By Skip D Maloo
Commercial fishing? Although I was trained as a composer, I in fact wound up spending much of my working life behind a desk in NYC. I was pretty good at what I did for a living but, other than the limited intellectual challenge, it was a unidimensional experience for me. Just a paycheck.
But let’s work up to that. When my daughter was about 16 years old, my marriage fell apart, six months later I was diagnosed and treated for prostate cancer, three years later I was diagnosed with and treated for recurrent prostate cancer and, on the night of the last day of treatment, I died of a heart atack. I was revived after 3 minutes, patched up in the hospital and sent back into the fray.
Many have far worse stories, buy why bother comparing? Huxley said, “Pain has no intrinsic value.” I assume that this extends to a soul in pain or a life seemingly wasted in existential pain. Those who are about to die of boredom, I salute you!
Here’s what I did: I said to myself (just like Brigham Young said), “This is it !”. No raging debate in my head, no agonizing period of deliberation. It just made perfect sense. The idea of commercial fishing resonated at a certain frequency, that’s all. And, lucky for me, I was sufficiently cognizant of the nature of commercial fishing to know that there are no Hemingwayesque images to be associated with this vocation. No long, glorious battles in the fighting chair, man against beast, culminating in the arrival of a 1,000 lb marlin followed by a celebratory Cuba Libre and a Cohiba.
My health issues did change my temporal sense. A fundamental shift in perspective. If it has been your way to linger over the choices on a menu longer than it took to scan the selection and then, one day, found that the time spent in this task was dramatically shortened, you may know what I’m referring to. Mind you, I take the same delight in looking at an interesting menu, especially when I’m hungry and when I like the food. The salient difference is that I do not linger. The choice is made with despatch. I’ve been to India several times. You know one thing that’s truly different about India: Indians have a very different sense of time. You could be served efficiently in a restaurant and find yourself languishing for what will seem like an interminably long time while waiting for the bill. The Indonesians call it “rubber time”. So, I experienced my own shift in perspective due to a newly acquired sense of my mortality, but in retrograde. In other words, I did not suddenly acquire a shiny, new and heightened sense of time or lack thereof. Instead, I came to the realization that it has always been this way and so the realization, in fact, was that I have spent my life thus far indulging myself the illusion that I had the time to indulge myself. Like a Moebius Strip.
So, for those of you who are perhaps contemplating a Plan B for Today’s Economy, this is not an operating manual. However, quantum leaps into other, more distant worlds may take more courage or stupidity than I have. Full disclosure, I do have extensive experience on the water, a fair amount of blue water boat handling experience, I’ve studied celestial navigation, I’m fully conversant with marine navigation and I do know how to fish.
But here’s the punch line. I can’t tell you why, but I have discovered somewhere along the line that I have no fear of learning new things. Anyone considering a Plan B that involves a deviation from what they have been doing all the while is going to face some formidable learning curves. In my case, I had to embrace the fact that I must understand how diesel engines work. The lesson here is, unless you have a fat checkbook, calling Caterpillar service every time is not an option. The other lesson here is that you have no choice in the matter. Nobody will make that service call to your vessel if you are 150 miles offshore and your engine stops running. So, if you are one of those people who can’t quite get the hang of smartphones but you carry one around, you may be in for a little rough weather, upfront.
The boat. I searched for a boat in the dead of winter, mostly in Maine. Specifically, I was looking for a downeast boat, the traditional workhorse of New England. There are two advantages to looking at this time of year: you are the only person stupid enough to be looking and prices are as soft as it gets at this time of year. The sellers, the fishermen, are delighted to see you. Many of the boats I looked at had been on the market for a few years.
Shopping for a downeast boat was an unexpectedly wonderful experience. Most of the sellers were lobstermen. Off season, most of them keep their boats up on jackstands in the driveway. That way, they can work on their boats during the off-season and they don’t have to pay for winter storage (the “short money” solution). Not exactly sure what they thought of this New Yorker appearing on their doorstep but, after standing on the deck of the boat, crawling around in the engine room and listening to them expound at length on the virtues of their boat in sub zero weather, me in my arctic coat and they invariably in a tshirt and light jacket, I was invited into their homes where I could warm up and meet the wife and kids. When was the last time that you got to hang with a lobsterman and his family?
