The Life of a Port Townsend Fisherman: Fifth-generation fisherman counts on sixth generation to take his place | Working Waterfront

Brennan LaBrie
blabrie@ptleader.com
Posted 9/4/20

Greg Veitenhans was destined to be a fisherman. His father fished, as did his father, going back five generations. 

And growing up in Gig Harbor, Veitenhans was surrounded by …

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The Life of a Port Townsend Fisherman: Fifth-generation fisherman counts on sixth generation to take his place | Working Waterfront

Greg Veitenhans and his sons Henry (left) and Joey (right) stand by the boat they rowed and raced as part of the Race to Alaska in 2019.
Greg Veitenhans and his sons Henry (left) and Joey (right) stand by the boat they rowed and raced as part of the Race to Alaska in 2019.
Photo courtesy of Dana Edmunds
Posted

Greg Veitenhans was destined to be a fisherman. His father fished, as did his father, going back five generations. 

And growing up in Gig Harbor, Veitenhans was surrounded by fishermen. 

“Back then everybody fished,” Veitenhans said. “When I was a kid that’s what you did; either you fished or you were too young to fish or you were too old to fish.”

And so, like many in his community before him, he went right from high school to the deck of a fishing boat. At the age of 18, he joined the crew of a purse seiner fishing vessel — which catches fish using a weighted drag net — and headed off to Alaska.

He quickly fell in love with fishing, even with its intense schedule.

He got used to racing against time and the weather to haul in the biggest load of salmon or halibut possible in the time allotted for catching and delivering the fish. Sometimes it meant 18 straight hours of work, sometimes more than 24. 

“In the old days, we’d do 25 hours of fishing, then 12 hours of cleaning up, and someone would still have to drive the boat back afterward,” he said.

In his almost 50 years of fishing, nothing about that has changed.

“You work when the opportunity presents itself, no matter what time of day it is or how you feel,” he said. “If you have the opportunity to work, you don’t sleep. You learn pretty quickly that your own comfort comes second.”

Perhaps Veitenhans’s biggest draw to fishing in Alaska, however, was the state itself.

“When I was a kid I was really struck by how wide open the opportunity was everywhere you looked in Alaska,” he said. “It just kind of captured my imagination.”

The landscape reminded him of Puget Sound, although much more vast and unpopulated, which he loved. 

“The natural beauty is gorgeous, it’s breathtaking, and it’s so wide open,” he said. “There’s trees and mountains and hardly any people, even now. At that time it was kind of still a wild frontier. It’s a lot tamer now.” 

When that first summer of fishing ended, Veitenhans knew he’d be back. He returned the next summer, and bought his own boat in the meantime. He purchased the boat, a troller called the Dorothy, at age 19 with his earnings from the previous summer and some help from his grandma. The boat was docked in Mystery Bay, where Veitenhans would one day dock his boats. 

When Veitenhans drove up to see his boat, he realized why it had come at such a cheap price. It was old, rotting and full of holes, he remembers, so much so that he had to nail plywood patches onto the hull to keep the water out. He recruited his brother to help him take the boat back to Gig Harbor for repairs, and the two took off on one sunny February afternoon. 

Shortly after departing Port Townsend, a large wake sent the mast and rigging tumbling down. And by the time they neared Gig Harbor, the sun had set and the two men had to navigate their way through the darkness — and snow — with only a compass; no map, no chart.

Veitenhans learned his lesson — never leave the dock without a flashlight or chart — and the Dorothy got patched up enough to take Veitenhans out off the coast of Washington for a few years to save up for an Alaskan fishing permit. He eventually secured one, and has gone back to Alaska every year since.

He’s also fished up and down the West Coast for salmon, halibut, sardines, and squid, among other fish. Alaska has always been the go-to, however.

“You can go to Alaska broke and you know you’re gonna come back with something. But you go to California broke, you may never come back; you may not have enough to even get home on,” he said.

Still, home for Veitenhans remained western Washington. The weather played a big role in that. While he said he loves the long summer days in Alaska — perfect for 20-hour fishing shifts — the gloomy, rainy and cold winters got to him. And so he decided to, as he put it, “opt to just take the best of Alaska and leave the worst,” coming home to Washington after each summer.

However, the Gig Harbor he knew so well was changing in front of his eyes, and he didn’t care for what he saw. In the mid-’70s, the old fishing town was rapidly developing and becoming a destination for wealthier residents from Tacoma and other regional cities.

“I could see the handwriting on the wall,” he said. “It was less and less a fishing town and more and more a doctor and lawyer and yuppie town. And I just didn’t want any part of it, so I moved.”

He went looking for a new home around the Sound, preferably a town more in touch with its working waterfront. He landed in Port Orchard, keeping his boat in the shipyard there, before the cheap land values in Jefferson County led him further north. He bought a house on Marrowstone Island that sat not far from Mystery Bay — an ideal place to moor his boat.

