Thursday, May 19, 2016

Puget Sound Herring Sales, Gig Harbor Herring Industry

We are very fortunate in that today’s blog has been research and written by none other than Gary Williamson.  Many people throughout the greater Gig Harbor community know Gary and their children, or perhaps even they, had Gary as their principal when they were in elementary school.  

So, sit back and learn about a lesser known fishing industry in our area.  Herring! 


The herring fishing industry in Gig Harbor is alive and well, however, when it historically began is difficult to trace.  From the 1950’s there is a fair amount of material.

One recent reference was a 2011 report on herring information by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Service.  It covers the spawning areas of Puget Sound.  The closest documented areas to Gig Harbor mentioned in their report were Squaxin Pass, Wollochet Bay, Purdy and Quartermaster Harbor.  In many of the past years in the Gig Harbor area the favored fishing areas for local fishermen have been the Narrows near Salmon Beach, Shaw’s Cove near Green’s Point, and Gig Harbor Bay.

Also included in the Fish and Wildlife Services report was that the beginning of herring fishing in the Puget Sound, not necessarily Gig Harbor, was in the early 1900’s when the fish were mostly exported for human consumption.  Following World War I most herring caught were used for bait for commercial fishing of halibut, crab, and shark fisheries.  Since the 1940’s and early 1950’s herring fishing emphasis changed to supplying bait for commercial and recreational salmon fishing interests.

During the late 1950’s and into the 1960’s local herring sales for salmon bait flourished with large recreational fishing fleets in West Port, Ilwaco, LaPush, Seiku and recreational fishing sites throughout Puget Sound.
"Tan" unloading herring in Gig Harbor 6/6/1951
It was during the 1950’s that Rollie and Edith Smythe began Smythe Herring Sales in Gig Harbor.  Their business was located on Harborview Drive where the Russell Building is today and next door to the Tides Tavern.  There was the Smythe home on the property and on the water were several herring pens and a dock for their boat, “Sea Bird.”  There was also a heated work shed where several women packaged and refrigerated the herring for sales.
Sea Bird." Built by Martinovich for Pasco Dorotich in Dockton in 1909. Powered by 20 hp Frisco Standard gas; length 48'.  
Later owned by A.R. Bruger and named changed to "A.R.B.6"
Last registration unknown.
Rental cabins owned by Peter Skansie on shore across from Gig Harbor spit.
Home of Sam Jerisich family stands on hillside. It burned in 1946 while rented by Julia Van Waters.

Rowley Smythe next to his boat, with boy beside him, 6/4/1951

A few years after the purchase of the property, and setting up for the business, Rollie Smythe died.  Edith then took over the complete management with her two sons, Sonny Smythe and Bill Lindberg.  Sonny and Bill became the fishermen on the “Sea Bird.”

It was also during this time, that I, Gary Williamson, local school teacher, was employed during the summers of 1961 and 1962 by Edith to take care of the docks, sell herring to local customers, kill the herring through electric shock, and transport the herring to the women in the work shed for packaging and refrigerating the fish.

A favorite anecdote of mine while working for the Smythes involved elderly little Mrs. Lysell or “Ma” Lysell, as she was known.  She was an Alaskan native and the wife of a local fisherman.  On almost a weekly basis I could look up from my job on the docks and see “Ma” walking on Harborview Drive past Mike and Sophie Jerisich’s little home carrying her fishing pole over her shoulder with one hand and in the other was a large clean solve coffee can.  She would come directly down on the dock and would ask me for six live herring to be pt in her coffee can after I put tidal water in it.  With a small net I would scoop out six (plus) herring on each occasion.
Boy Lysell May 15, 1946 (Millie Lysell's husband who tragically fell from a boat and drowned in 1951)
Six herring the time were $.25 and there were always one or two situations.  “Ma” would either hand me $.25 or like most of the time she would say, “Oh, no money today.”  “Ok, “Ma,” I would say, “but next time remember, you owe $.25 plus the $.25 you didn’t have the last time.”  “ok” she would respond.  The she would pick up her fishing pole and take the coffee can by the bale handle and head down the street to the dock in front of the Tides Tavern.  She would set up her little space, put a live herring on her hook, drop iy in the water and wait for some action.  She frequently had action.  She would catch salmon right off the end of the dock and when she did she would yell, “Help me, Help me, fish on!”  Usually, a tavern patron would run out and help her reel in her catch, or if no one came from the tavern one of us on the herring dock would run over and help her.  When she was finished fishing for the day we would then watch her walk back down Harborview Dr. with the fishing pole and a bucket in one hand and a fish over her shoulder.  She would be back in a few days.

It was not long after 1960 that a Shoreline school custodian came to Edith to purchase live herring bait for a business he was starting in Seattle.  His name was Jerry Williams.  Jerry had a pickup and on the bed of the truck he built a wood and fiberglass box that would hold saltwater to keep herring alive.  He would show up at Smythe Herring Sales each Friday evening, fill his tank with salt water and buy several hundred dozen live herring to place in his tank.  He would then drive back to Seattle stay all night in a favored location on Aurora Ave. and sell live bait to sportsmen for their morning recreation fishing.

