Corey Wheeler Forrest gets up each morning at 4 a.m., packs lunches for her two children, resets the alarm clock so her husband will roll out on time and then drives to Sakonnet Point in Little Compton, R.I. By 6 o’clock she is aboard the 65-foot fishing boat Maria Mendonsa, steaming toward a floating fish trap, where she works alongside her father, two brothers and 10 or so other strong-backed men hauling fish nets — “pulling twine,” as it is called — from one of three specially built 30-foot aluminum double-enders.When the season is at its peak during the spring run, Forrest and the rest of the crew often find themselves working 60 or more consecutive days. “Unless it’s blowing a hurricane, we fish,” says Forrest, dressed in orange foul weather bibs and fishing boots, with a faded green fatigue cap over her two braids. She had recently taken a rare day off when her daughter “graduated” from nursery school.
Tough, physical work for anyone, but perhaps even more so for a 35-year-old mother of two, who in addition to pulling twine by hand each day also keeps track of the shipping and the paperwork the state requires. In May, when the crew is in the midst of a big run of scup, for instance, they might be back at the dock by 9:30 in the morning — and then spend the next nine hours packing and icing fish. And Forrest and the fish dealer are often the last two to leave. Once at home, there sometimes is more paperwork to be done electronically. Shut-eye is 9 p.m. To balance work and family, Forrest says, “It takes a village this time of year. And my mom helps a lot.”
The Wheeler family owns two of just a handful of companies that still operate floating fish traps in Rhode Island. From the late 1800s until the 1920s, more than 200 fish traps lined the shores of Narragansett Bay and the state’s south coast. Today, the Wheelers set five traps, two off Sakonnet Point and three off Newport. They basically work like large lobster traps, funneling fish from scup to striped bass to butterfish into a net parlor from which they can’t escape.
“I love it,” Forrest tells me as we make our way to the traps off Newport one morning in mid-June. “Every day is different. Fresh air. Physical activity. I don’t think I could have the patience to sit and do an office job.”
We are standing in the small pilothouse alongside her two brothers and Bella, a Portuguese water dog who barks at sportfishing boats that venture too close and sways gently on four of the surest sea legs you’ll find as the Maria Mendonsa rolls in the light swell (Bella: born in the breezes). “It’s such a unique fishery and so unique to Rhode Island,” Forrest says. “I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”
“You’re not qualified to,” her brother Miles, 29, shoots back good-naturedly, proving that no one escapes the teasing and banter on this crew.
“I’m an English major,” she says with a smile.
Forrest grew up in a fishing family. “We had fishermen on both sides of the family,” she says, “lobstermen, quahoggers, both sides. My grandfather worked until he was 87, until the day he died. My dad will be the same way.”
Patriarch Alan Wheeler has fished his entire life. “This year will be 55 years. I was 10 years old when I first made money off the water,” says Alan, a fit 65-year-old who his daughter says enjoys “extreme” sports, from mountain biking to skiing. He started by catching bay scallops from a little 14-foot scallop dredge powered by a 5-hp outboard. “I was just a kid,” he says. “My dad and mom did it. It was great.”
Oldest son Luke Wheeler, 38, who skippers the big boat, also grew up on the water. “I was coming before I could walk,” says Luke, a graduate of the Maine Maritime Academy. “My mom carried me.” By the time Luke Wheeler was in the sixth grade he was fishing weekends and summers with his father. The work is hard, he agrees, “but satisfying.”
Forrest’s career on the water began the summer before she entered college, when she was learning how to mend the nets. The trap crew was shorthanded one day, and she hopped on board. In those days, veteran fisherman George Mendonsa, who sold his Tallman & Mack fishing company to the Wheelers, was running the boat. At the beginning, Mendonsa was reluctant to let the 18-year-old college-bound woman fish from one of the smaller boats. He kept Forrest aboard the 65-footer until he got comfortable with her making the transition to a double-ender.
Forrest remembers clearly the day she fell between the Maria Mendonsa and one of the 30-footers in a large, rolling sea. She says 20 hands grabbed her in an instant and hauled her back on board.
“Did your boots fill up with water?” Mendonsa asked the waterlogged young crewmember.
“Yes,” she answered.
“Now,” he replied, “you’re a real fisherman.”
This column originally appeared in the August 2012 issue.