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Oregon Trails: Salmon Netting

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NEAR GRANTS PASS, Ore. — In just a few months, one of the signs of summer in Southern Oregon will be the opening of salmon season on the Rogue River. For as long as people have lived in this region, the Rogue River has been known as a great place to catch salmon and steelhead.

The Rogue River, still slightly turbid from recent rains, flows quietly past Grants Pass. A hundred years ago these waters were much more turbulent as a debate raged over commercial fishing with nets in the river.

For decades, teams of fishermen in small boats worked their way up and down the river near Grants Pass, hauling in thousands of pounds of salmon, which were cleaned, packed in ice, and shipped by rail to canneries in Portland and Astoria. By the turn of the century, anglers complained of the commercial scooping up of fish, and the dams that were being built on the river, most without any kind of fish ladder.

“1895, there was actually growing public concern about how the fish were doing in the face of not only commercial fishing like in the Upper River. Some of the gillnetting and trapping as well as the dams that were in play by the early 1900’s,” explained ODFW Fish Biologist Dan VanDyke.

Gillnetting involves stretching a vertical net across the river, suspended from small floats at the top, and weighted at the bottom. According to Josephine County Historian Percy Booth, the season usually ran from June through August. Usually with two fishermen per boat, the nets were pulled in, sometimes by horses on the shore. According to booth, the boats would put in the river about midnight and fish 13 to 15 miles downstream, arriving at their destination around sunrise.

A team would be waiting at a boat ramp with a wagon, and the loaded boat would be floated onto the wagon in the river, and the load would be hauled back to town. In May of 1904, 3,000 pounds of salmon was shipped daily from Grants Pass to Portland. Some of it was re-iced and sent all the way to the St. Louis World’s Fair.

In 1906, Josephine County fishermen formed an association, or union, which eventually grew to include almost two dozen fishermen and twenty boats. In a journal entry published in the Grants Pass Courier, pioneer settler Mary Tompkins wrote in a letter to her family in March that:

“I reckon I told you I let a fisherman build in the northwest corner of my orchard.” [She had property on the river near 4 and 5th Streets] “He has put up a 3 roomed house. He is just himself. So you and Margaret love salmon fish? When the salmon comes down I will have Louis [the fisherman] catch one and fix it for you. They weigh from 20-50-75 pounds. Louis catches about 20 ton a season.”

Fishermen collected from six to eight cents a pound for those salmon. But in 1910, Oregon citizens voted to outlaw the commercial fishing on the river. But that closed the river for just two years.

”Now the legislature reportedly, as early as the next year, overturned that. The governor vetoed it, but then the following year the legislature overrode the governor’s veto. So commercial fishing returned in 1913, but 1911, 1912, commercial fishing was closed,” VanDyke said.

During one night in June, it’s reported that a single drift of boats from Grants Pass brought in almost five thousand pounds of Rogue River salmon. For the whole year, almost 184,000 pounds was caught and shipped from Grants Pass, but it was not to last. In 1919 the legislature closed the Rogue to commercial fishing with nets. But the bill was vetoed by Governor Withycomb while on his death bed.

“Finally you get to the 1930’s and not only did we have all the things that had been happening to the fish with dams and other impacts, we also had a multi-year drought in the 1930’s. And I have a feeling that is what contribute to finally the legislature deciding in 1935 to ban commercial fishing on the Rogue River, effective 1936,” said VanDyke.

By most accounts the salmon fishing, the gillnet fishing, commercial on the Rogue River was not a glamorous job, nor was it easy work. Fishermen were out there just about all night long. They preferred to fish at night, because it was harder for the fish to see their gillnets.

At the mouth of the Rogue River, near Gold Beach, Robert Hume operated a canning empire on the lower river that lasted more than 30 years. He also pioneered the development of fish hatcheries to help replenish the fishery his boats harvested heavily near the turn of the century.