Jerry Williams

In 1964, Edith decided to sell her entire business.  Jerry Williams bought it and moved his family; wife, Lois, sons, Bob, Steve and Jerry Jr. to Gig Harbor.  With Jerry Williams’ purchase the name of the business changed to Puget Sound Herring Sales.  Jerry’s sons Bob and Steve soon became the fishermen for the business after working  short time learning the trade with Bill Lindberg.  Their business did well.  Bob then took on the task of sales, bookkeeping, salaries etc., Steve became the fisherman while Sue, Steve’s wife and Jo Elaine, Bob’s wife were in charge of all processing and packaging.  Time elapsed, Jerry began moving toward retirement and sold the business to Bob, Jo Elaine, Steve and sue in 1980.

Nineteen years later in 1999 as the Williams family describe it, some men came to the company one day dressed in dark business suits and said to the family, “We are from the Russell Investment Company and we are interesting in purchasing your property.”  Negotiations progresses into 2000 when a price was agreed upon and the Russell Building was soon built…to the consternation of some in town and glee to others.

Changing business location to Peacock Hill Steve continued fishing while Sue and Jo Elaine remained in charge of all processing and packaging.  Steve subsequently grew the business by adding Bill Dotson, and independent fisherman, with his boat, “Osprey”, to help out.  Steve now had additional boats, “Wee Willie” and the “Night Hawk” both, built to his specifications.  It was about this time that Steven Jr. took over the helm of either the “Night Hawk” or the “Wee Willie” so that three boats with their crews could fill their holds with the lucrative bait.

I asked Williams when and where the “Wee Willie” and the “Night Hawk” were built.  No one could remember for sure so Sue and her sister-in-law Jo Elaine later met to try to recall about the building dates and location of construction.  Upon getting together they calculated the construction dates as they lined up when their children were born.  So, it turns out that one child was born as the “Wee Willie” was being built and outfitted in Hoquiam in 1967.  Another family birth coincided with the building of the “Night Hawk.”  Its’ hull was purchased in the 1980’s and was towed to Modutech Marine in Tacoma for outfitting.  It was finished in 1985.  The “Wee Willie” was sold later and Bill Dotson no longer fished, so the “Night Hawk” became the major herring vessel in the company.

In 2000 Steven Jr. became owner and president along with partners Doug Williams and Jason Bunch.  The catch each night of fishing on the “Night Hawk” goes to the Narrows Marina in Tacoma for sizing, packaging and distribution.

Steven Jr. reports that herring fishing in Puget Sound is diminishing.  He states that the main population of herring is within Gig Harbor Bay.  According to his experience all the eel grass where the herring lay their eggs has been disappearing.  Smaller catches of herring are now the norm.  He cannot say for certain what is killing the eel grass but his inclination is the many contaminants which are now in the water.  Industry throughout Puget Sound may be at fault as well as perfectly manicured and fertilized landscaping at new homes along the beaches.  Steven has a hunch that as much of the waterfront landscape is fertilized and irrigated, it also allows poison contaminates to leach into the bay water, thus killing the natural growing eel grass.  Steven Jr. also reports that legally protected seals and sea lions have caused a noticeable decline in the herring populations.

Steven Jr. further stated that because of diminishing herring populations the state established closure for fishing all bays from December to April.  During those months fishermen can travel from point but cannot set any nets in the bays because they are natural spawning areas.

When asked about unusual events that may have occurred during the family’s long tenure in the herring business the family smiled and began recalling some of their memories.  One such memory in their early career was called “Ball Fishing.”  This was described as an event that naturally occurs in the fall of the year when the herring begin spawning.  The herring form a giant ball, possibly in a three to four feet wide circle encompassing thousands of herring.  They cause a terrific turmoil in the water which is spotted immediately by overhead seagulls.  The seagulls dive for a quick dinner of herring.  In addition to the gulls invasion the herring fishermen will drop what they are doing and give chase to the “ball” to net the herring.  The commercial fishermen learned that the fastest boat is the victor in racing to the ball, so they many times tie a fast runabout onto their large fishing boat before proceeding to the fishing grounds.  When a ball is spotted in the distance all participants race to the herring ball and scoop into their boats as many herring as their nets can lift.  Today, ball fishing is rare as the herring predators, seal and sea lion populations have increased.

The Williams family has worked very hard over the years and can be congratulated for creating and maintaining a successful Gig Harbor business for over half a century, 52 years later.  Their continued dedication is a great asset to our community.  In addition it must be noted that during all these years of fishing each herring boat required at least three crew members.  Over the years the company employed many; too many to mention by name in this blog.

There are a few photos related to herring on the Harbor History Museum website  (Frank Shaw FIshing/Boats Gallery) (herring) being unloaded in 1951 from the boat “Tan”.  Gig Harbor dock location and boat ownership unknown.  Additional photos have just been added to the Gallery at the museum.  They are of the “Night Hawk”, Puget Sound Herring Sales Boat and Jerry Williams, original owner.  A mural including the “Night Hawk” can also be appreciated.  It is located on the wall inside the entrance of Ace Hardware.

Information supplied (by) Steve and Sue Williams, Steven Williams and Gary Williamson, 2016. 

Note:  “Tan”, a troller, was owned by Lars Peterson 

© 2012 Harbor History Museum. All rights reserved.

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