Throwing a pole at a fish, a harpoon, in today’s high-tech world of bots and microchips, sounds kinda past tense, and well, very old. It is one of the oldest and most primitive methods to harvest fish. But it has survived, and a handful of fishermen in New England still call themselves harpooners.
The bluefin tuna, the most prized, expensive fish swimming in our oceans, are still harvested with hand-thrown harpoons. Corky Decker takes us back through the history of this unique fishery from the very first catch known to be harpooned in modern times to what the fishery has become. Fish stories, oh yeah, plenty of those, but the descriptions of how these fish are pursued, and the passion of the men who chase them is unprecedented.
The bluefin tuna is warm-blooded, extremely smart, long-living and a highly migratory species. They adapt to their changing environment, altering their patterns and behavior in response to fishing pressure. They avoid dangerous areas, the boats and men that mean them harm.
“Harpoon” is vivid history of a fishery few people even know exists. Decker takes the reader out on the pulpit, looking into the blue-green waters of the North Atlantic ocean searching for the black backs of the bluefin. “Harpoon” tells the tale of the men of old, the great harpooners of yesterday, and the fishermen of today who try to follow in those footsteps — the iron-men, the stick boats, the harpooners.
Decker tells a captivating true story with a collection of photographs that paint the picture of a time never forgotten, and lived on by a handful of fishermen who still aim the dart.
Corky Decker and helmsman Ricky Thurlow spear a tuna in Murray Basin on Georges Bank in July 2017.
Chapter 8, Carl McIntire
Every so often someone is born in this world who makes a real difference in the lives of many people. Carl McIntire was one of these people. Like Orlando Wallace, Carl was born and raised in Small Point, Maine. A hundred years ago there were three families in Small Point — the Wallaces, the Gilliams, and the McIntires — who started it all. Orlando Wallace, Oscar Gilliam and Carl McIntire are the forefathers of all bluefin harpoon fishermen today.
Orlando passed on what he knew to Carl, and Carl passed it on to me and countless others. He gave so many of us a simple but amazing gift: He took us fishing.
Carl McIntire was born in 1916, one of two brothers born to Raymond McIntire, a merchant marine officer. Raymond would only sail as mate, because he made almost the same amount of money as the captain, but did not have to shoulder the full responsibility of the ship. Gone to sea for extended periods of time, Raymond left his two sons, Carl and Herbert, in charge of the household chores and helping their mother. At a very early age, the two brothers went lobstering. In the summers, they were harpooners, and they learned the art from Orlando Wallace.
As Carl came of age in the 1930s, the harpooners of Small Point fine-tuned their technique. They fitted their open deck lobster boats with short masts topped with a crow’s nest so they could see the fish better. When lobster boats with a small house were introduced, they stood on the roof.
Harpooning was not difficult. The fish were easy to approach and to iron. Orlando developed the device of the “flag end,” a bamboo pole attached to a weighted buoy, with a bright colored flags tied to the high end. The flag end marked a line that had a captured fish. When the fish were thick in numbers, the Small Point men would have thirty or forty flags going before they hauled the giants in.
It was not a lucrative business. When shipped to the Boston market, the tuna fish sold for just a few cents a pound. The bluefin were sometimes smoked and canned. Early on, their oil was used in lamps. But most often the fish were ground up for pet food and fertilizers. The Small Point harpooners made up for the low price with a large volume of fish. Some of the tuna they brought in weighed up to a thousand pounds each. Life was good in Small Point. By the end of the 1930s, the Great Depression was ending, new boats were being built, and most everyone was prospering. The war raging over in Europe was thousands of miles away, and it felt like it. But when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, everything changed.
Raymond McIntire was assigned to work on the Liberty ships, transporting men and war material to Europe. Herbie McIntire joined the Navy. The price of bluefin went up to ten cents a pound, as tuna was suddenly in demand to feed the American soldiers heading off to Europe and Asia. In addition, commercial fishermen served as a home defense force, keeping an eye on coastal waters for foreign intruders.
The war didn’t stop Carl McIntire from harpooning or taking young people out on his boat. Once the war got going in Europe, the only bodies available were children. So in the summer of 1942, Carl had room on his brand new boat, the Priscilla Cameron, for fourteen-year-old Merle Gilliam, son of his neighbor Oscar. Full of teenage rebellion, Merle jumped from his father’s boat to fish with Carl in the summer of 1942. They caught forty-four fish.
Unfortunately, his dad landed more than a hundred. That winter, young Merle hounded his father to let him back on the boat. Dad let the message soak in — the grass isn’t always greener, and all that — but he let him come him back. With the war in full swing, young Merle Gilliam started making real money.
In 1944 Oscar paid him ten percent of the value of every bluefin they caught, which averaged out to about five dollars per fish, a hell of a lot of dough for a teenager in those days. They landed 110 fish that summer.
The next summer, the fish returned to Small Point in even larger numbers. After they had some luck in June, Merle told his dad he had heard one of their neighbors, Norm Bracket, a seine fisherman, had tried harpooning near Seal Island and missed twenty-eight times. Norm was lousy with a harpoon, but it sounded like he had found a huge school. Soon the Gilliamses’ boat, Mina B, was steaming at top speed for Seal Island. They found tuna swarming in big clusters with fifty or more fish in each herd.
Oscar and Merle chased fish till darkness fell. When the last one hit the deck, the wooden rails of Mina B were almost level with the bloody water around them. They had boated twelve fish, all of them monsters; a 600-pound fish was one of the smaller ones. That was the most bluefin anyone had ever caught in one day, a record that was destined to be broken.
Back at the dock, Oscar Gilliam sold 4,400 pounds of dressed out tuna at twelve cents a pound. He wound up with 550 dollars cash in his hand. It was the most money Merle had ever seen in his life. His dad peeled off a fifty-dollar bill and handed it him. Merle stared at that fifty for a minute while doing the math.
Then he held his hand out to his father for the five dollars still owed. Merle knew what he was going to do. He was going to buy his own boat.