This is another story about the traditions and culture of rural America, our home, the North Coast, Del Norte County. It’s about hardy souls who have chosen to venture out in good weather and bad to do best in what is in their heart and souls to support themselves and their families.
Most of all, it’s about Lance Duey.
My father Wes became a commercial fisherman after he retired as an iron worker and welder back in the early 1970s. I helped him build the Sea Otter, which is now set up on the southeast corner of Anchor Way. I pass by it proudly each time that I drive to Whaler Island or to eat at the Chart Room. He mainly fished for salmon during the summer and also fished for bottom fish at other times. He loved the ocean and what it provided for him.
I met a fellow named Lance Duey who played golf at Del Norte Golf Club. Lance is a big man and as I played several rounds with him over the years he always showed a warm personality. He also loved to play the game with his buddies. As I got to know Lance he started to share some of his commercial fishing experiences with me and I am all ears when I can learn new perspectives.
Lance was born in Coquille, Ore., and graduated from high school there in 1979. He had the opportunity to start fishing in 1982 and worked for five years or so with Captain Craig Stolz on a shrimp boat. As a part of that adventure, he had to be a part of bringing a shrimp boat from the Gulf Coast through the Panama Canal to the West Coast. He worked on several different boats from 1987 until he had the opportunity to captain the boat Southern Belle in 1992.
Lance shared from his early days of fishing to the current time that he enjoyed the hard work. He has fished up and down the coast of California, Oregon and Washington. In the old days you caught fish and went into any port and could sell your catch. Now he says that has mostly all changed with larger companies controlling the market and scheduling sales of fish at certain ports at particular times.
He shared that being on the ocean for extended fishing can be hazardous with big ships coming close to much smaller commercial boats, particularly at night. He loved seeing other sea life out on the water like whales, dolphins, sharks and birds. He shared that fishermen have to learn to budget their money wisely. During fish deliveries money is coming in, but that during the time in between catches and prepping for new seasons there is no money coming in. Lance also warns, “Keep up on taxes,” which sounds like great advice. It is important to know that you “make it when you can make it.”
Lance and I discussed the dangers of commercial fishing and shared that it’s important that you know the limitations of your boat, its size and how much it can safely transport and what kind of weather it can handle.
He related that his most scary experience was many years ago when they were headed out of Bodega Bay with a load of empty crab pots headed back to Crescent City. They were following another boat out into the open ocean when they took on a sneaker wave that put the boat on its side and dumped about 20 pots. Fortunately, the boat righted and they turned around and went back into the port.
Crabbing changed in the 1980s when commercial boats installed large halogen lights. Crab fishing turned from a day event to a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week fishery.
The crab season, which usually starts about Dec. 1 and carries through a fairly long fishery, is now a mad rush with thousands of pots laid on the bottom with a lot more intensity every day and night. Many larger boats, including some from out of state, fish for a month or two and pull their pots out of the ocean. Many smaller boats prolong their season for months.
What a sight in the wintertime to look out at sea during crabbing season and see a sea of lights.
Today’s commercial fishermen face a multitude of state and federal regulations mostly impacting commercial salmon fishing, but also the feds bought up most of the dragging permits of our local fleet.
Lance’s commercial fishing career came to an end in March 2011 with the tsunami as the Southern Belle and many other boats were crushed or sunk. He now works for Bornstein Seafood in Charleston, Ore., as a coordinator that handles boats unloading products and trucks scheduled to pick up product at the dock for shipment.
Lance still feels that the shrimp fishery is healthy. Their plant can handle and process 1.3 million pounds. Most salad shrimp are 100-120 count with larger shrimp running 60-70 per pound. The prawn fishery, which is deeper water with king stripers and spot prawns caught in pot traps provides delicious prawns to the market.
Lance and his wife still live in Crescent City, but when working, travels to Charleston. He has also worked out of town this past crab season in San Francisco. Bornstein is based in Bellingham, Wash., and has plants in Astoria, Newport and Charleston, all in Oregon. Part of their market is cooking, picking and canning crab meat.
He recently has been working the tuna market, which will soon slow down.
I would like to thank Lance for sharing his experiences with me and you. I approached several fishermen and they were a little reluctant to share their stories. They are a tremendously hard working and independent lot.
In another few weeks, we will again start to see a lot of activity in the harbor with many crab pots being hauled from storage and set on the perimeters of the parking lots and slowly those will be loaded on boats for the Dec. 1 opening if the crabs are filled out.
To all of my commercial fishing friends, have a tremendous crab winter and may the good Lord keep you all safe.