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A working winter

A New England lobsterman recalls a frigid Januarymorning hauling the pots

Today begins the same way as yesterday only colder. It is so cold in fact that I must scrape the frost off our bedroom window before I can see by the lights of Woods Hole, Mass., the little white sailboat moored in Eel Pond that I use for a weather vane.

At 5 o’clock on this January morning my weather vane’s bow is pointing into the north while gusts of wind send her dancing around her mooring. Goddamnit! I sat out yesterday waiting for the light easterly that the forecasters have been predicting for the past two days, and I can’t afford to wait much longer. Until this northerly does let up though, more than half my pots are going to be on a lee shore and the devil to get at, particularly since I’ve set in tight to the beach to catch the last of the late-shedding lobsters who are now emerging in their shiny new shells from the security of the rocks.

Why not just go back to bed? I am powerfully tempted to do just that, but conscience prevails and I decide instead to pull what few pots I can get to in this miserable weather. We need the money.

First breakfast. Much of a lobsterman’s life is spent trying to refine the steps in an endlessly repetitive process, and in my case this effort extends to the kitchen. My goal is robotlike efficiency, and to this end I have developed an unvarying ritual that I can almost do in my sleep, which is how I usually do it. First I put the dog out and bring the firewood in. Then I stoke up the wood stove in the living room and rush from there into the kitchen juggling a burning ember that I use to light the gas range. In this way I am spared from having to look for the matches that my wife, an enemy of rituals, never puts away in the same place twice.

Next is supposed to come the bacon, but today my rhythm is interrupted by the dog, Patrick, who has tipped over the garbage. So I spend five evil-tempered minutes swabbing up a slurry of barbecue sauce and coleslaw. Nowhere in this mess are there any vestiges of last night’s chicken, and I fear the worst because the second half of Patrick’s chicken-bone eating act is usually to vomit in the study.

I decide I will not look in the study, returning to my interrupted ritual. Fill the kettle, start the bacon. Make the juice, flip the bacon. Measure out the coffee, drain the bacon. Start the eggs, get out the jam. But I can’t find the damn jam, and my ritual again collapses. By the time I locate it my eggs are burning and so am I. This day has not begun well.

It is now nearly 5:30, and I am way behind schedule. Nonetheless, I take time enough to pack away the enormous breakfast that I need to keep warm on the water in winter. By 5:45 I have on my foul-weather gear and am headed out the door when my conscience again gets the better of me. I check the study and my fears are confirmed. So I lose another five minutes cleaning up this even more horrible mess.

When I finally do get outside there is just light enough in the east to reveal low clouds, which bring with them the smell of snow. Here and there lights are on around the village, and somewhere a dog is barking, but by and large I’ve still got the world pretty much to myself. This is my favorite time of day.

That smell

The truck starts reluctantly, and I drive across the grass to where I keep my barrels of salted herring hidden in the thicket of privet that stands on our property line. I am a recent convert to salted bait. Until last fall I followed the more common practice among lobstermen around here, which is to pick up the filleted carcasses (“racks” as we call them) of cod or flounder from the local fish wholesaler, who gives us bait as long as we sell him our catch in return. The problem with this arrangement, apart from having to accept whatever price he pays us, is logistics. Rotting cod will gag a hog, so if you pick up a load and can’t get out to use it for a couple of days, you are likely to start hearing from your neighbors. Salted bait is not without problems of its own, not the least of which is that it costs $35 a barrel and I have to drive all the way to Fall River to get it. But I’m still better off, because now I can keep it on hand for when I need it. I don’t know how it will behave when the weather warms up. There may yet be complaints from next door. We shall see.

Lord knows, it is cold enough now to keep anything from smelling. My breath smokes and the herring flash in the truck lights as I fork them from the barrel into the plastic hampers we call “totes.” Patrick returns from banishment to lurk in the shadows, hoping to snag a stray herring. I chastise him again for his sins, whereupon he makes a great show of groveling contrition, then seizes a fish and flees.

By 6 o’clock I can see well enough to make out that all the mooring floats in the pond are wearing hats of ice, and I am reminded that I am pushing the season. I did the same thing last winter and ended up spending more money replacing lost gear than I made fishing. If this cold spell lasts much longer, this year may be a repeat of the last.

Patrick reappears to look on with sad eyes as I drive off for the pier. He used to be my stern man until an accident left him too crippled to spend long days pounding around in a boat. I miss him. We used to have long, although admittedly one-sided, conversations. Now I am reduced to talking to the lobsters.

My boat is tied up at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution dock, where I moved her last night so as not to get caught on the wrong side of the Eel Pond drawbridge, which doesn’t open until 8 o’clock. The Frannie Cahoon is a 30-foot Beals Island boat named after an old family friend who is as kind and forgiving as is my boat. Frannie (the boat) is old-fashioned by today’s standards, but she’ll turn on a dime and there aren’t many boats on Buzzards Bay as handy as she is for fishing close in among the rocks. This morning I find her wearing a bib of ice.

