Between salmon season and the coming Dungeness crab season, I was on the beach working on the crab traps for the coming crab season that was to open Dec. 1, 1964 in the Crescent City, Calif. area.
I had put together 120 crab pots, and come Dec. 1, the weather report was not good: a strong southerly storm could be on its way. Most fishing boats were going to set pots anyway, hoping to get in on a good first catch, so I went too. We set all 120 pots but were unable to get back out to check on them for the next three days because of the stormy weather.
When we did get out, I found 60 pots stuck in the mud, and the other 60 that I pulled loose did not have many crabs in them —maybe three per pot. So I brought the 60 pots home that I had pulled off the mud and stacked them on the dock. Luckily, the weather was good right after the storm.
I had to put the crab pump on the boat and with some two-and-a-half inch hoses, plus the 100 pound jet, I was able to pump the remainder of the pots out of the mud. A lot of work and no pay while doing this, but I got the pots back. All the other boats in Crescent City were bringing their pots back in too; it looked like a no-crab season.
Later in the month, the rumor was that there were some crabs off of Astoria in Oregon. Lazio Fish Co. in San Francisco, which I sold to, said if a few boats wanted to go to Astoria and fish from there, he would have someone named Charlie Baldwin set up a buying station and have a semi-truck there to take the crabs to a Eureka, Calif. fish plant for processing.
Abe Armfield and his boat Bonnie C, Don Richcreek with his boat Alibi, Butch Crook with his boat the Golden West and me with my vessel, Frances E, all decided to go. After a couple of days, we made it to Warrenton, Ore. where Charlie had a hoist and small office set up. We stayed in the next day to get our Oregon fishing licenses and permits needed to deliver the crabs.
This was in early January and it was very cold out: just below freezing that day, with lots of wind coming down the Columbia River. Visibility was not good either. The next day we pulled the crab gear: there were hardly crabs. While pulling the pots, I looked around and never saw another boat, where there had been a number of them earlier. Checking my tides book, I realized I had read it wrong: I had read the low tide for Astoria upriver and not at the entrance to the jetty.
So we stopped pulling the pots immediately and headed for the Columbia bar. We did make it inside, but the regular outflow of the river water, plus the big rain fall from upstream, made the bar a very bad place to be.
And then it started to snow. Me and the crew, my brother Phillip and brother-in-law Butch Mc Nertney were in big trouble. Although I knew it, I did not know what else to do but keep on trying to get upriver away from the large wave breaking bar. For sure, our lives could be over in a few minutes if anything went wrong. I had no radar to help me find my way in this poor visibility.
About that time, a big drag boat called the Trask came by, headed upstream. It had radar, so I followed it as long as I could see him, knowing he knew the way. Soon it was out of sight though, and I had no idea what part of the river I was in. I did notice unusual activity in the water, about a hundred feet on the port side. Like what I would call a ‘rooster tail’: just a very short glimpse of the water raising up, not like normal river current. I kept watching that spot.
Then I saw it again, just for a spit second. So, I kept looking at the spot and I saw it again. Come the third time though, when I saw the rooster tail form, I also saw a small flash of green: it was a green channel marker being pulled completely under by the strong river current. At least I now knew I was in the channel.
It quit snowing and visibility was still not good, but so far I hadn’t run into the riverbank, and the engine was still running like it should. However, the Frances E was a 48-year-old wooden boat: if just one steering pulley had broken or pulled loose, we would have never made it.
If all was not working right, we would have been washed up on the place called “Clatsop Spit” on one side, or “Peacock Spit” on the other side of the river entrance. Both sides have been called the “Graveyard” over the years because of many vessels having come to an end upon the spits. With the weather conditions at that time, we would not have survived that.
First big wave put the mast into the water, second big wave put the mast straight down, keel up. Lucky for us, the boat came back up again, but it was sinking. My deckhand and me put on old World War II canvas-covered cork life jackets and after going through 14 breakers, we made it to the beach. Finally, the current eased up a bit and I made it into Warrenton, Ore.
After a 3 hour-and-45 minute run that should have taken 45 minutes, we made it in. I felt lucky to have made it to Warrenton. None of the other boats had any crab to amount to anything either, so Charlie let the other local companies have them. He needed a truckload to make it worthwhile to send the truck all the way to Eureka.
That night and the next day it was terrible cold. I had the Olympic stove in the pilot house going quite high. On the inside of the pilot house, just eight feet away from the stove there was frost. Not one boat went out crab fishing that day. Charlie Baldwin saved the day: he had a bottle of whiskey and the four of us drank and played four handed cribbage all day.
The next day we made it out into the ocean: ice all over the stern deck and heavy ice on the cap rails too. I had to pull the pots to the south, I had the crew stack the pots on the stern deck and tie the last row down good, as I did not want to lose them over the side. When we had all 120 pots on board, I just kept going south.
I called Abe on the Bonnie C and told him to tell Charlie that I was out of there and was not going to be crabbing out of the Columbia River. If I had to crab out of the Columbia River in the wintertime for a living, then I was going to give up fishing and find something else to do for a living.
A week later, all the Crescent City boats pulled their pots and they too headed back. No one made any money for sure, but to me, it was a lesson about trying to fish in the wintertime out of the Columbia River.
So ended my crab season for 1964-65.
Richard Evanow is a retired fisherman. He entered the commercial fishing industry in the late 1950s after a stint in the Navy, and for 31 years, he fished professionally from San Francisco to West Port, Wash. while based in his hometown of Crescent City, Calif.