Before the early morning light breaches the horizon, the fisherman wakes. His or her dreams during the night undoubtedly were of family, friends and fish. Or in this case, lobster. When mud season lets go and spring arrives, Down East fishermen squirm with anticipation for a bountiful and safe season.
They get dressed, the smell of that last trip out still gripping their clothes as buttons are buttoned and zippers pulled taught. Thoughts of weather and the price of bait are steady. The persistent questions of ‘will the sternman be on time’ and ‘how many pounds will I get today’ are common.
After the last sip of coffee, it is off to the harbor. A beached skiff is tipped up to drain out a puddle of water. The old-timers would row out to their mooring but today most crank up a small outboard and putter out to a boat that is like a member of their family.
Down East harbors are like a thumbprint, each unique and one-of-a-kind experience; yet each still holds the same sights, smells and cantankerous orneriness that is a working harbor. The sounds made in the early morning hours are of diesel engines drumming, outboards gurgling, traps being loaded and of conversations. Pickup trucks line the parking lot with their headlights silently peering into morning fog and fishermen’s breath.
Lines are cast off and the day begins as the sun now pokes above the horizon. Captain and crew share the blue sea and sky with other fishing boats named for those they love and built to do a hard job day after day. On top of each boat is a colored buoy, signifying the owner and pointing straight ahead into the reach.
There is a rhythm to lobster fishing. Each fisherman has his or her own near-sacred routine, one probably handed down from generations long gone. The captain of a vessel is the decision maker, seeing and knowing all when it comes to a day on the water. At least that is what the sternman hopes. Trust between the two is paramount and never taken lightly.
Lobster boats are as common in the summer Down East as the gulls that float like halos above each one as it heads out into the bay. The water’s surface sprinkles the senses in colors not seen since Easter, with buoys to be found amidst the waves, traps opened and bounty revealed.
The drumming of the heavy diesel engines vibrates through each hull and fisherman as points of light flicker on their dashboards. The radio dances in conversation from boat to boat. The pot hauler swings back and forth with each wave. The captain’s eyes keep tabs on everything, glancing from sea to display screen, back and forth, reading the water, the sky and the weather. The points of light give way to painted buoys marking trap lines. Each buoy is nabbed by a hooked pole, its line placed into the hauler, the trap winched up onto the rail.
Then more routine: the trap is opened, bait bag removed, lobsters pulled out, measured, thrown back overboard or into a crate or bucket, their claws to be banded later. Each trap is cleaned, checked, and a fresh bait bag inserted. The boat circles, the captain picks a spot, the trap is pushed overboard and the line sinks down, buoy close behind. It repeats again and again.
The traps, up to 800 of them per fisherman, come to rest on the bottom with open ports and bait bags bulging with chopped herring, pogies, mackerel, cod, even salted pig hide, anything that will get the job done. The average trap measures three feet by four feet and weighs 45 pounds. Traps will be hauled back up usually every other day, with captain deciding when, where and how many will be dropped back. A captain is always thinking, whether on their boat or on dry land. Fishing is a lifestyle, rather than a job.
After a full day of hauling traps, they head back to shore. The sternman washes down boat and gear while the boat makes its return. The day’s haul will be unloaded, crated for wholesale, with some set aside for friends and family. The routine repeats through summer and into fall until it’s time to haul the boat out — as always, prompting thoughts of next season.
RJ Heller is a journalist, essayist, photographer, author, an avid reader and an award-winning book critic who enjoys sailing, hiking and other outdoor pursuits. He lives in Starboard Cove.