It was a beautiful sunny plus-75 F degree fall day on September 25, 1957. Herring fishing had been underway since August 19. There were a few fishermen from the mainland and probably about eight-island fisherman including my father who had been setting their nets around Pictou Island. Melvin MacDonald, Arnold MacMillan, Harold Bennett, Duncan, Lauchie, and Vernie Rankin, Logan and Bush MacDonald were the others. Dad was fishing in his 30-foot boat named Slo-Mo-Shun and mother had written in her diary that he had caught 34 barrels of herring that night. That in weight may probably have been about 14,000 pounds. I would assume that 34 barrels would probably be a full load for a boat of that size.
Dad had sailed over to Maritime Packers in Pictou before daylight that morning to unload his catch. Back on Pictou Island, my mother began her day by cranking up her engine-powered wringer washing machine and doing something that she usually did twice a week. I can still remember the sounds of the little gasoline motor that powered her washing machine. I can envision the long line of cloths that would be flapping in the wind as mother hung them out to dry.
My father had always planted a large vegetable garden in a field below our house. He always grew an adequate amount of fresh garden produce that would be stored in our dirt dug out basement to last our family over the long winter months. After Mom had finished the washing on that day, she decided that this would be a good time to start digging the potatoes. Rita, Rosemary, Vincent and myself were informed of her plans and updated of what we were required to do. Our neighbours, Judy and Cecil Rankin, arrived at our place to play but first agreed to help us pick up the potatoes. Vincent and Cecil, however, had other plans and soon began to throw the smaller potatoes at each other. Soon Rita, Rosemary, Judy and myself were engaged in an all out potato war. It didn’t take Mom very long to make it known just who was the boss.
Mom had recorded in her journal that an agent from Five Roses Flour had paid Pictou Islanders a visit on that day and had left two-pound sample bags of Five Roses Flour. It probably has been years since advertising has been conducted in that way.
The herring fishermen began arriving home form Pictou that afternoon. They would have immediately begun to prepare for that night of fishing by filling their five-allon gas cans and checking their nets. It would probably have been about six o’clock on the evening of September 26 when they left the wharf and sailed the short distance to the island’s West End. Local fishermen during those years didn’t have electronic fish finders, depth sounders or two-way radios. Their nets were set closer to shore in shallow water. The heavy full herring nets were manually lifted and pulled across their boats as the fish were being shaken from them.
A north wind was beginning to pick up around midnight when suddenly a large school of fish hit the nets. Just about all of their nets went straight to the bottom with the weight. It didn’t take long for the fishermen to alert each other by revving their boat motors. The heavy work quickly began with the nets being dragged and shaken over the side of their boats. However, the wind was steadily increasing and it soon became a matter of concern when the waves began washing over the back of the boats.
This particular day was Cameron MacDonald’s 35th birthday and he sailed up beside Dad’s and Arnold’s boats. He told them that it was blowing too hard to light the candles on his birthday cake and he was going into the wharf to wait this one out.
That was all that the others needed to hear. They all dropped their nets over the side and sailed into the island wharf. The boats would be sheltered there from the north wind. Cameron, Arnold MacMillan, Vernon Turple, Tommie Cyr and Walter LeBlanc all arrived at our place with Dad early that morning. Tommie and Walter had been out fishing with Vernon. Mom prepared a breakfast for them and they now waited for the wind to die down. The wind, however, continued to blow harder and Vernon, Tommie and Walter stayed at our place that night. It wasn’t until two days later before they were able get back to their sunken nets. However, by this time, the herring that were netted were not salvageable. The high winds had mixed a lot of kelp and grass into the nets and the netted herring were now spoiled. The only thing that could be done was to try and shake the garbage from the nets and try and save as much of their gear as possible. Most fishermen left their nets lying there and allowed the herring to rot out of them rather then chance tearing the nets apart.
This was the last night of the herring fishery for 1957. My father and Arnold MacMillan then began their annual fall smelt fishing expeditions around the small coves of Pictou, Pictou Island and PEI.