Maine Lobster Fishing 101
Here on the coast of Maine, Lobster fishing is king. It’s what we do.
The area around Penobscot Bay, where we call home is host to the richest lobster bottom on the entire east coast. Gettin’ the bugs off the bottom is more work than most folks know or can imagine. I’m gonna try to paint you a picture.
Those who work the water come in all sizes and ages. There’s the kids with a recreational license (5 traps) or a student license (10, 50 or 150 traps depending on the age of the student) guided by a lobster fishing parent or grandparent (or both) to the seasoned octagenarian with an 800 trap license and sea water in his veins who can’t imagine putting himself ashore for retirement-evah. Going out with his boots on would be far preferable!
For these lobster fishermen, (the term fisherman applies to women as well as men, I’ve never heard any self respectin’ woman who fishes for lobster call herself a fisher woman!) the sea is their home. They are accutely attuned to Mother Nature and her often times, bitchy moods. They can read the sky and the tide. They know the depth and temperature of the water. They know the ocean bottom, the location of every boulder, ledge and crag (where lobsters like to tuck into) like you know the roads in your neighborhood. They set their traps as near these underwater landmarks as possible to entice lobsters into the traps with the alluring scent of fresh herring.
These men and women have weather worn faces that lend a crusty exterior but, inside their chests beats a heart that would help a fellow fisherman in trouble on the water, whether friend or foe, anytime and without question. They are a proud lot who make their living with their hands and their backs in what can be some of the harshest conditions and they would never want it any other way. I feel privelidged to count myself among them.
There’s all kinds. Big boats, little boats, inboard motors, outboard motors, fiberglass boats and wooden boats. There’s the lower budget, incredibly back breaking 1-man operation of hauling by hand out of a small skiff to the Mac Daddy, brandy new, all-the-bells-and-whistles powerhouse with a crew of 3 complete with a matching Mac Daddy boat payment and big ass fuel bill!
As for the Lobster Guy, his choice is a 38 ft. wooden boat built in 1964 by Beals Island boat builder, Harold Gower. Gower built some 111 boats during his career and the Lobster Guy is proud to own one of em. He was sternman on the “Shockwave” when it was brand new and bought it from its former captain in 1979 and has been fishing it ever since. What’s a sternman? I’ll get to that.
Back in the day wooden traps were used. These slatted, rounded end traps with hand knitted heads were awesomely heavy for their size. They were relatively small and soaked up water. This made for a small catch area compared to the “high and wides” most fishermen use today. No one hand knits heads anymore either, they are all machine made, but most of the older generation remember knitting their own or had wives who knitted with them and still have the tools. I can imagine a shop (think small building with a shed style or peaked roof-nearly all fishermen have them for gear work) with a few stools, a roaring woodstove and a fisherman and his wife knitting heads for some newly built traps to the sounds of crackling from the stove while drinking strong coffee from a beat up cup, contemplating a suppah of stew and biscuits. The picture makes me want to hug myself.
Modern traps are made of plastic coated heavy wire and come in all kinds of colors. The Lobster Guy likes the yellow ones-says they fish the best. So…we have yellow ones.
Gear maintenence is a constant but the spring is when the traps are cleared of all accumulated barnacles, fresh hog rings go on the escape vents, new trap tags are attached, runners are checked and replaced if needed and the buoys all get a coat of fresh paint. For those of you who don’t know a hog ring from a trap tag to a runner-here’s the skinny.
Hog rings are made of iron and are used to secure the escape vents on traps. Escape vents allow undersize lobsters to get in and out of the trap. In the event that a trap gets cut off by a passing boat propeller or by some other means and ends up lost on the bottom, the iron hog rings rust out so the trap can not continue to catch “counter” or “oversize” lobsters that would not be harvested. These rust out very quickly and any lobster fisherman has spare hog rings and the pliers used to attach them onboard to replace them as needed. This is something that is checked each time a trap is hauled.
Trap tags are required to be in each and every trap fished. They have the license number of the fisherman and must be replaced each year. The Department of Marine Resources currently charges 50 cents apiece for these little beauties, so a fisherman with 800 traps (the legal limit) will put out $400 for these brightly colored, glorified zip ties. The color is changed every year so a patrolling DMR boat checking up on fishermen can see from his binoculars that the proper color tag is attached.
Runners are strips of wood that run the length of the bottom of the trap on both sides so the trap can be pulled up onto the boat smoothly without causing damage and slid easily down the rail of the boat. The rail is about a foot or so wide and where the trap sits while it is picked and baited and then reset. So there, now you know about hog rings, trap tags and runners.
When a lobster fisherman applies for a license he needs to describe his buoy colors and have one displayed on his boat so the DMR can be sure that the fisherman is hauling only buoys bearing his colors. There is a stiff fine if caught hauling another boats gear, and then there’s the wrath of the offended fisherman if he gets wind of it.
I’ve seen some mighty interestin’ bouy paint jobs. Most fishermen try and keep it simple-2 colors or so. Makes for an easy paint job. But you know how it is, there’s always one or two that gotta get sassy with their colors. Maybe half red, half yellow with a pink stripe or nose to butt stripes of 3 colors, I guess it just depends on how much you like to paint buoys and how much time you have on your hands. The Lobster Guys colors are half lemon yellow and half baby blue….easy peasy.
