Lobster Fishing May 2012-06-03
After sailing the Eastern Seaboard from New York to Newfoundland for many years, I’ve become pretty proficient at dodging Lobster Pots in their many configurations whether singly or strung in pairs like clothes lines. In Maine’s high season, there are more lobster pots than stars in the sky. Boothbay Harbor looks like they have decorated it for Christmas and a folding prop and enough wind to sail is your ONLY hope of passage without becoming ensnared. Some cruisers merely curse the mine-fields. Others take a more aggressive stance and install “cutters” to their props. We just keep a “sharp look-out” and steer a slalom course around them. I can’t bring myself to cut the floats and thereby someone’s livelihood and can’t even curse an activity that brings me so much joy – because I do love lobster!!
We’ve seen hundreds of lobster fishermen over the years, waved and occasionally even been lucky enough to find one willing to sell us a few as we passed by. But it wasn’t until this spring as we approached Nova Scotia that I set my mind to actually “go a lobsterin” this year. The 200 miles from Cape Cod to the Southern tip of Nova Scotia had taken us 30 long hours. It was still May; the air was too cold for fog and the wind light enough that we had to motor-sail. With 50 miles to go, we were cold and tired. We were approaching Cape Sable Island fighting 2-3 knots of tide flooding the Bay of Fundy when a 40 ft Lobster Boat fell in behind us then actually chased us!! Oh, Oh I thought. I hope we haven’t run over their float or damaged something. Better slow down.
As they came along-side, there was no communication but one of the younger fellows climbed up onto the foredeck. They came close and he proceeded to toss 2 lobsters to me (now on deck) and 2 more into the cockpit. “Here’s sumthin for yer supper” he said with a smile that spread from ear to ear. “What do I owe you?” I asked and he replied “Not a thing – Welcome to Nova Scotia!!”
Well, we’ve covered over 50,000 miles and never had a more heartwarming welcome anywhere in our travels. So we cooked the lobsters immediately eating only the legs as I put away the claws, tails and bodies for later to celebrate our arrival in Shelburne. At 1am the next morning, we finally dropped anchor and pounced on our treasures. What a feast!! Next morning, I set out on a mission to find a lobsterman who would take on a sixty-something “upper Canadian” to help bring in a day’s catch. Fortunately, we have a lot of good friends in Shelburne and Kenny was able to coerce his youngest son, Ben, to take me out to show me just what a day in the life of a lobsterman is really like.
Like most cruisers, our day normally begins when the sun comes up. I know that farmers begin well before that and the guys at Tim Hortons are even earlier but this is ridiculous!! Our day was to begin at 02:30 to be at the boat and underway by 03:00!! So there I was, decked out in my “yachty” floater coat, red foul-weather overalls and yellow deck boots trekking down the wharf along with the rough & tumble fishermen. Good thing it was still so dark!
The Heat Seeker is a sturdy looking, no-nonsense 40 footer with a small wheel house behind a 6 or 8 ft deck. The aft 25 feet is wide open with a drop-down transom like a pick-up truck. The port side was lined by an aluminum framework about 2 meters tall with a riding sail at the stern, while the starboard side was wide open except for a dangling pulley swinging above a large, ominous looking wheel. The cabin-top held radar, a cluster of antennae and the dry engine exhaust pipe which was warming up as soon as we arrived.
In the pilothouse it was all business and no creature comforts. Although she had 3 big flat-screen displays for charts, 3 vhf radios, a satellite phone and state-of-the-art radar, the bare 2x4 framework and unfinished fiberglass only had tacked-up photographs of wives and children for décor. Below decks, it resembled a teenager’s bedroom with foul weather gear, floats, coiled line, cases of water, pop and cleaner stacked atop coolers of bait and other gear. Aside from the helm, the cabin was packed with lobster crates, banding materials and boxes of frozen herring and mackerel. The captain had a stool. I’d soon discover why there was no need for others.
Heat Seeker was shoe-horned into a corner of the small boat harbour along with 20 or so similar boats so after releasing half a dozen lines, Ben slid her free of the harbour and into the larger Shelburne Harbour. A light fog clung to the sea as a gentle swell rolled in from the South East. Wind was still very light and with any luck would remain that way for the duration of our day. My job for now was to fill “bait bags” with frozen herring and mackerel. I was fortunate since for part of the year they use “fresh” bait that has been sitting and decomposing for a while. Frozen suited me just fine, thank you. Captain Ben checked out the instruments and records of trap locations while Curtis and I stuffed bags with fish. “Once we’re landing pots, there’ll be no time for this," he explained and I’d soon find out he was right.
It was almost 04:00 when we arrived at the first set of traps identified by a single or double float at each end of a string of 10 traps. Ben had marked each of these on the GPS but locating them in the fog and sea still requires sharp eyes and then bringing the boat alongside takes some deft maneuvering skills.
