After a lifetime of leaving and returning to Lopez, Bob Hughes is here to stay.
Bob’s island roots extend to the 1880s, when the Spencer family owned Blakely Island, and the San Juans’ only sawmill. When Bob’s dad, Ed Hughes, became buddies with Ray Spencer, Bob’s link to the islands secured itself.
Raised in Bellingham, Bob spent summers working the Spencer sawmill with young Walter Spencer, and fishing. In 1946, his graduation year, Bob’s family moved to Lopez—back together for the first time since 1942, as Bob’s brother and brothers-in-law returned from serving in the Pacific.
The Hughes moved into a big, un-electrified farmhouse. Ed Hughes and Ray Spencer bought Humphrey Head and Shoal Bay, and began development. Bob helped his dad survey roads and lots and put in water pipes, and log the entire property. At summer’s end, he headed to college.
At Western, Bob was “into sports” — football, baseball, basketball. Weekends he came home to log and survey; summers, he added fishing. “I didn’t study too much those first few years,” Bob says. “I was playing pinochle and bridge in the student lounge.” And working.
Bob’s brother told him, “I fought the last war, so you’ll never have to fight another.” But then came 1950. To avoid getting drafted to Korea like his friend Walt, Bob enlisted in the Navy. After submarine training, he spent two years stationed at Pearl Harbor, surveilling the Russian coast. Next came two years on California’s Mare Island, where he helped fire the Navy’s first guided missile. The highlight of Bob’s naval career: a visit to his sub by “a guy telling stories about how we could’ve murdered Hitler”— Dr. Werner von Braun.
Leaving the Navy in 1954, Bob kept working through college, fishing and logging. Upon graduation, he got married and looked for teaching jobs. California paid far better than Washington, so the Hughes moved to Hayward and started a family. They lived there for 20 years, Bob teaching PE and coaching — “I loved it,” he says. But every summer they came back to Lopez to fish, living in a cabin Bob built on Flat Point: “There was a power pole, so we bought an old wringer washer, had it sitting on the beach, and we washed diapers right there.”
During this time, Bob and Walt Spencer formed a fishing partnership; it lasted fifty years. Though Bob preferred local gillnetting to seining in southeast Alaska, Bob joined Walt in1968 to form a corporation and fish Bristol Bay—the Bering Sea. “I didn’t work more than a few summers up there that didn’t blow 100 miles an hour,” he says, “and they didn’t call it a hurricane, it’s just the wind.” There’s also a 28-foot tide, so “if you get stuck out on the mudflats, you drown. You can’t outrun the water.”
Bob’s son Jeff joined the crew at age 16; they fished together for 22 years, during which Bob finished teaching and became a three-season fisherman. In 1978 the US fishing zone expanded, so they headed out in April, after herring — a bigger gamble than salmon, requiring an icebreaker to penetrate the pack ice, and as little sleep as possible: “That’s the way big-time fishing is.”
In the late 1970s, Bob and his brother and nephew also built Island Fresh Seafoods, the (now derelict) freezer plant at MacKaye Harbor, and the dock now owned by the Tulalip Tribe. Daughter Julie worked there during college, besides fishing like her dad and brother. The MacKaye Harbor fishing fleet included up to 200 boats in those days. (Bob is looking for photos if anyone has one.) It was night fishing, before the use of monofilament nets. “People would come from all around to see us sail into the sunset,” Bob remembers.
Bob’s marriage ended in 1988, so he sold his fishing business to son Jeff, and moved to Hawaii. For one year he relaxed, working at a tennis court, and swimming. But the Northwest called him home. Back in Seattle, Bob went to a dance and won a free lesson—he’d always liked dancing. A pretty lady named Donnie came over to teach him a step. “We started dancing, and we’ve been dancing together ever since,” for 34 years.
Bob and Donnie spent 21 years snowbirding in a golf condo in Arizona, but eventually they tired of the driving, and the terrible dust. So they stayed in Bellingham. Still called by the sea, Bob ran a fish-tender in Alaska for two summers, buying fish from the boats and taking it to the cannery. Then, in his mid-70s , Bob got his captain’s license: “I passed all the tests the first time. I’d been on the water my whole life!” Next up: running a whale-watch boat. That was so much fun, Bob bought his own boat, running tours from Lopez for several years. His “last hurrah” with fishing came in 2000, one final summer with Walt in southeast Alaska.
In 2015, Bellingham rents rose too high. Desiring to write a book about fishing, Bob visited fellow Lopez fisherman-writer Ralph Bladt, whose dad he’d fished with. Ralph told him about the Lopez Hamlet. “The Hamlet was built for people who’d lived here their whole lives to have somewhere they could afford to live, and that fit me perfectly.” Since Bob and Donnie moved in, there hasn’t been another opening. “We just lucked out,” Bob says — and came home.