The legend of skipper Benny Lagos runs in the tide now.
For more than seven decades Lagos was one of the top performing skippers for the Canadian Fishing Company in a career that began in a rowboat and ended on a fully-powered seiner.
On Monday, following a brief illness, Lagos died in Campbell River. He was 99.
“He knew the tide and the water better than anyone I’ve ever seen. He had a sixth sense,” says Jim Lagos, a nephew who often worked for his great uncle aboard the 70-foot seiner Cape Knox.
Born Jan. 11, 1914, in Vancouver, Lagos was the second of four children to Hjinio Lagos and Anita Johnston – and he was destined to become a great commercial fisherman.
His father was a fisherman and so was his grandfather Rosalio who took the boy gillnetting up to Johnstone Strait when he was just eight or nine years old.
The impression was everlasting on Lagos who would spend much of his life in the “straits” (Johnstone) fishing sockeye and “dog” (chum) salmon as well as fishing coast-wide for herring.
He was among the top “high-liner” skippers year in and year out for the company and so many old photographs show his boats laden with prized sockeye and herring.
On the 71st anniversary of his career with Canadian – he finally retired after 73 – the legendary Lagos was honoured by another highly-respected skipper, Ollie Chickite, the last owner of the historic BCP 45 fishing vessel.
“As a salmon seiner and herring seiner he (Lagos) was one of the finest,” Chickite wrote on an engraving that appears on the replica model of the Cape Knox, that is housed in the Maritime Heritage Centre alongside the BCP 45.
Early Fishing Years
Lagos moved around the Pacific Northwest as a youth and didn’t attend much school.
He did learn fishing and went on his first seine trip with George Glendale, aboard the Glendale III, when he was 14 years old. It was 1928.
Five years later, his first with Canadian Fishing Co., Lagos was in Rivers Inlet where he learned the nuances of tides, changing wind patterns and, most importantly, delivering your catch on time.
Lagos was among several young-buck fishermen in wooden rowboats who were towed out in line to deeper waters by one of the bigger company power vessels. From there Lagos would peel off and then row, or put up sail, and head to his favoured fishing grounds.
The company supplied nets that were set by hand and then it was up to Lagos to make sure he caught the tides, currents and winds to return to the packer. And if you didn’t return at tow time, as they headed back to the cannery, you were left behind with a quickly rotting catch.
Lagos never starved, but there were some lean years.
He would settle on Quadra Island where home was a cannery workers’ cabin during the off-season months and then a boat cabin during fishing season. Lagos often rowed to catch his dinner and regularly rowed across Discovery Passage to Campbell River to collect his pay cheques.
In 1932 he married the Scottish lass Jessie and together they raised two children, Ben Jr. and Ina. Jessie passed away in 1992 and Ben Jr. died in 2010. He was also a commercial fisherman.
The couple enjoyed coming to Campbell River to bowl. On the fireplace mantle of Lagos’ home sits two trophies: one from 1951 for the Men’s High Single and the second from ‘52-’53 for the Campbell River Mixed 5 Pin Champs.
Family was as important to Lagos as fishing, but duty to provide always came first. It pained him to be away from his wife during their anniversary – dog salmon season – and when Jessie “had the nerve” to expect their second child during sockeye season, there was only one thing to do. He sent for Jessie, a few belongings and they came to Rivers Inlet. Ina was born in a Rivers Inlet cannery and laughs with gusto as she tells the story.
In 1943, Lagos met a fellow skipper, Lloyd Vaughn. The two would become fast friends and lifetime workmates, as Vaughn served aboard Lagos’ vessels as a deckhand on sockeye and herring fisheries.
One time, during the Second World War, Vaughn urged Lagos to sneak his vessel in the dark by the gunnery check point at Yorke Island in Johnstone Strait. But the ever-cautious skipper thought otherwise.
But, after a bit of arm twisting, Lagos relented and they did make it by the regularly bored and often zelous military. However, on the way back – as the story goes – the gunners put a shot “across their bow” and that’s when Lagos immediateley turned around and signed in.
The End of Fishing
Vaughn died a few years ago, and by that time the true commercial fishing industry had also passed in Lagos’ opinion.
He was born and raised to be a high-liner who understood the intricacies of strong tides in specific locations, how to maneuver in these precarious spots and how to catch the prized sockeye runs that danced in those tides.
Benny Lagos understood this and he also understood the best fishermen were rewarded.
“There were times we would have half a boat load before anyone else started,” recalls Jim Lagos. “Benny had such finesse.”
He also had a cool and calm nature that served him well particularly in crises situations.
“He was the first to come help and the last to leave,” says his grandson Wally Barber. “He was a true gentleman fishermen.”
But he was also competitive and that ended for him with the wrap-up of “derby” fishing, replaced by collective catches. The end was in sight by 2005, but Lagos decided to go with a crew of old hands for one last run.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t the best of seasons and the crew decided that was no way to send out an old sockeye fisherman.
So, at that year’s skipper’s wrap-up dinner, the patriarch of skippers asked the owners of the Canadian Fishing Company for one last sockeye season aboard the Cape Knox, a boat he had run – and it was well-run by now – since the 1970s.
Of course the owners had no choice but to say yes to 92-year-old Benny Lagos, much to chagrin of fellow veteran skipper, and much younger, Gerry Roberts who reportedly groaned, “Now I’ve got even longer to wait to retire!”
That year, 2006, was a fine sockeye season. Lagos and crew delivered their catch to Vancouver and then celebrated the night in style on the town.
“He’s not a humpy (pink) fisherman – and that’s no slight to the guys who are – Benny Lagos was a sockeye fisherman,” says Jim Lagos who was aboard the Cape Knox those last two journeys. “It’s pretty neat when you go from the start of fishing…well, to the end.”
In the modest home on Thulin Street in Campbell River where Lagos finally moved to in 1985, the walls are covered in fishing photographs, mainly of happy family holding sportfish catches.
Benny Lagos’ favourite piece of salmon was the tail – no bones. A tentative celebration of life service is being planned for Sept. 21, at the end of the fishing season. Details to be announced.