By the time I’ve lugged a couple hundred pounds of bait and 30 gallons of fuel from the truck to the boat, I am sweating. With all the clothes I am wearing, the only place left to vent off heat is through the top of my head, so I take off my wooly hat to cool down. In winter my hat becomes my thermostat. By putting it on or taking it off depending on how much heat I’m generating, I can stay fairly comfortable, even on days like this.

Except for my hands. Gloves with enough insulation to be of much use are too bulky to work with. Even the rubber ones I do wear are so awkward I must take them off to reconnect the water hoses on the boat that I drain every night to prevent from freezing. By the time this job is done my hands are smarting, and stuffing them back into cold rubber gloves only seems to make matters worse.

To the pots

Frannie erupts into life with a great cloud of white exhaust. I throw off the lines, back out of the slip, and head for the bay. In Woods Hole the current running hard against the wind sets up some impressive standing waves, and we bounce around a bit going through them. I’m glad I didn’t bring Patrick.

My first pot today is over by the Hadley’s Rock buoy, and I have so much trouble finding its faded red and yellow float in the early morning light that I am nearly on top if it before I spot it, garlanded with seaweed and nearly pulled under by the roaring ebb tide. I swing Frannie around into the current, unconsciously factoring in the vectors created by wind and moving water as I steer to bring the float up along our starboard side. At the moment I lose sight of it under the flare of the bow, I spin the wheel hard right with one hand and grab the boat hook with the other. If I’ve timed it right, this should put the float beside me as the boat spins around it.

Here it comes, and now begins another often repeated ritual. Left hand sweeps up the float with the boat hook. Right hand grabs the warp while left hand drops the boat hook back into its holder and then straightens the wheel up a bit to compensate for the current. Right hand flips tow warp over the snatch block and around the pot-hauler sheave. Left hand engages the hauler lever and then both hands take a break while the warp snakes wetly off the sheave into a coil on deck.

The hauler gains speed as its hydraulic oil warms up, and the pot comes hissing up to the davit. Now left hand disengages the hauler and snaps the warp off the sheave while right hand swings the pot onto the culling board, being careful in the process not to shear off any legs or claws that hang through the bottom of the wire mesh pot.

What’ve we got? Two shorts, one egger, and one that looks like a keeper. If the water were warmer this lot would be more feisty, but today they are too sluggish to try to bite me or crunch each other up. The two short lobsters go back over the side along with the egg bearing female, and the one I hope is legal comes up to get gauged. I cradle both his claws in one hand, handling him very gently because when treated roughly a lobster can throw off a claw in the same way that a salamander sheds its tail. With the other hand I fit the brass gauge that I keep hanging from the side of the wheelhouse over his back. This one’s a “hanger,” which means he measures exactly the minimum legal length from the back of his eye socket to the back of his carapace. So I fit rubber bands over his claws with my banding tool and toss him into the live well. While I’m doing this it occurs to me to wonder if lobsters have ears. This is the kind of question I would take up with Patrick if he were here, but today the issue must go undebated.

The next step is to impale four fat herring through their eye sockets with the long stainless rod we call a bait needle. This needle is notched at the sharp end and I use the notch to pick up the bait string that is tied at one end to the bottom of the pot and secured at the other to a hook under the lid. Then I shuck the bait off the rod onto the string, snap the free end of the string back onto its hook, close the lid and the job is done.

When my pot goes back into the water what, with any luck, will happen is this. A hungry lobster, attracted by the smell of the herring, will crawl through one of the two net entrances into the “kitchen,” which is what we call the baited end of the trap. Once inside he will seize a chunk of herring and, being by disposition a furtive fellow, will start looking around for a quiet place to eat it. To accommodate him in this desire, the trap has a “parlor” at the other end, which the unwitting lobster can get into but not back out again. When the water is warmer other visitors — tautog, scup, sea bass, conchs — find their way into the parlor as well. We eat some of these and sell the rest for cash money known as “shack,” which Uncle Sam never hears about.

While I have been baiting up this pot, Ms. Cahoon has been steaming unattended in circles. I straighten her out and head back up current to where we came from. There may still be a lobster or two under the rock pile, and I want to set in as close to it as I can without fouling my pot on the buoy that marks it. So I steam up alongside the buoy, launch toe pot off the culling board with a shove, and let the warp run out through my hand as we accelerate toward the next pot. The line sings out over the snatch block, and as its end approaches I hurl the float clear. It hits the water with a crack like a .22 caliber shot.

The next half hour is misery. My hands are freezing. Five pots in a row come up empty, and I wonder why in hell anybody in his right mind goes lobstering in January. But I’m not the only masochist out here. I see Pete’s white and orange floats and Jerry’s black and white ones along with a good many others that I recognize. It seems that every year lobstermen and tourists push the season further at both ends. The result is certainly more tourists and probably fewer lobsters.