EXPANDING THE FLEET

All this time, Veitenhans was growing his business. Dorothy was replaced by bigger trawlers over time. 

And then, after around 20 years of trolling for fish, Veitenhans purchased a 58-foot purse seiner, The Mystery Bay. He was thrilled to return to his first love — purse seining, which he says is far more exciting than trolling. 

In purse seining, he explained, you don’t have to wait for fish to get hungry and attack the bait. You may get zero fish, or you may get 20 pounds, but it’s the risk that makes it more fun than catching one fish at a time.

The Mystery Bay was lost to the Pacific Ocean on a return trip from squid fishing in California, and it’s replacement, the 56-foot Barbra B, sees yearly action in Alaska to this day. Veitenhans also owns a 70-foot sardine fishing boat currently in Alaska.

While working in Alaska one summer, Veitenhans hired his future wife, Ava, as a crew member. She had come from California to become a fisherman, and the two clicked while working together off the coast of Ketchikan.

“She liked the lifestyle, and we ended up liking each other,” he said, adding with a laugh: “I think she liked fishing long before she liked me.”

After working on his boat for several years, Ava took to the skies to scout for sardines and found a new passion, eventually becoming a commercial pilot.

THE NEXT GENERATION

The couple had two sons together, Henry and Joey, and it wasn’t long before the two boys were joining their father on the fishing boat. 

Henry, now 20, first accompanied his father to Alaska at age 8, and has done so every summer since. Joey, now 18, began fishing at 10. 

At first, the Veitenhans boys were under the impression that they’d be going off for a fun family vacation with their dad, before realizing that it entailed hard work in the wet, cold Alaska weather. The following year, they were onto his scheme, but were still game to come along to fish. 

The Veitenhans men fish halibut in Alaska in May and June, then stick around for salmon season for the remainder of the summer. 

At the end of each summer, when Joey and Henry would return to school, Veitenhans would begin the long offseason of maintaining his two boats and repairing all the nets they hold. These tasks, he said, keep him busy all winter and spring. 

“I’ve never been able to say I have nothing to do,” he said. “The minute I bought that first boat I’ve had something to do.” 

He does find time, however, to fish for shrimp in the Hood Canal — just for sport. 

“I go fishing to rest up,” he said, adding that by the time summer rolls around, he’s excited to put aside his maintenance work and return to the water. 

Veitenhans’ passion for fishing remains intact, but at age 67, he sees retirement on the horizon. He even has a retirement plan in place: his children. His plan is to sell them his two boats and have them take over the business, ideally by the time he hits 70.

“I’ve got them both convinced that that’s their future,” he said. “I’m working on both of them right now, getting them thinking about stepping in.”

And Veitenhans said both sons have expressed interest in the opportunity. Joey is now a full-time fisherman off the coast of Washington, while Henry is studying International Studies at Willamette University in Oregon and is on a two-year ROTC campus scholarship to be commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Army in 2022. 

CHALLENGES OLD AND NEW

In 2017, Veitenhans and Henry built a steel boat together, which they entered in the annual Race To Alaska as Henry’s senior project. 

The two men, with the help of several of Henry’s high school friends, rowed and sailed the 25-foot sharpie to Ketchikan in 10 days, securing 12th place. 

Two years later, they did it again, this time with a different crew including Joey, finishing 19th.

Veitenhans said those races rank up there with his biggest challenges in his fishing career.

“All my fishing experience gave me wherewithal to handle that, I think,” he said. “It was a lot of things to pull together, but I had a lot of help.” 

Veitenhans may plan on giving up fishing full time, but he knows he can’t leave it behind — he just loves it too much. It always keeps him on his toes, he says.

“There’s always a challenge, there’s always something more that you can do ... keeping the boat working, the crew working, trying to find fish and catch fish, trying to improve your operation.”

“The constant change keeps you interested,” he added. “You’re not doing the same thing everyday, every year.”

The encouragement of Veitenhans to his sons to become fishermen was not what he heard growing up. His father had echoed many in Gig Harbor at that time that there was no future in fishing and had even quit for a while before rejoining the trade. Veitenhans said that all the fishermen in his family felt this way at one point, and he knows better by now.

“Fishing is cyclic,” he said. “When it’s good you make hay and when it’s bad you just hunker down because it never stays the same. When it’s good it’s gonna get bad; when it’s bad it’s gonna get good.”

And that volatile element of fishing is what keeps Veitenhans from being able to fully say goodbye to the trade. 

And, if everything goes to plan, he won’t have to anytime soon.

“I could always get a job with Henry and Joey; I can make them take me,” he said. “I don’t think they’ll throw me off, I hope not. As long as they still owe me money, I don’t think they can.”

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Trackerjunkie

Aluminum sharpie.

Sunday, September 6