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  • I fished for lobsters in the late 70’s through the 80s. While the rest of the nation was moving from disco to punk rock I lived mostly alone on a small, remote island in Down East Maine.

    I got my start with the last of the old timers. The men who remembered their grandfathers fishing from sailing sloops and who started in with the first power boats when they were young. They told stories of their grandfathers having their mittened hands chopped loose where they had frozen to the wheels of fishing sloops. They remembered when the fish draggers and hand liners made a go of it and when they could stop on the way in, drop a line and catch a nice haddock for supper around the ledges. And the time old Les Morrill climbed to the top of the mast in storm and dared god himself to come on down and do his damndest. These were the men who grew up when the island villages were a constellation of communities strung along the rugged rocky islands of the Maine coast.

    We still fished wooden traps back then. Small sawmills operated up and down the coast milling sills and bows and laths for the fishermen to build their traps. The mills smelled of green oak and cedar, harsh tobacco and bad coffee. Hanging on the dusty walls were sill patterns for each fisherman marked for length and where the rungs slotted in to divide the trap into sections. Each fisherman had a personal and secret formula for success.

    Mick dragged me along the first time. Christ Benjy, don’t go for them little traps like Cary’s got. He couldn’t catch his ass with both hands. Use the old man’s pattern same as me.

    The wharf sold the stiff old style tarred twine along with newer nylon and poly twine in bright colors. I carved mesh boards and mesh needles out of scraps of oak and knit pockets to hold bait and the trap heads that funnelled the lobsters into the traps. The old men telling lies and smoking cigarettes and drinking the gritty coffee down at the wharf warned the bright colors would scare away the lobsters. Mick told them to go fuck themselves.

    I was from ‘away’ in one of the most closed and clannish industries in the nation. In those times, outsiders who tried to get a foot in the lobster business had a rough go of it. Usually they found their gear tended for them or found their buoys adrift and strings of traps lost. Other tales were darker. But I was going out in a 16 foot wooden dory (double ended boat). She had 4 inch oak rails and was thick planked with cedar. These were the boats the Nova Scotia fisherman stacked on the decks of the cod schooners to row out alone and fish the bottom along the Banks. She was a heavy, beamy girl and when she had soaked up must have weighed more than 600 pounds. If I slept late and missed the tide and she grounded out all I could do was wait for the tide to float her again.

    I rowed to tend my traps. All around Gotts Island, all around Little Gotts and sometimes over to the old quarry wharfs along the east side of Black Island. Maybe 8 miles altogether. Every day. When you row around an island the tide is going to be against you on one side. The tides around the outer islands Down East run up to 5-6 miles an hour. If I got up before the sun I could be done by lunch.

    The first day he saw me, Mick swooped in on me in his bright red skiff, intent and wild as a hawk. Oh my fucking word, he said by way of introduction. What a fuckin’ gibrone.

    When he got done laughing he asked what I was using for bait. Laughed some more. Then left me with half a bucket of his salted herring.


    Eight miles and 75 traps to haul. Hauling by hand, wind and current and the pitch of the seas mean everything to the rhythm of the day. Each trap was 36 inches long, oak, weighted to sink with slabs of concrete poured into the bottom for ballast. When the traps were dry they were heavy, when they soaked up they were slimy, weed encrusted, monsters. The old timers watched me rowing around the islands. Sometimes they’d pull up along side and switch off their engine and sit on the stern and ask me how it was going.

    Jeezus Benjoy, ain’t afraid of work are you?

    Or

    How you finding them Benjy?

    Or

    I ‘magin you need an outboard old son.

    Maybe they figured I was a joke. Maybe they respected me starting out firmly at the bottom. Either way they let me be to fuck up all on my own.

    I learned a lot about currents and the rocks where the lobsters lurked, and how to store bait and a whole lot about persistence and by the fall I had some shoulders.

    When I got my first skiff and outboard late that fall, the old timers said it was about time.
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