By Wendy Leigh
Any South Whidbey native over the age of 60 is sure to have a tall tale about the lively fishing resorts dotting the island perimeter during the 1930s through early ’60s.
But islanders who came along after the glory days of those rustic resorts can now walk through yesteryear with those who actually created them.
On Sunday, Aug. 11, the fishing families, workers and former guests of resorts, such as Jim and John’s, Bush Point and Hap’s Resorts, will be spinning yarns and casting their storyteller nets as part of a guided Whidbey Sea-Tac shuttle tour, a fundraiser for the South Whidbey Historical Society.
Bill Haroldson, author of “Resorts of South Whidbey Island” and president of the South Whidbey Historical Society, tells how the resorts emerged in response to the outlawing of salmon traps around the edges of Whidbey in the 1930s.
“A single trap could catch as many as 100,000 salmon in a single day, so it soon became apparent that the practice would totally destroy salmon runs,” Haroldson said.
When the salmon traps were disassembled and fishing business dwindled, the idea of bringing in families to fish from the waters of Whidbey caught on.
More than 35 of the family-run fishing resorts sprang up on South Whidbey, drawing families from across the state during the Great Depression.
A ferry to Whidbey carried automobiles for $1 fare, and the sparse one-room cabins went for two or three dollars a night. A low-cost vacation doubled as a way for families to stock up on enough silver salmon to get them through the winter ahead.
Asked what the kids did for recreation, Haroldson laughed.
“They walked on the tide flats, they played on the beach — what else did they need?”
The youngsters of the resort families, however, have their own stories to tell.
Jim Cooper and his twin brother, John, launched “Jim and John’s Resort” along with their mother when they were about 11 or 12 years old. On grueling days of non-stop work in the late 1940s, they filled in hundreds of feet of slough, gathered logs off the beach, and built 12 units for guests.
Jim, now 88, will be sharing his stories on the tour, telling how their days running the resort started at 3:30 a.m. He and his brother worked their 25 boats until sundown and then fished for herring at night, which was used as bait and sold to other resorts around South Whidbey.
That lucrative part of the fishing resort happens to be one of the only remnants of the era still in operation today. Though the resort closed along with all the others in the 1960s, sold off as parcels to newcomers who built beach homes, Jim had the foresight to open Possession Point Bait Co. in 1964.
More than 50 years later, Jim’s son, Dan Cooper, owns the bait business and runs it seasonally when the silver salmon are in abundance. Jim’s grandson, Kyle Cooper, pitches in on summers home from college in Bellingham. Two ponds on the family property hold enough live herring for anglers casting lines from the store’s beachfront, as well as for Cooper’s sales to other businesses in Washington, Oregon and Alaska.
Those live herring are legendary in West Coast fishing lore, ever since the day angler Wes Bennett brought in a 59.5-pound salmon on a 10-pound test line and eight-pound test leader. It was the largest king salmon ever caught on inland waters, with the lightest gear. Jim points out that the tail was still on the floor when it was weighed, so it likely weighed even more.
“We played it for four hours to bring it in, and we finally got it,” Jim recounts. “I bet there were a hundred people on the shore when we came into that boat dock.” All good days, he remembers with a twinkle in his eye.
Fortunately, South Whidbey residents today can see that twinkle and hear those stories in real life. Jim Cooper, along with legends such as Craig “Windmill” Holman, Darla Farmer, Barbara Chase and Don Allan will be sharing memories of the fishing resorts era on the bus tour this Sunday.
The tour emcee is Bill Haroldson, and those who join up will receive a copy of his book “Resorts of South Whidbey Island” as well as a “Gabby’s Guide Fishing Resort Map.” With appetizers, stops at the old fishing haunts, and a beachfront home reception, there’s sure to be some fishy fabrications and lofty lore bouncing around South Whidbey this weekend.