In 1965 my father, George, and his friend Richard Wyndham, rowed from Whaling Station Bay to Flora Islet, which is just off the tip of Helliwell Provincial Park on the east corner of Hornby Island. They went to investigate the remnants of the hand troller shacks that had been built and used a few decades before. From May to October, during the “Dirty Thirties,” hand trollers fished a thousand miles of Vancouver Island coastline in open rowboats, following the migration of coho and spring salmon through Georgia Strait (now, the Salish Sea).

George McLachlan standing in a hand troller’s shack on Flora Islet. 1965

At dawn, trollers rowed or sailed to kelp beds where they hoped the fish would bite, tied the fishing line around their legs, trailed the line over the gunwale, and rowed until a strong tug signalled a fish was hooked. They then pulled in the fish with hands worn and calloused from weeks of work, and rowed after the next catch. 

Twice daily the fish were collected by a tender boat; the trollers were paid pennies per pound of weight. For a successful season, trollers could earn up to three hundred dollars—an attractive alternative to the breadlines and work camps of the Depression years.

Haida and Tsimshian fishers trolled waters around Prince Rupert, Haida Gwaii, and north to Alaska. They fished spring salmon, which early in the season were larger—up to 50 kilograms.

Sockeye Salmon. Illustration by George McLachlan

Despite a reputation for independence and self-sufficiency, hand trollers found their lives a struggle. For up to five months they lived in shacks built from salvaged driftwood and lumber, working from dawn to dusk in all weather conditions. Cooperation was essential for survival. 

Some Hornby Islanders also fished. The following is an excerpt from The Ebb and Flow, by an islander of the time, Irene Ostby:

The next season, I was given a rowboat of my own. I could now go commercial fishing, have a licence and sell all the fish I could catch. This was hard work and the sun was most devastating.  After two months of being out on the water, we were blistered and brown beyond recognition. Flower Island was a favourite area. Fishermen from all over came, including local neighbours and youngsters like me. We camped in tiny shacks modelled from driftwood. A stove made from a gas drum and a bit of pipe and we were set for the summer.  This way of fishing continued each summer until World War II began.

The boats were often “double-enders,” meaning they had a bow at both ends, making them great for use when there was a following sea (wind behind you), and many had sprit sails, which were makeshift sails on a mast that could be put up to get some benefit of wind. 

Some of the fishers eventually put in little gas engines, or moved up to a larger boat, which often ran on an East Hope. One of my fondest memories from the 1960s was the sound of a fish boat on a calm summer evening about 9:30 as it headed south down Lambert Channel to Ford Cove. The “putt-putt” sound of them is very rare these days, but just hearing it, whisks me back to another time.

Hand Troller in a “double-ender.” Illustration by George McLachlan

I wrote the song in 1985 and have had much enjoyment over the years performing it. It was a favourite when I was performing in schools in the 1980s, and 90s, as it has a chorus for everyone to sing.

Hand Troller

I am a hand troller, Georgia Strait waters
Working for little, it’s what I do
Boat’s a double-ender, sleek and slender
A sprit sail moves her across the blue
Early mornin’ dawn rowing out in the calm
The place where I think the fish might be
Coho, Bluebacks, on herring they feed
My Cowichan Spinner’s what I hope they see

I am a hand troller, work hard for my dollar
I don’t get much sleep from May to October
I curse the bad weather but in fair or better
There’s no life like a hand troller’s

I am a hand troller, life’s very simple
Living five months in a shack by the sea
Sharing with others food and provisions
You never know when you’ll be in need
Rowing all day from the 15th of May
One line over in all kinds of seas
Hard life, hard work and for what kind of fee?
Two cents a pound from the cannery

CHORUS

I am a hand troller, best of conditions
I might make three hundred when the season is through
Hardly enough to last me the winter
The times are tough, jobs so few
I’ve got dignity, I’ve got pride
Bad times will end and prices will rise
Buy me a gas boat and add a few lines
Things are gonna turn out just fine

CHORUS

Hand troller shacks on Flora Islet. Watercolour by George McLachlan, 1965