenager, Nick took over as skipper of the Frisco and ran the boat until Martin was able to return. Perhaps not so amazing after all, when you think about it. Nick was literally born and raised in the fishing industry.
“The boat I own is expensive to acquire and very expensive to operate.” said Nick. “But in order to remain competitive in any fishery, this is the kind of operation that is needed. I keep the boat going in different fisheries nearly all year around. Having the boat fishing 10 or 11 months during the year is pretty much normal. And the Oregon sardine season is something I’ve really enjoyed. It was a chance for me to do something different…something I haven’t done before. It is also a great opportunity to keep the boat going while working in a totally new environment. I’m glad I became involved here.”
Surprising to me was the fact that the Pacific Raider’s sardine operation is handled by just four men. Just Nick and three of his crew members. When John Jerkovich Sr. was fishing the first Pacific Raider out of the Port of Astoria those many years ago, there was a full, 10-man crew aboard. But that was a time long before power blocks and drums were ever thought of.
Some of the boats working out of Astoria use the drum to retrieve the net. By choice, Nick prefers to use a power block and it works out very well. “I’ve had the same basic crew for a long time,” Nick said, “and fortunately one of my knowledgeable crew members, Mike Hull, runs the boat for me if I become too tired or need to take a few days off.”
“Two members of my crew are from Seaside, Oregon,” Nick added. “They have traveled to Alaska and to California to fish for a very long time. I’m very happy for these guys. A fishery has finally come to them. The plant in Astoria is just 18 miles or so from their homes. We take turns in unloading the fish an sometimes they can head for home as soon as the boat touches the dock. It’s a great situation and the men are glad it worked out for them in this manner.”
Nick’s sister Nancy is also involved in the family fishing business as part owner in the limit seiner Legend. And of course , another sister, Julie Dahl, has been of great assistance to the Jerkovich fishing operations since she was just a child. The late Tom Jerkovich’s son, Tom Jr., is known as a top producer in a number of Southern California fishing ventures. Not much chance that a Jerkovich won’t be involved in the fishing industry at any time in the near future it appears. John Jerkovich began a legacy those 76 years ago that is continuing into a new century.
When the weather and conditions change in this area of the Oregon Coast, Nick will likely head his Pacific Raider south to California for squid fishing opportunities. That will keep the boat busy for a while. But if all goes according to plan, Nick will be back, guiding the “Raider” out over the Columbia River Bar and his spotter pilot will be locating those schools of sardines in the mighty Pacific again next year.
It was Nick’s good fortune, perhaps, to have grown up in this fishing family and to have had the opportunity to pursue a career he loves so much. But good fortune has little to do with the success that Nick has achieved in his years in the industry. He learned well from his father but his determination and dedication allowed that knowledge to be combined with his own experiences and applied to a variety of fishing activities.
“Like my dad and my uncles, and everyone else I guess,” Nick said, “I suppose I’ll probably retire too someday. But as I understand it, retirement means doing what you like to do best and doing it as often as possible. We;;, if that’s true, then I guess I’ve been retired all my life. I love to fish, whether it’s in Alaska or California or on the Oregon Coast. And I intend to keep on fishing for as long as I can.” Nick Jerkovich Jr., a third generation on the Oregon Coast.
|Nick Jerkovich, Jr. and his Mother, Pat, in Friday Harbor 1976|
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