I looked at something like 40 boats. Finally found one that looked to be in decent shape and needed less modification to turn it into a boat set up for my type of fishing.
The rest of the winter was spent working on the boat and, by May, it was ready to launch. This was five long years ago.
I was targeting tropical tuna, yellowfin and bigeye, in the Central Canyons about 80-135 nautical miles east of Long Island, way out in the Atlantic, near the Gulf Stream. These tuna are mostly used for sashimi. Yellowfin are sold to customers here in the US but the bigeye are flown fresh to Tsukiji Market in Tokyo where they are sold at auction the next day.
But let’s talk about the fishermen.
Unlike any other commercial fishermen I know, I live on my boat during the six month season. I have to do this because it’s impossible to fish the Canyons out of NYC. It’s too far. Most fishermen live in their homes not far from their harbor. Because I’m on my boat all the time, I have a chance to meet and chat with a lot of fishermen. When they are not out fishing, they are tied up at the dock, doing that endless maintenance and when they take a break they want to chat. This was a singular opportunity, in fact, because in commercial fishing, intel is king. Where to find the fish? That is the number one question. Where to find the smaller fish that we use for bait for catching the big fish? What strength line? Advice on engine or transmission issues, radar, echosounder, fishing reel, anchor. Fascinating subjects, all of them.
There are innumerable techniques for catching fish. Every fisherman has his favorite and most will vehemently maintain that their technique is the only technique worth using. That can be confusing. Some fishermen will look you in the eye and swear that such and such place, essentially a location in the middle of the ocean somewhere, identified by Loran TDs or Lat./Long. is where the really big ones are. Some of the fishermen I met in Gloucester MA would lie to me about where the fish are located just to see if I would take their advice. In commercial fishing you better have friends that are knowledgeable and that you can trust.
The social structure of New England commercial fishing is or was fundamentally clan-based. This is particularly true amongst Maine lobstermen, even today. The guys who go after finfish are much more spread out and less likely to be blood relatives so they are typically connected to each other by hailport. There are social subsets relative to ethnicity. Fishermen of Sicilian, Portuguese or Neapolitan descent represent subgroups. ‘Course, Yankee Downeast culture has is its own language. It’s English but it’s not something you’ve heard before unless you’ve spent time up there in northern Maine.
A New Yorker is, by definition, an outsider with zero potential for acquiring insider status. Even if you marry the daughter of the best fisherman and move into her village, have five kids, teach Sunday school, help everyone with fixing their boats, join the volunteer fire department and generally make yourself indispensable to the community you will always be an ousider. They will assume, no matter what you say, that you are a Yankees fan or, at least, you never will be a trusted Red Sox fan. In my opinion, this is unfair in my case, because I don’t even follow baseball. Insider status has never been an option so I have no sense of loss in this regard but I have to say that the Red Sox thing can be annoying.
The best, most talented fishermen, the fishermen who catch the most are referred to as highliners. Highliners only exchange intel with other highliners. It is assumed that if you are not a highliner, the value of the intel you have to exchange is not worth much. If you work twice as hard as everybody else in order to catch as many fish as the highliners you are only considered a show-off and cannot acquire rising status to that of highliner. You could count on one hand the number of highliners in my fishery. Most of them are unapproachable. Indeed, it’s a general statement but it works: most fishermen are reluctant to share their tricks and techniques, highliners in particular. A few will share after they get to know you. But if they are not highliners, how much is their intel worth?
In the foregoing schema, there remains only the act of fishing. What it means to be on the water day after day. Interacting with the fish. Understanding the confluence of wind, tide and current. The neverending, remarkable beauty of the aquatic environment. What it means to be a mariner and what it means to be the best mariner you can be. Same as foregoing sentence, but replace mariner with fisherman. That’s another story.
(To be continued...)