The song “Hand Troller” takes place in the 1930s when the Great Depression caused mass unemployment. Hundreds of the jobless built or purchased small boats and trolling gear and spent the summer months handlining on the fishing grounds off Vancouver Island.
From May to October hand trollers fished a thousand miles of Vancouver Island coastline in open rowboats as they followed the migration of coho and spring salmon north through the Georgia Strait.
At dawn, the trollers rowed or sailed to where they hoped the fish would bite. Tying the fishing line around their legs, they trailed the line over the gunwale into the water and continued rowing until a strong tug signalled that a fish was hooked. After pulling the fish into the boat with hands calloused from weeks of work, they rowed after the next catch and repeated the process. Twice daily a “tender” boat collected the fish. Although the trollers were paid only pennies per pound of weight, they were able to earn up to $300 in a successful season and avoid the breadlines and work camps of the Depression years.
Haida and Tsimshian fishers trolled the waters around Prince Rupert, the Queen Charlotte Islands, and along the northern coast to Alaska. They fished spring salmon, which early in the season weighed up to 50 kilograms. Native women also fished and one was credited with catching more than 100 fish for the season!
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. As one old salt put it, “A lot of us knew where to fish, and out at sea we followed the same rules as inshore, making the old counterclockwise circle to give everyone a turn (at catching the salmon).”
I wrote this song because of photographs my father had taken in 1965 when he rowed with a friend to Flora Islet, just off the shore of Hornby Island, BC. His images show what was left of these shacks many years after they’d ceased being used by the hand trollers.
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 row out in the calm
The place where I think the fish might be
Coho, Bluebacks, on herring the 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
Never know when you’ll be in need
Rowing all day from the 15th of May
One line over, all kinds of seas
Hard life, hard work, what kind of fee?
Two cents a pound from the cannery
I am a hand troller, best of conditions
Might make three hundred when the season is through
Hardly enough to last me the winter
Times are tough, jobs so few
I’ve got dignity, I’ve got pride
Bad times will end, prices will rise
Buy me a gas boat and add a few lines
Things are gonna turn out just fine
© John McLachlan (SOCAN)