Bill Hammer, Sr., is patriarch of a four-generation fishing family based in Port Townsend. Born in Sitka, Alaska, in 1930, he's been fishing "ever since I was out of school," he said. "And I quit in 7th grade."
Hammer has shared his love of fishing, and his boat the Silver Lady, with his son Bill Jr., 62, who fishes every summer with sons Jason, 39, and Mark, 38, and their sons Austin, 13, and Ethan, 11. The four generations of Hammers talked with me this last winter about fishing for halibut and black cod in Alaska.
Bill Sr.'s memory is slipping a bit, but he still has many stories. "God almighty there was so many Cohos there," he said of one trip. "Remember the time with so many king salmon? They were great big slugs." Later in the conversation, he suddenly brought up another story involving a half a goat, a rifle, and a double-ended boat with a dog in it.
Bill Sr. doesn't go aboard much anymore. "It breaks my heart," he admitted, bundled in his plaid coat and hunter's cap with the earflaps down, sitting at the Marina Cafe.
Bill Sr. bought Silver Lady in 1966 or 67, he said. It was built in Fife, the steel frames "bent around a stump with a come-along," he said. "We had a tough time getting it up to Seattle and Lake Union" because it was just an unfinished hull. His wife, Rose, named it Silver Lady "because it was all metal."
It took awhile to finish the boat at Lake Union, because the machinist working on it had all his tools stolen. Bill Sr. had to borrow more money from the bank to replace the tools, "and I laid awake so many nights trying to see somebody coming to get more tools, I was gonna shoot him," he said. Nobody came.
Later they turned Silver Lady into a freezer boat. "We were one of the first," Bill Jr. said. "We'd find a buyer in Bellingham ... get a premium price" for their fish frozen aboard. The practice is banned now, but Silver Lady still has the capability.
In the 1970s, they switched from trolling to longlining. Farmed fish was driving prices down, he said, "so we started coming into longlining," which his dad saw Canadians doing a lot of, "and Dad put a drum on the boat," he said. Longlining takes them toward Dutch Harbor, along the Aleutian chain.
Silver Lady has been modified in other ways, too. It used to be "just a typical house-forward boat," Bill Jr. said, until they "whalebacked" it, enclosing the front to expand the living quarters. To counteract the extra weight, they raised the well-deck area and added 3 feet to the boat overall. "We work on it ourselves," he said of their annual winter haulouts in Port Townsend, except when projects get too big. He said, "This year the Shipwrights Co-op replaced the driveline system, stern tubes, tail shaft, bearing and seals, and rudder system."
A HEALTHY LIFE
Bill Sr. also fished as a kid, on his dad's boat, Sea Hag. "We lived on the islands out of Sitka," he said. His dad, Raymond Hammer, trapped mink off Cruzhof Island, and made a cradle for Bill Sr. from a 3-gallon pail. "I was a real little runt, too," Bill Sr. recalled. His sister, Ethel, still lives in Alaska, in a log cabin. Bill sends her a box of Rainier cherries every year.
On Sea Hag, Bill Sr. learned to trawl for salmon and halibut. Drafted at age 30, he served in the Army as an armorist in Fairbanks, Alaska. "We had to build a whole fort up there," he said. "I took care of all the weapons."
After serving, he returned to home and fishing on Sea Hag. He recalled his dad saying, "'kid, you want to go fishing, now?' and I said yes. And he said, 'this is a mortgage.'" Sea Hag had some debts.
Raymond Hammer had been a Navy man in World War II. "All I know was he was a heck of a hard worker and anybody that worked for him got a sore back sometimes," said Bill Sr. "He'd go in with his sleeves rolled up, and he'd help us if we couldn't handle it."
More boats succeeded Sea Hag. Bill Sr. said he "talked another guy out of a boat named the Sultan," which he had about three years. "Right off the bat I got a permit," he added.
"I got the Shamrock from Jurgen Thompson. That was a real big boat, but a rotten one," he continued. "It was a fish packer. I packed a lot of fish with it. ... We got in a big storm, and I had a guy who wasn't a good navigator. He ran it right into a big rock. The bow stem was damaged." Hammer took Shamrock to Ketchikan for repair, fished a few more years with it and sold it for $35,000, which is what he paid for Silver Lady, the boat his sons and grandsons longline with now.
"They're the owners of the boat," Bill Sr. said. "I just gave it to them. I couldn't handle it anymore."
He fished for decades, and taught his sons to fish and work hard. "They do all the work," he said. "And they bring their kids. The kids help clean the halibut. Everybody's got to get out there and so work on the deck until it's done," he said. "They are good fishermen, really good fishermen."
The Hammers have three licenses on the boat, he added. "They get a good season, because all the guys have licenses." They catch halibut, red snapper, black cod and gray cod.
"I think a fishing life is a healthy life," Bill Sr. said. "You're out there on the boat doing fishing most of the time. ... I fished on boats with drunks on them, but I quit them really quick because it was unbelievable the dumb things they did."
Bill Jr. is in charge of the boat now, and feels the weight of the responsibility. His father-in-law passed away recently, he added. "The only thing I really worry about these days ... my whole family's on board."
"It was around 1968 when we started to fish with [Silver Lady]," said Bill Jr. "We were trolling for salmon." He recalled bringing a record catch of king salmon into Pelican, Alaska, asking his dad how many pounds it was. Bill Sr. just remembered it was "$19,000 bucks," and the sharks were awful bad. Bill Jr. remembers that, too. "You'd pull the leaders in trying to bring the fish aboard, put the gaff in and a shark would take half of it. You'd feel a slight tug."
Bill Jr., a 1974 graduate of Port Townsend High School, took over a crewman's job when he was 12 years old. "So far, I haven't missed a season," he said, except for part of a season when he broke his arm.
Bill Jr.'s son, Jason, also started fishing full-time at age 12, though he was off and on the boat since he was about 8 years old.
Bill Jr. started fishing, he said, "because I more or less had to. Jason did it because he loved it." Jason's brother, Mark, two years younger, joins them fishing on the Silver Lady. He didn't take to it as much as Jason at first, but after working other jobs, Mark "found it was more lucrative," his dad said. When Bill took Jason out for the first time and they were pulling away from the dock in Port Angeles, Jason's mom was trying to say goodbye and Jason just waved at her behind his head, Bill recalled. Both he and Mark went as babies; Mark "liked to see the splash when you throw things over."
Jason's son Austin, 13, is fishing this summer, again joining his dad, grandpa and uncle. Austin's job includes "throwing halibut into the bins, or throwing black cod into the black cod bins," he said.
"Austin's going to start doing halibut this year," Jason said. "Last year, we got him started baiting, and he bleeds the fish, too. A lot of the work is leverage. You've got to have a little height to you to get it over the bins."
Austin recalled a time in Chatham when fish were up to his knees, "or past my knees. Uncle Mark was throwing fish onto the deck, and he was like, 'Hurry up, Austin,' and I was like, 'does it look like I can go any faster?'"
Fish on, Hammers.You guys are cool.