Trolling for memories

Typical local trollers show the unique lines required for success in North Pacific waters. A documentary to be shown this weekend details the rise and fall of this colorful industry.

More than fish stories highlighted in documentaryILWACO - John Hill has stories to tell about troll fishing.

Through five decades and three troll boats, Hill fished for salmon on the West Coast from Eureka, Calif., to Alaska.

Hill retired in 1985, a famously talented fisherman. Enjoying his retirement, he heads down to Astoria's Cannery Cafe six mornings a week to have a cup of coffee and tell stories with the other fishermen who gather there.

At 86, Hill will tell you his memory is fading. And each year, friends from his fishing days pass away, taking their stories with them.

But thanks to a documentary that will be shown at the annual meeting of the Ilwaco Heritage Foundation, the 100-year history of salmon trolling will be preserved.

Jim Bergeron, producer of "Coming Home Was Easy - The Story of the West Coast Salmon Troller," said he didn't necessarily have a film in mind when he started this project 10 years ago. He just wanted to make a record of "the humanity of people who go to sea."

"We preserve buildings and we preserve the land," said Bergeron, an area resident since 1969. "That's the most imperishable. The most perishable is people and people's memories."

The 34-minute documentary tells the story of salmon trolling, a method of hook-and-line fishing, through the words of about 15 fishermen and women - including Hill - Bergeron interviewed.

The interviews were sponsored by the Clatsop County Oral History Fund. "Coming Home Was Easy" is part of an effort to preserve Pacific Northwest maritime heritage.

The film's descriptions of the history and practice of troll fishing are not overly technical and its focus on people makes it very accessible to anyone, regardless of their familiarity with fishing.

Jerry Ostermiller, executive director of the Columbia River Maritime Museum, said trollers are unique among other commercial fishers because they use lures to entice and seduce the fish, catching them one at a time.

"I've always viewed the trollers to be the fly fishermen of the commercial fishing fleet," he said.

Director Lawrence Johnson, who teamed with Bergeron to produce the award-winning "Work Is Our Joy - The Story of the Columbia River Gillnetter," uses a combination of live footage, rich black-and-white portraits and historic images in "Coming Home Was Easy." He selected a soundtrack heavy on acoustic guitar by Northwest folk musicians.

The script was written by Margaret Hollenbach, environmental journalist and cultural anthropologist with a Ph.D. from University of Washington.

The documentary is filled with pleasing troll-fishing truths - often spoken in a gruff, fisherman's brogue - such as the one that became the film's title.

Port Angeles troller Dave Peters described the long, hard trips to sea in search of fish.

"Coming home was easy," he said. "Going back was hard."

While the film makes reference to the stereotypical hard drinking and partying sometimes associated with commercial fishing, it also details the lives of fishing families.

"It's not what you often hear about fishermen," said Bergeron, who was the Oregon State University Sea Grant extension agent in Astoria for 27 years before retiring in 2001.

John Hill's was a fishing family. His father was a fisherman in Finland. Hill and his brothers worked in mines in Wyoming and Alaska to earn enough money to buy their first salmon troller, the Lilja. The family love of fishing was passed on to the next generation, too.

"I had three daughters that fished with me the last 10 years," Hill said, as he thumbed through photos of his family, friends and fishing boats in his Astoria living room. "They all went to college from the boat."

Hill's daughters didn't make the family business their own. Increasingly strict regulations, expensive permits and abbreviated seasons decimated the troll fleet coast wide. The average age of salmon trollers today is 55, and only a few hundred now fish Northwest coastal waters - down drastically from a high of 3,000 during the fishery's heyday.

The documentary traces this decline, but does not lead viewers to believe that salmon trolling is done for.

Trollers who still fish today get by on adaptation and tenacity - traits that have characterized the fishery throughout its history. They fish for many different species, do their own marketing and even raise cattle to supplement their incomes.

But John Hill's days - days when trollers earned enough in the summer to stay home in the winter - are gone.

"I'll tell you, it's a thing of the past now."

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