Gradually, the rhythm of my work becomes almost hypnotic. Pot follows pot, with the only interruption to this routine coming when one gets fouled on the bottom. Sometimes a hung-up pot can damn near yank you right out of the boat. Usually, however, I can sense that something is amiss as soon as I snag the float. Then I back off the throttle to stop the boat, and haul away hand over hand trying to fathom from the jerks and vibrations transmitted up the warp what is going on 40 feet below. If all else fails, my last recourse with a hung pot is to take a turn of warp around Frannie’s spring cleat, put the wheel hard over and pull, hoping the damn thing will come clear before the warp breaks.

Tales of woe

By 8 o’clock the sun has made a brief appearance as a big red ball rising from behind the great houses on Penzance Point, and I am beginning to have a good time. Freeing one particularly stubborn pot leaves me sweating, even without my hat, and after that bit of exercise I have no further complaints from my hands. I flip the radio to channel 80. It’s time to call home.

“Frannie Cahoon base, this is Frannie Cahoon. Are you in this one, Yara?”

“Oba!” answers my Brazilian wife in defiance of all known radio procedure. “Where are you?”

“Oba yourself! I am over by Quissett. What’re you up to? It sounds like you just got up.”

“I did.” She yawns. “I have a piano student at 9. Then I think I’ll go to the Sport Center. Do we need anything in town?”

“Eggs. We’re out of eggs.”

“I’ll get some. Everything all right with you? Are you having any luck?”

“Oh, I’m doing OK, I guess. Paying for the fuel, that’s about it. The wind’s dropping off, so I’ll try to get the whole string today. Be in around 3, OK?”

“OK. I’ll be here. Are you sure you’re warm enough?”

“Not to worry. Well, I got a pot coming up, so I’ve got to get off. See you this afternoon.”

“Ate logo! Yara is over or out or whatever it is I am supposed to be. ’Bye!”

“Frannie Cahoon out.”

Actually I’m doing a lot better than I let on to Yara. Quissett is hot, and by the time I’ve finished up there my average for the day so far has risen to more than a pound per pot, which isn’t half bad for this time of year. If I were foolish enough to broadcast this news to everyone else who is listening in on channel 80, however, there would by tomorrow be a lot more pots in Quissett. That is why when you listen to fishermen talking over the radio, you hear nothing but tales of woe.

On my way down toward the Weepecket Islands it starts to snow, coming down so heavily at first that I can’t see anything. In summer the cormorant rookeries on these rocky little islands smell so foul you can tell when you’re getting close by the stink, but today I must rely on my compass and fathometer until the snow lets up to where I can see again.

Weepeckets are dead: 15 pots, two keepers. It’s probably time to move out, but instead I leapfrog the string more to the south. If it’s still dead after this set I’ll move down toward Robinson’s Hole and see if anything’s going on over there. Either that or I’ll pull these pots in for the winter.

The wind has by now gone right into the East, so I have it on the nose as I start back up along the bay side of Naushon. I make good time but catch few lobsters. The season is winding down.

I am also winding down. My hands are starting to get cold again, and I’ve had one near miss at going overboard when I slipped in the slush ice that covers the deck. But I’m nearly done. Twenty pots and eight lobsters later I arrive back in Woods Hole at slack water and find two pots whose floats had been pulled right under by the current when I came through this morning. One is empty, but the other has three nice keepers in it.

I decide to quit while I’m ahead. There are still a dozen more pots to go over on the Vineyard Sound side of Naushon, but I’ll leave those for tomorrow. So I head for the Eel Pond drawbridge, where I find the tender asleep. I can’t rouse him with the boat horn, so I holler up to ask a pedestrian to shake him out. The pedestrian checks the bridge tender’s house and reports back that there is no one inside.

I know better. “He’s in there,” I shout through chattering teeth. “Check in the corner. He’s under the blanket.”

My benefactor peers back into the window and grins. “You’re right,” he says, and bangs on the wall until the public servant within arises and sourly opens the bridge.

Patrick spots us as we come into the pond and waits with wagging tail by the water as I put Frannie to bed and transfer the day’s catch into the live car. Then I row ashore to an enthusiastic welcome from my old stern man and walk up to the house to find Yara.

Note: When the editor called and asked if I would do a piece on winter lobstering, I told him I had already written that story for a now-defunct magazine. Quite a lot has changed since I wrote this 15 years ago. Patrick, the Lab/border collie mix who was for so many years my stern man, is dead — and so, for all intents and purposes, is our local lobster fishery. Old age took Patrick; a combination of warming water and shell disease decimated the lobster population. There are still enough offshore migrants finding their way into these waters to keep a few of us fishing, but the days when every pot would come up crawling with keepers are long gone.

Some things, however, remain the same. The frost on the grass still crunches underfoot when I walk down to the boat in the solitude of early morning, the bait still smells just as bad, and Buzzards Bay and Vineyard Sound have not lost their magic. So I keep at it, fishing fewer pots and going out on fewer days, but on those mornings when the Frannie Cahoon and I do head out through Woods Hole with the eastern sky turning pink behind us, there is nowhere else I’d rather be.