Watch and learn: Know your commercial fishermen

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I’ve always liked the saying that fishermen were the original conservationists — folks whose intimate connections to the lay of the stones, the reefs, the sands, the churn of advancing seas and tide give them a vested interest in the continued bounty of their home waters.

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Appropriately enough, it is often the sharpest fishermen in a given area, the ones with the most refined sense of the grounds and fish and the all-important issues of timing, who tend to be its most committed — and most effective — stewards.

Although it’s generally the rod-and-reel end of the fishery that gets mentioned in conjunction with conservation, there’s no denying the complex connections between those who harvest fish for market and the networks of fertile seabed structures.

In my own development as a fisherman, my teachers — full-time party, charter and hook-and-line commercial fishermen, for the most part — in no way viewed commercial fishing and conservation/stewardship as mutually exclusive enterprises, even if they acknowledged that not all gillnetters, longliners, draggermen or lobstermen were created equal in terms of ecological enlightenment. As I honed my own fish-catching skills under several very sharp skippers, I have adopted my teachers’ — and that included a host of the harder-riding gillnetters, inshore lobstermen and dayboat draggers — attitudes about the importance of using all available sources of current, qualified intel. The trick when you start to incorporate others’ fishing results with various commercial gear-types — otter trawls, gillnets or fish pots, for example — is to temper excitement over 15-pound fluke or 30-pound cod hauled from your own backyard waters with the knowledge that the capture of such fish in commercial twine seldom foretells lock-and-load fishing for those of us dedicated to one-fish-at-a-time gear. But it may let you know there’s a migration in full swing earlier than you’d thought possible or confirm critical timing signs — the arrival of spring squid along local beaches, for example, and by extension, the imminent arrival of the first striped bass or fluke.

One of the most obvious and disinguishing characteristics of draggers is net reels/drums - complete with nets - attached to aft gallows frames. Some boats have secondary net drums abaft the wheelhouse.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that anyone on the commercial end of your local waters will be too eager to broadcast his results to the “sporties.” This reticence needn’t discourage you since much of the most useful information you’ll gather from draggers, gillnetters or lobster boats will involve spots. Lobster boats, for example, tend to arrange gear, whether in trawls or as “singles” — individual traps beneath pot buoys — right along depth changes, transitions in bottom makeup or on the edges of reefs, wrecks or rockpiles. Often such hard-bottom structures will gather the very fluke, cod, sea bass, scup, tautog or striped bass you’re looking for. There are two caveats to the “lobster-gear-as-fishfinder” trick. First, during certain specific points in a season (the hot-weather period when lobsters molt, for example, or around screaming late-fall moon tides and gales), lobsters will move out of the rocks and burrow into mud bottom. Second, lobstermen will typically set their trawls (anywhere from five to 15 pots, per) on specific directional headings (NE to SW, E to W, etc.) to minimize the effect of tides or huge seas. Be sure to record these setting patterns for future reference.

Gillnet gear generally presents greater challenges to rod-and-reelers, and unfortunately, in some of the areas where netters set gear, they fail to properly mark ends of their up-and-down lines with sufficient buoys, tide balls or high-flier sticks, deliberately disguising gillnet as lobster gear. Bottom line is that if you suspect there is gillnet, you ought to take the time to idle around a string of gear buoys with a sharp eye on the electronics to note which direction the gear stretches. Because gillnet (with the exception of tie-down flatfish nets) will rise as far as 8 to 10 feet off the seafloor, you’ll usually get a decent mark, although you may need to monkey with your sounder’s gain.

A couple of my big-bass-minded friends will make it a point to arrive at their grounds while there’s still daylight, then mark the positions of all “fixed” gear (i.e. lobster gear, gillnet) buoys to provide a frame of reference for later, when they’ll be running more or less and need to avoid drifting over such gear.

Draggers — perhaps the largest segment of the commercial fleet — are not of much use as hard-bottom markers and can be more useful to rod-and-reelers by noting where they shouldn’t go. The No. 1 standing order in bottom trawling is to avoid so-called “hangs” — bottom structures, rocks, wrecks and other assorted crap littering the ocean floor and potentially fouling gear or tearing up meshes. Again, if you watch some of the smaller draggers working along the beachfront, they’re getting by but not getting rich; if you sit back and watch very carefully, you’ll note they don’t risk getting too close to hazards, lest they lose an entire day’s towing on a hang-up. Where a captain chooses to start a tow is usually governed by the location of a hang, and sharp turns mid-tow will reveal some debris deemed bad enough that someone’s father, uncle or grandfather made a note. Such debris may prove a gold mine for you when the big sea bass show.

As I’ve moved up through the fishery, an urge to understand more clearly the way things worked propelled me into commercial fishing jobs. In fact, a major turning point was a decision to leave an editing post and get back out in the field, armed with hundreds of questions I knew I’d only answer if I immersed myself. In the intervening years, I filled in gaps as I could, getting some firsthand experience dragging, additional time gillnetting and even lobstering — the latter my least favorite activity on the planet. Ironically enough, it has been my commercial fishing experience, mainly as a frame of reference, that has given me a much clearer understanding of the real problems facing places I’ve long fished.

May 2015 issue