When Gordon Holland was a boy, the fishing in the Pacific Northwest was so good that it didn’t make sense for him to stay in school.
At 15, the Puget Island native left the classroom and “jumped right in,” learning how to fish from his father.
“I couldn’t see going to high school. I couldn’t learn nothing about fishing!” Holland, now 90, recalled Monday.
More than seven decades later, the once-booming Columbia River commercial fishing industry is struggling for survival in the midst of extended political and environmental disputes, but Holland is still an active part of the tradition and trade of gillnetting.
Still spry and full of heartfelt opinions about the state of the fisheries, Holland does seasonal work repairing gillnets for local men who still net on the Columbia River.
Monday afternoon, he talked about his life as a fisherman as he moved amidst the jumble of fishing gear and tools in his workshop off Hudson Street in Longview, deftly using a handmade alderwood needle to attach an expensive Japanese gillnet to a cork-line.
For 60 years, Holland spent long seasons gillnetting on the Columbia. For the first 42 years, he spent two more months purse seining in the waters around Kodiak Island, Alaska. His brothers Max and Raymond fished, too, and it was a good living for all of them, Holland said.
“When the fishing was slack, I’d longshore,” Holland said, but for most of his career, those times were rare.
“Hell, we made a good living fishing,” Holland said.
It wasn’t uncommon then for fishermen to use the profits from a good season to start a side business or buy a shop for their wives to run, Holland said, recalling that at one point, he purchased an ice cream parlor called “The Polar Bar” for his first wife.
“You’d go to work to keep that going!” He laughed.
But times changed, and as regulations on fishing grew tighter, men started getting out of the business. Eventually, Holland joined their ranks.
In 1989, just before the Exxon Valdez spill, Holland sold his share of the purse seining operation in Alaska. Then, about a decade ago, he gave up fishing on the Columbia as well.
Younger fishermen face much tougher financial odds than he did, Holland said, because they must use more expensive equipment to fish during far shorter seasons.
Now, “You’ve got to have a job so you can afford to fish,” Holland said, shaking his head in dismay.
But changes in the rules that require the men to use nets with larger holes (meaning they can only catch bigger fish) have provided Holland with a way to stay involved. Around the time he quit fishing, he began repairing nets.
“I’ve got to keep busy, and it gives me a little side money,” Holland explained. Fishermen find him by word-of-mouth, and pay him around $300 to either repair their nets or get them in compliance with current regulations.
“That puts me to work,” Holland laughed.
During busy times, he fixes about one net a day, while listening to AM country music in his workshop. He carves his own needles, and his wife, Marie Holland, 95, fills them up with the twine that is used to connect the filament nets to the cork-lines and lead-lines. He spends five or six hours a day using the needles to bind the corks and lines together.
When asked how long he’d continue running his net-repair business, Holland quickly replied, “Until I die!”
Nowadays, most men are fishing for love, rather than money, but they still need their nets repaired, Holland explained.
“Most of the guys left are old-timers,” he said. “They just do it for pleasure. They don’t go to Alaska no more.”