Curtis would catch the float with a long gaff hook and pass the line to Ben who would haul in enough to wrap around the “wheel” a big high speed winch that hauls in the traps. My next job was to scrub moss and algae off the floats in a big tub of cleaner while Ben and Curtis boated the traps. Our first trap had about 12 lobsters in it! "Great!" I thought, then watched as they threw back 6 undersized ones, 2 females with eggs, and 1“soft-shell” that had just molted. Oh well, at least there are 3 good ones. Not yet! Ben measured each of them to ensure the carapace (body shell) was over 3” long. One more went back over the side. The rest of that string was the more or less the same with a net “keep” of 1 or 2 lobsters per trap.
All the while, the wheel kept spinning trap after trap on-board, lobsters were removed, bait bags switched for fresh ones and the traps lined up on the stern with line carefully strung out. When the last trap was landed, rebaited and stacked and the floats scrubbed clean, I was told to stand clear, the last float and trap was tossed overboard as the boat accelerated. The line went taut pulling out the next trap and the next then the next till they had all flown off the open stern.
Time for a break? Not likely! Next job was to “band” the lobsters’ claws. Fifteen lobsters had backed down into a box of 4” PVC pipe leaving nothing exposed but their claws folded sweetly as if in prayer.
It was then easy work to pick them up with one hand take a pair of banding pliers with the other hand and then stretch a rubber band over the clips with the other hand. Did you notice that 3 hands are required for this job? Once the band is in place a flick of the wrist retrieves the pliers and it’s on to the next except that by number ten we’d arrived at the next string. In comes the float (I start scrubbing), the lobsters are sorted, I stuff bait bags, the pots are lined up then zoom, zoom, zoom off they go to the bottom again for another day. By string number 8, I was getting the hang of things and could almost keep up with the routine, leave room for the incoming lobsters in the PVC box and stay out of the way of the wheel, the floats and the flying traps as they shot out the stern. I was sweaty, wet and covered with bait fish and cleaner but feeling pretty good about my future in the fishery. “How many more do we have?” I asked. “Well”, Curtis replied, “We’ve landed 80 so there’s only 318 to go!” THREE HUNDRED AND EIGHTEEN?!! What was he thinking? What am I doing out here? Maeve’s still sleeping in our warm bed and I’m out here up to the elbows in dead fish, cleaner or lobsters. Am I crazy? “If the weather holds, we should be home by dinner time” he added noticing my look of dismay. I guess that’s why they have to start work at 3 AM.
But having asked for the ride, I was NOT going to admit that this old guy was soft or that Upper Canadians couldn’t take the work, not me. So we kept hauling, stuffing, scrubbing and banding then getting clear as the traps flew off the stern dragging miles of line behind them. I’d brought a sandwich and some apples but there was never time for more than an occasional swig from my water bottle and it was now abundantly clear why nobody but the captain had a seat.
But by 10 o’clock, the fog had lifted, the sun was shining and I could actually see enough of the shore to figure out where we were. By noon Ben announced that we were down to the last 40 or so – the Home stretch!! I knew that I was going to make it. Although my eye was watering badly from taking a splash of cleaner while slopping around in the vat and my right hand was swollen up like a boxing glove from banding. They’d never know what a wimp I was.
What a day!! Thirteen hours of non-stop slugging in smelly, sloppy and potentially pretty dangerous conditions on a cold, foggy ocean that fortunately was benign on this particular day. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat!! Or I would if the season wasn’t over in 2 days and if I can ever get my hand back into a glove. Yes, I hope to get out again next year but would I do it for a living? Well, that’s another kettle of fish. I have gained a whole new respect for fishermen and for the investment, the skills and the labour that go into the seafood that we take for granted. It was good to see that the sustainability of the fishery is a prime consideration and that the number of “berried” females and immature lobsters bodes well for the future but I have to tell you that the next guy who complains that lobster is too expensive had better not be in range of my new “boxing glove” right hand.
Finally at 14:17 (but who was watching the clock?), we had hauled and reset the last of the traps and were headed home. We had a respectable catch and fortunately, the price wasn’t too bad this spring (around $5/lb). Time for a break? Not yet. They had a couple of dozen floats down below that needed a “quick scrub” while we had the vat full of cleaner and that lasted all the way to the harbour. I looked up just as we were approaching the jib-crane where a buyer waited in his pickup to relieve us of the catch. We tied up and gave the boat a good scrubbing then wash-down with the high pressure hose onboard. I was part of the cleanup to get my “yachty” gear clean before heading home.
The photos in this article were, in fact, taken on a subsequent fishing trip this winter at the beginning of December. Ben had a bigger boat “Still Kickin”. The weather was similar but with half the daylight hours. We brought in over twice the catch which took us over 16 hours but the price was down to $3.25 a pound! By March, the price was up a bit, the catches were lower but they we travelling 60 miles off-shore to find them and the weather was terrible. Such is the life of a lobsterman.