I have a theory that great fishing fortunes are founded on cheap fish because, my thinking goes, there are a lot of them around. A corollary, however, is that not all cheap fish beget fortunes. In my experience, this corollary was exemplified by whiting (among others), which I fished for in my deckhand days in the early 1970s.
Nonetheless, I found riches in the images and traditions of the fishery, which today speak to a way of life that is yielding to technology, politics, and other misguided forces.
If the magic of the fishery is lost to the ages, its value endures, and today’s whiting fishermen are trying to get some small-mesh areas in the Gulf of Maine open earlier in the year.
Even if they are successful, it will not be as I remember it.
In the summer of 1973, the Portland, Maine, waterfront was a forest of orange-masted side draggers, and dozens of them cast off mornings long before dawn and steamed for 90 minutes or so to bottom known as Richmond Island, for the nearby island off Cape Elizabeth.
The skippers arranged their boats around the tow and waited for the sun to rise and send the whiting to the bottom while they watched on their fish finders. Such was the camaraderie in those days that no one set out until all the fish had settled. This was a one-tow-a-day fishery; the fleet broke up the schools and sent the fish up the water column, safely out of reach of our two-seam Yankee nets. You got ’em first set or you didn’t get ’em.
On the Minkette, which I fished with the implacable Lester Orcutt, the sideband AM radio would crackle to life and someone would say, “They’re still up over here.” Everyone recognized the voice and could see the speaker’s boat. Lester might nod in some direction and say. “Tut says they haven’t settled yet.”
A minute or two later Lester would come out on deck and we’d throw the belly rollers over. The rest of the net was already in the water. He’d go back in the wheelhouse and I’d run the net off the winch. Around us, 30 or 40 eastern-rig draggers would be in clockwise turns as the ground tackle spooled off the starboard side. Then we’d hook up the trawl doors and away we’d go; us and everybody else. Any way you turned, doors were flying off circling draggers and black smoke was pouring out of stacks. It was tight quarters, one boat passing another’s bow while a third one crossed the first one’s stern. The ocean was a maelstrom of prop wash.
Somehow it all worked, and in two hours or we’d spot someone side-to, hauling back. In an instant, it seemed, everyone was hauling back, and the race to the dock was on. The limit was 10,000 pounds per boat – set by the fish house, not the federales, because it was all they could handle with so many boats. If we were near the front of the line we were unloaded by noon; if we had gear problems or otherwise got screwed up and were among the last boats in it might be 6 or even 7 p.m. before I got home. I learned to play cribbage sitting around the dock on summer afternoons with other deckhands waiting to unload.
We got a nickel for the whiting, of which the lumpers who unloaded us split a penny, so the boat got $400 or so a trip. Lester didn’t take a captain’s share, so I was making about $100 a day, which in 1973 was indeed a fortune to a 20-year-old knucklehead. The 10,000-pound sets that characterized our days were the most automatic fishing I’ve ever seen. One time we came up short – as I recall, the bull rope had gotten around the twine setting out, and we lost a bag. As luck would have it, Carl Smith on the Li Lo had an extra bag. He steamed over and we took it aboard.
We let him beat us to the dock.