Note: History writer Nancy Lloyd will be taking a breather from her series for the month of September - she needs to catch up on research. Tune in in October for more articles.
Once the fish traps had been removed from the lower Columbia river, sports fishing became all the rage.
August was the month when the big salmon ran, and that was the month when the sports fishermen flocked to the area, primed to catch a prize-winning fish. "I'll bet there were 1,000 fishing boats on the Columbia Sunday between Megler and the bar. You couldn't hardly get a hook down and fish lines were crossed everywhere," one local reported in 1940.
In 1946, Ray Provo and Armand Jeffs built a boat launch near the old Point Ellice ferry landing. There a fisherman could back his trailer down into the water, off load his small fishing boat, park his rig nearby, and go see what the Columbia had to offer him. On Labor Day Sunday of that year the sheriff counted 587 cars parked in less than a mile. The area was known as "Derbyville."
From 1950 onward, there were fishing derbies the last two weeks of August. They ran simultaneously - one in Astoria, one in Chinook - for several weeks, with the last week paying good prize money to the registered fisherman, -woman or -kid who had the largest salmon. Those who didn't register and who caught a big salmon failed to win $500 or even $1,000.
(To put the money in the terms of the times, two lots in Long Beach, on high ground, with trees, were offered in September of 1952 for $300 and a five bedroom house with several bathrooms, furnished, was advertised for $3,750.)
A "big fish" in those days weighed somewhere between 45 and 50 pounds. In 1950, Ken Heckard of Long Beach reeled in the top fish for the season, a 50 lb. 2 oz. beauty. For his prize salmon, he was awarded the Chinook Derby day prize of $50, plus the season's grand prize of $500, plus a trophy from the Chinook Post Office store.
Nineteen fifty-two and 'fifty-three were a land-office years in the Chinook Salmon Derby. The stories of the day describe a scene of happy chaos with boats, trailers, cars, and tents everywhere. And the big fish were there, too. In 1952, two gillnetters (who were not part of the sports contest) brought in a 75-pound salmon; someone else, not registered, caught a 69-1/2 pounder.
In 1953, the whole shebang was won by Mrs. Floyd Nelson of Portland, whose 50 pound, 9-1/4 oz. salmon won day money in both Astoria and Chinook contests, plus the season money for both ($2,000 total), plus $100 for the largest fish caught by a woman, plus three trophies. (Her boat was one of between 3,000 and 4,000 on the river that closing Sunday.)
This fishing frenzy kept the Coast Guard on the run night and day. On the Labor Day weekend of 1955 three separate accidents on one day took five different lives. Three boats, two of which were under 16 feet in length, capsized one after another on Clatsop spit. Five drowned, three survived.
The following week, five more persons died in derby fishing accidents.
Then, every so often, someone got lucky.
"Charles Groth, Vancouver sports fisherman, made what could be termed his luckiest boat ride here Sunday when he successfully brought his 18-foot outboard motor boat through the surf at Beards Hollow and put her high and dry without mishap.
"Groth had four people on board his small craft while fishing in the ocean off Long Beach and preparing to head for Columbia river bar and Port of Ilwaco, Groth noticed his tank was running low on gasoline, so instead of taking a chance on running out of fuel on the bar, he deemed it wise to try coming in through the surf, Beards Hollow being the chosen spot.
"And he made it, all passengers safe and sound.
"When the small craft was first sighted in the surf, Coast Guardsmen were called, and arrived by the time Groth landed. Chief Porter stated his crewmen gave Groth some good advice about never trying that stunt again.
"When experienced seamen hear of such maneuvers, they merely shake their heads and gain greater faith in the Almighty."
- Sept. 18, 1959
Another story that makes Coast Guardsmen walk away talking to themselves is the one about the gentleman from Seattle who, with his 71-year-old father and a friend, came to take part in the salmon derby.
"The fishing party got into the Clatsop Spit waters, and their craft overturned as did others. When the Coast Guard came along to make the rescue, here was [the 71-year-old] in the water still hanging onto his rod and reel; the other two men were with the capsized boat; when the elder [gentleman] was picked up, lo and behold, he had a fish on, and was quite disgusted when one of the Coast Guardsmen cut the fish line and freed the fish."