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  • The other night we had a potluck supper at the house. In the candlelight round the table GG and I got to talking about fishing.

    That morning there was one dragger towing lonely runs between the islands, churning the bottom and leaving behind a stain of murky water to drift away in the tide. I asked if he was towing for sea cucumbers.

    That’s right Ben, said GG. Seems there’s a fellow Down East who runs several boats. They drag for sea cucumbers, set trawls of tubs for slime eels stuff like that.

    You remember the slime eels don’t you Ben, he asked? They give the gill netters hell back in the 70s.

    I do remember.

    I was a teenager in the 70s and back then there were all kinds of fish in the Gulf of Maine.

    Back then the gill netters set out each morning long before the summer sun to haul back. They needed to give the nets long enough to fish so they would have a catch but so long that the slime eels got to the fish entangled in the nets. Slime eels would go right through a set of gill nets and leave just skin and bones. We'd see the fleet bustling in to sell their catch at the wharf in the late afternoons, their sterns low in the water and clouds of gulls trailing after them as they cleaned the catch on the run in.

    Back then my Father arrived on the island ready to fish. He shed his professor persona. Ditched the jackets and pipe for stained chinos, checked wool shirts and cigarettes he rolled one handed out of a bread bag of loose tobacco.

    He made his own rods in the winters. He had a fire pit out back where he melted scrap lead and poured the slow flowing silvery metal into molds to make sinkers. In the little alcove at the top of the stairs his charts are stacked with his crabbed pencil marked compass headings and sight lines.

    In the early morning we’d run out to fish the ledges and shoals offshore for cod. We’d bring back tubs of fish and he’d turn the big cast iron sink into a bloody mess cleaning and filleting the catch. Us kids would be sent around the island with packets of fresh fish to distribute.

    In the evenings we’d go out for mackerel. One year there were shoals of fish between the islands and we caught them 4 and 5 to a time on rigs with multiple hooks called mackerel trees. When the fish struck, the boat would be wild with frenzied kids and fish. My Father made a smokehouse and brined the mackerel fillets and then smoked them over an apple wood fire. Again, us kids would be sent around the island with packets of smoked fish to distribute.

    One year, I rigged a small halibut trawl. We set it on the slack tide one evening along the edge of a shoal where the tide ran. I was lobstering then and was out hauling my traps the next morning. My Father hauled the trawl back with my brothers. In the picture my Father bends to lift the fish, squinting up through the smoke from the pipe clenched in his teeth. He is all grin. My little brother, just 5, looks on. The halibut is big enough for him to hide behind.

    We never caught another halibut. The cod stocks collapsed by the early 80s. Now the last few trawlers are towing for the bottom of the food chain and sending the catch to Japan. I didn’t know it then but those days fishing with my Father were a high water mark.

    So often I walk the shores and see the marks of high waters come and gone. So often we don’t realize the quality of a time until it has receded. My days fishing with my Father left me with many of the ideas and skills I treasure now. When I tie a knot, scan the horizon, watch the water foam over ledges and rocks. When I wake in the night and hear the mid channel buoy clang in the tidal chop between the lighthouse and the island I am with my Father and smell his pipe or the harsh tobacco of his lumpy cigarettes and see him squint at sea and wind and sun and feel the fierce joy of the catch out on the restless sea.
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