The ropes on the traps also require some attention. They can accumulate algae and other forms of sea growth making them heavy and very messy when put between the plates of the pot hauler. Most fishermen have dip barrels on their boats. A dip barrel is a 50 gallon plastic drum that has had about a third of the top removed. It is filled about a third full with sea water which is heated by a coil placed in the barrel. The coil is the boats equivalent to a cars radiator which circulates hot water through a coil of stainless pipes. The water gets hot enough for steam to rise and the ropes are thrown in the barrel while the trap is being picked. The hot water kills the growth. Bam, clean ropes.
It’s also kinda handy for throwin’ in a can of soup in the mornin’ to warm in time for lunch or standin’ in to warm you through your boots on a chilly day.
Here’s a day in the life as I knew it when I was sternin’ for the Lobster Guy. Oh, and here’s where you learn what a sternman is.
Get up at the crack ass, make coffee plus extra for the thermos, get breakfast and pack a lunch-some of this stermans duties. Dress in layers cuz yah never know. Head down to the dock and hop in the skiff to row out to the “Shockwave”. Usually, the rowing of the skiff is the sternmans job but not this sternman. I proved to be less than proficient with a pair of oars so the Lobster Guy always does the rowing. Fine with me.
We climb aboard the boat and pull on oil pants. From this point forward I will refer to the Lobster Guy as the Captain. I get myself situated while the Captain starts the engine and warms it to a temperature he deems satisfactory. He walks up the side of the boat, gaffs the mooring rope and unhooks us. We slide away to our trap hauling destination for the day. Traps are hauled on a rotation. We have several areas where we have set traps and where we are in the rotation dictates where the days haul will be.
We could be heading “up above” which is Captain speak for above Kimballs Head, to the north of the western tip of Kimball Island that lies just across the Isle au Haut thorofare. Or maybe we’ll head “down below” which is exactly the other direction just described. If we’re headed that way I usually know in advance, because I ask. Why? Because that’s my least fav rotation. It faces a big section of open ocean and has a tendency to be “swelly”. Big, sloooooow rolling waves and that kinda sea makes me feel like crap. If it was our day to head there and it was foggy, well then I knew I was in for a double whammy.
Which leads me back to what exactly a sternman does. He (or she!) is responsible for baiting pockets-mesh bags with a drawstring top that are either tied into or impaled onto a metal shaft inside the trap. These bags are filled with herring-ambrosia to the lobster. And there’s a lot of em. Each one packed full of the oily fish with my dainty digits.
I am also responsible for picking one of the traps while the Captain picks the the other one. We fish pairs, which means under each buoy there’s 2 traps connected to each other by a rope called a trailer. 10 traps/5 buoys make up a string. On any given day we’d haul around 200 traps or 20 strings.
In addition to picking traps I am responsible for banding all the lobsters, a task done with a tool called a bander. The lobsters are taken from the trap and put into a sectioned box to keep them from biting each other – they’re feisty little devils! While the Captain is heading to the next buoy I get busy banding the freshly caught lobsters and toss em into the holding tank. A large tank with circulating seawater keeps the lobsters alive and fresh until we get back to the mooring.
So, we’re headed down below and the bait may be a day old which increases the frangrance factor. A sea is on-the damn rollers-and the fog is in. If your a person prone to motion or sea sickness, it’s said keeping your eyes on the horizon as much as possible can help. When there’s fog, there’s no horizon to focus on.
My head is down and my hands work a 100 pound box of bait while the sea lifts and lowers us in a most stomach-wrenching way.
Occasional wafts of diesel fuel from the exhaust mix with the pungent aroma of bait and I’m in hell. To top it off, my dear Captain glances my way and says ever so sweetly, “how ya doin, honey”. I wanna rip his face off. He knows I hate the feeling of sea sickness and I’ll do anything to not re-live my breakfast. He gallantly makes his way to a spit of land-the last piece of land before the big bad ocean-called Western Ear and tells me to jump off. I do….gratefully. I walk around on terra firma for 10 or so minutes to get my legs back under me and quell my turning stomach. My Captain bobs around in the boat, munching a sandwich while he waits. The nausea passes and I jump back aboard. I manage to get through the days haul without hurling.
The ride back to the harbor is boat cleaning time. The hose that circulates the water in the lobster holding tank is pulled and armed with a bucket, scrub brush and a bottle of Dawn I commence to cleanin’. It takes me most of the ride to get er spit shined and we sidle up to the mooring. The Captain gaffs the mooring buoy and puts us back on the hook. By this time the tank holding the lobsters has drained and we can unload the lobsters into crates to float behind the boat until we have a large enough load to head uptown to Stonington to sell. Stonington is the jumping off point to get to Isle au Haut and where all local fisherman unload their catch and take on fuel and bait so they can start the whole process over in the morning.
This page is a work in progress and I will add more Lobster tales-pun intended-as I have time. Thanks so much for reading!