Meet Lummi Island’s fishing guru

A reefnetting vessel. Credit: Photo: Flickr user ensteele.

When Jerry Anderson started reefnetting on Lummi Island in 1943, he was only ten. At the time, reefnet boats were essentially large canoes, built with planks over a wooden frame. The headstand — the tower a reefnetting crew stands on to look for fish — was made of wood and stood no more than 10 feet tall. Like today, fishermen stood watch on the headstand for schools of fish, then caught them in a net suspended between two boats. Power winches wouldn’t appear until the early 1960s. Fifty years later, the stand would be made of welded aluminum and rise 20 feet above a wide and stable barge.

Anderson settled on Lummi Island in the early 1950s and, from that point on, much of his life there revolved around fishing: the actual going out on the boats and catching fish, but also the speculation, rumor, politics and regulation that accompany it. 

For decades Anderson, who served as the island’s postmaster, was also the Lummi Island nerve center for fishing politics. He got the urgent phone calls to say that the season had been opened; he had the latest gossip, the statistics, the test catch figures, which he put on the bulletin board in the post office. He was also involved in the biggest campaigns to save the salmon runs, and to save reefnetting from those who sought to end it. From his post office command center, Anderson developed a system of flags, then CB radio and later calls to mobile phones to “get the word out” that fishing season was open or closed or delayed.

You might say salmon advocacy was the family business. Anderson’s father, “Swede” Anderson, was a director of the Washington State Department of Fisheries, president of the Pacific Marine Fisheries Commission and a member of the Fisheries Advisory Committee to the International Salmon Commission. He spent his career trying to save salmon stocks, preserve spawning grounds and balance the many competing interests staking a claim to salmon.  

After his father’s death in 1950, 17-year-old Jerry Anderson dropped out of Western Washington State University to campaign against Initiative 192, which sought to outlaw reefnetting. He represented the reefnet industry at the US-Canada treaty negotiations after graduating. In 1974, he testified at hearings leading to the Boldt decision, which allocated 50 to 66 percent of the salmon catch to the Native American treaty fishers. He was a lifelong advocate of keeping lines of communication open with the various treaty groups, and with the Lummi Tribe in particular.

“Fishing was where family happened, and the family was about fishing,” says Jerry's son Michael Anderson, who began fishing with his father at age 8, earning 2 cents per fish. For Michael and his brother Peter, it was “impossible” to turn off father-son dynamics on the reefnet gear.

Working alongside their often demanding father, the Anderson boys learned resilience and tenacity. “Once I balked at cleaning out the accumulated slime in the fish holds with my bare hands, so my father got down on his hands and knees and showed me how to do it,” Michael recalls. Similar hardships – lying on thorny briars while painting the bottom of the boats, getting drenched with sea spray on a cold morning in the skiff or getting stung by a jelly fish were to be born without complaint. 

In addition to being a father to Michael and Peter, Jerry was a father figure to the young men who were part of his crew, including my husband Jeff Greenberg and friends Craig Wright and Rolf Moan, who fished with the Andersons in the early 1980s and shared the experience of having distant or absent fathers of their own.

”Two months after my father’s unexpected death from cancer, when I was 20, I received a call from Lummi Island offering me an 'inside boater' job for the summer on the Anderson reefnet gear, despite my lack of experience,” recalls Moan.

"We saw and caught a lot of fish on the first morning of the fishing season, but on a couple occasions — after excitedly yelling 'Give ‘er hell!' [the rallying cry of reefnetters] upon spotting a school of sockeye headed for our boats — I began to descend my stand too early, and my moving shadow on the water spooked the fish and turned them away before they were trapped in our net. Jerry didn’t seem to hold my mistakes against me, which I deeply appreciated.”

Wright, himself the grandson of a commercial fisherman, was driven to succeed and found the Anderson work ethic appealing. “We called Jerry The Admiral. Our fishing crews were deeply competitive and driven to be highliners. We got out on the water before the tide turned and stayed long after any realistic hope of catching fish had faded. We had the best gear: barge, towers, reef, net, skiff and outboard. We tied our knots 'properly.'"

Jeff, who had come to live on the island solo at age fifteen and was enjoying freedom as a part-time “hippie” fisherman, initially balked at, but eventually accepted the invitation to fish with the disciplined Anderson crew. Their fishing success enabled him to save enough money to pay for college and, more importantly, make lifelong friendships.

Bonds are forged during the long, boring hours waiting for fish, with nothing to do but tell each other stories. There is something meditative about looking at the dull green water for hours, ever alert for the slight flicker of movement that could be a fish. There is the shared thrill when the fish finally come and you have to work quickly together to haul them in.     

Michael, Peter, Jeff, Craig and Rolf are all around 50 now, scattered across cities and, in Michael’s case, even continents. They have professions and children of their own, most of whom will never learn to tie a knot or experience the same teamwork or develop the judgment under pressure that you learn with a man who expects you to keep trying until you get things right. So once a year, our families get together with each other and with Jerry to tell stories, eat salmon and keep tradition alive.

Michael thinks there may be more than family expectation that made Jerry Anderson love reefnetting from an early age. Maybe it was adventure, maybe it was the fleeting time he had with his own father, maybe it was an escape from societal conventions. Or maybe it was simply the adrenaline that comes from seeing a school of blue-backed sockeye swim into the net and explode into a firework-burst of silver-cased muscle. 

Learn more about the history of reefnetting on Lummi Island via the Washington Rural Heritage project, a collaborative digitization of local history resources from 91 heritage organizations and 246 private collections throughout Washington state.

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