OCEAN PARK - "If you don't build your own boat and make your own gear, you aren't much a fisherman," Ernie Soule says, only half joking.
For Soule, who has raked steamer clams and lived off the bounty of Willapa Bay for 45 years, building and fishing is a way of life. He is the sixth-generation Soule to make a living fishing in and around the bay.
"In 1855 Solomon Soule came across the prairie to settle at Old Willapa (near Menlo) and he fished the Willapa River. That's how it all got started," Soule explains.
Solomon's son, Samuel, moved to Bruceport and then Eklund Park, which is in the heart of present-day South Bend. He fished and logged and continued a tradition that has gone to the seventh generation of Soules. Ernie and wife Bonnie have two sons, Kevin and Brandon, and they hope the bay will be a viable place for them to make their way as well.
Bonnie said, "I can remember Ernie taking the boys over to Long Island when they were six weeks old. He'd take some diapers and the boys would come back covered with mud, but smiling from ear to ear."
"I was about six or seven when my brother Earl and I would row out into the bay and gillnet salmon. When we got a five-horse gas motor later on, we were in tall cotton," he said.
Soule figures he has harvested steamer clams from the bay for the past 45 years.
"It used to be we could rake the same area twice a year and now it sometimes takes up to six years for the clams to come back," he said. "The grass (invasive spartina) is about the worst thing to ever happen to the bay. It has inhaled a lot of the bay and it cuts down on the water flow and clams and oysters can't survive in the silt that builds up."
Soule is hopeful the government's efforts to eradicate spartina from Willapa Bay are successful. "The way it (spartina) is multiplying this may be our last chance to get rid of it," he said. "I want to the bay to be able to produce a good living for my boys."
Besides gillnetting salmon in the Willapa, Soule also fished for sturgeon from a 24-foot bow-picker gillnet boat he and his brother Earl made. "We used old cotton lead lines to gillnet at first, and I can remember 300 boats being on the Willapa and gillnetting salmon."
When regulations cut back on gillnetting, Ernie was forced to begin crab fishing to make ends meet. "I didn't want to crab, but I had a family to feed," he said. "We used to use the old ring pots but if you didn't check them every 20 minutes or so the crab would begin to leave the pots."
Soule and his grand dad Earl, his father Cubbie, and Ervie Rhodes developed a crab pot in the early 1940s similar to the ones used today and utilized copper wire. "We built live tanks to keep the crab because there wasn't that much of a market for them when we first started," he said.
Soule graduated from Ilwaco High School in 1970. "I liked school for one good reason. You got a great view of the Ilwaco Port from Hilltop and I used to watch the boats come and go. I'm not sure how much I learned, but I dreamed a lot about being on the water," he laughs.
For a few months he worked at building the new Ilwaco High School. "I made a decent wage and I learned a lot about building, but I missed the water. I'm a fisherman at heart," he said.
Soule now crabs in the winter and clams the rest of the year. He has steamer clam grounds at Smokey Hollow he purchased from the late Wellington Marsh, and he leases 100 acres near the Nemah River and more grounds by Stackpole. "I may have to get into the oyster business if the market for clams keeps shrinking," he said.
Ernie knits all of his own crab pots. "I can make eight pots in a day if I'm in the right mood," he said. He has also built or completely refurbished at least 10 boats, skiffs, or scows. He has fashioned live tanks for keeping his catch and made several float houses. He and Bonnie built the small dock in front of their bay-front home.
"Half our house is from the old Nahcotta Gym," Ernie said, "and the other half is from a cabin that used to sit where the liquor store in Ocean Park is now."
"I walked past the cabin and saw a sign that said for sale to anyone who can move it," Bonnie said. "I told Ernie that's our house," she chuckles. Soon his ingenuity had it going down the road from Ocean Park to the Soule property that has been in their name for generations.
The biggest change Soule has seen over the last half-century is how the Peninsula population has grown.
"There are a bunch of houses down every little road now," he said. "I can't believe all the people who live here, because there really isn't much work where you can earn a decent wage."
Bonnie said, "We want to leave all that we have to our kids as a legacy. I hope the environment will allow them to carry on, but I don't know."
Ernie adds, "And hopefully the grand kids can carry on the tradition, too. At least maybe they can fish part-time."
Later as he knits a crab pot for the winter's fishing, he begins to talk politics and the loops come quickly as he gets more involved with sharing his views.
"Knitting crab pots is an art. Because they are round the loops need to get bigger as you move down and getting the opening just right is the key to success," he said.
Soule is using an apparatus to hold and maneuver the heavy pot that was given to him when he was young.
"The community helped take care of me when I was a kid," he said. "I hope we are taking care of the bay for our kids. Fishing has been a way of life for me, and I want to do what it takes to maintain it."
To the Soule families the past 150 years getting that just right and good old-fashioned hard work and ingenuity seems to also be the key to their success as well.