Fish Tales: What was gillnetting like in the ’50s?

Photo courtesy of Phil Lian

Enok Philip (Phil) Lian is a marine surveyor, life-long entrepreneur, and third-generation Copper River and Prince William Sound commercial fisherman. He was born in Cordova in 1939 and recently started documenting his history to pass on to his grandkids. He now resides at his home in Birch Bay, Washington.


In 1948, at the age of 8, my father decided I was old enough to begin my education in drift gillnetting. When I got out of school for the summer, around May 15, my dad came back to Cordova from the Copper River Flats to pick me up. I would turn 9 on May 23.

In those days the gillnet fishery started around April 5 when the chinook started to show up. We would leave Cordova and would not return until it was time to change nets for the salmon purse seine fishery that began in early July. The reason we never returned to town was for the fact that we followed the fish East, starting at Egg Island and Steamboat in April and early May, and then migrating East, and eventually settling down in Kokenhenick and Softuk. My dad fished out of an open skiff and lived on a 30-foot combination gillnetter/purse seiner that did about 5 knots if you had the current behind you pushing you along.

I didn’t go seining with my dad until 1955 because there was only room for three persons on the boat, the seine was pulled by hand, as there were no hydraulics, therefore no power block. If I was to take up a berth and be one of the crew, I had to be strong enough to do a man’s job. He didn’t think I would be strong enough until I was 16, even though I had been gillnetting with my own skiff since the age of 13.

My dad gillnetted from a flat bottom wooden plank skiff with a set of oars and a wooden gillnet roller secured to the transom starboard of the 9.8 hp Johnson outboard. A pipe hoop was secured to the transom around the outboard motor that could be lowered to keep the web out of the propeller while picking up the net and then pulled up out of the water and tied off with a piece of rope when the outboard was in use.

His 30-foot double-ender, the Philip L, a wooden seiner, was used as a home base with three berths and Blazo stove for cooking when not fishing. The vessel was built in 1930 at a cost of $900 and was originally registered as 31C3. He had the boat documented (5 net tons) in about 1948 and named it after me. The main reason for having the vessel documented was for the free medical insurance through the Merchant Marines that came about after World War II.

From 1948 to 1953 I was on the Philip L. with my dad for the Copper River sockeye gillnet season from about May 15 until July 1 when we would return to Cordova to get the boat ready for salmon purse seining. Since my dad was fishing an open skiff, he would leave the boat an hour or so before low water. After fishing the ebb, he would work his way up on the Flats for the flood. In those days the Fish & Game boundary markers were at the grass banks. The only restriction was you couldn’t fish within 500 yards on either side of a slough.

My job was to wait for half-flood, start the main engine, pull anchor, and go up on the Flats to find him so he could get something to eat and take a nap, if needed. I would attach the boat to the end of his net and he would tie alongside, weather permitting, or would hang off the stern of the Philip L. Usually I would wait until he picked the net up and we would return to the anchorage together. Then he would deliver his catch and we would anchor up and wait for the next ebb.

The Philip L. was powered with a 110-horsepower Chrysler Crown. There were no life jackets, radios, fathometer, radar, or hydraulics. It didn’t have a radio for music. Most of the time it was dead silent when my dad was away fishing, and I was waiting for the tide to start flooding so I could go find him. There were no books aboard, except for the Reader’s Digest that my dad read cover to cover. There was a mirror on the wall in the wheelhouse and I would entertain myself making sad faces and crying from loneliness. That finally changed when I got my own skiff.

Prior to having my own fishing operation in 1953, my earnings for the summer were predicated on how many fish my dad caught on my birthday, May 23. I received 25 cents for each sockeye caught on that day. In 1950 I made over $300! Meaning, he caught over 1,200 fish, pulling the net by-hand without a crewman. I remember he came back to the boat the next morning, not having eaten in over 24 hours. He wanted to take a nap while I made breakfast. I let him sleep for about an hour, woke him up and presented him with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I can tell you, he wasn’t pleased.

My first set

My dad gave me my own skiff and gillnet in 1953. He had been fishing sockeye on the Copper River since about April 5. He came back to Cordova with the Philip L to get me after school got out for the summer. We left town and went to Story Slough, a tributary next to Grass Island. We anchored the boat in the slough above the grass banks. We were allowed to fish at the grass banks as long as our nets were not within 500 yards of the slough entrance.

We were both fishing open skiffs. My dad told me to row up to the grass bank and set my net. He started his 9.8 hp outboard and went somewhere else that put him out of sight.

I set my net and fish immediately started hitting. We had arrived at Story Slough in early afternoon. I really had no idea what I was doing, since I never really had a chance to fish with my dad because my role was to stay on the boat, and around half flood, pull anchor and go find him somewhere up on the Flats. I knew I had quite a few fish in the net, and it was going to get dark. I spent several hours picking up the net and had the skiff loaded with nearly 600 reds! I rowed back to the boat, pitched the fish into the fish hold, put the hatch covers back on, and went to bed. My dad returned to the boat the next morning and couldn’t believe his eyes when he removed the hatch covers to unload his catch, less than 100 fish. He couldn’t get over the fact that I didn’t go back and put the net back in the water. I told him that when it got dark, I got scared, and didn’t want to be out there alone. I never heard the end of it. But I was only 13 years old and didn’t turn 14 until May 23.

I only fished for two weeks that year, catching 1,400 reds. I had scheduled a Boy Scout trip of a lifetime, along with three other boys from Cordova: Marvin and Johnny Lefevre, and Charles “Buddy” Manual. We were gone for six weeks, visiting 9 western States, and winding up at Irvine Ranch in southern California along with 51,000 other scouts for the Boy Scout National Jamboree. I had made enough fishing to pay for the trip myself.