It is a suffocatingly hot late-August dusk, and when I hop over the rail for a swim, the captain yells at me to swim not with the current but against it, towards the bow, where the anchor rode slants down from the bow. The sea is flat and calm, Gloucester’s lights’ loomings in the dark blurred by humidity. I am relieved to be off deck.
We are waiting for night to settle in and the sky to darken before we begin to fish in earnest fish a patch of water a mile offshore of Manchester. Here we hope to recreate our success of the night before, when we landed the legal limit of stripers by dawn: forty fish that weighed in half at a thousand pounds. The fish last night began to bite around midnight, and we took them, by law, one at a time on rods and reels and hooks. Weighing twenty-five pounds apiece on average and on average forty inches long landing the fish had been chaotic, bloody work. At the dock, the boat grossed roughly $2,500 for our catch.
We have already taken an hour to cut several dozen iced herring into chum, re-spooled the rods (six, or two per crew member) and crimped down the wire leaders that connect the spooled line to out hooks. We are anchored just inshore of Jeffries Ledge and the waters have taken on the look of a camping area on a summer busy weekend: Spread around us in a bobbing cluster lie roughly thirty other hook-and-line commercial striper boats. Like us, each has to take their stripers one at a time, by hook, until they reach thirty fish, or run out of bait and decide to call it quits. MassWildlife sets and overlooks the commercial striped bass quota each year here in Massachusetts; this the quota has been set at a million and a half pounds.
I haul myself back over the transom and onto the boat. I pull on my Grundens. We’ll be fishing soon, and the overalls, if hot, will keep fish scales and all the other crap and eviscera of landing fish off my chest and legs and pants. Looking out over the rest of the fleet, I see that a few boats are already “tight”, meaning that a crewmember’s fishing rod has arced over the water in a sharp bend, its line angled sideways and slanting forward. Fish on hook, likely striped bass or bluefish.
Our boat is rigged simply. Six stout boat rods stand up off the gunwales and transom: two from starboard and port, two from the stern. The rods are rigged with 80-pound line, 8/0 hooks, snap swivels, and wire leaders rated at 150-pounds. Later, come September through Thanksgiving, the boat will be rigged more industrially, with heavier rods and reels rods built to handle bluefin tuna, a fish that in the commercial size typically weighs in at least six hundred pounds.
Then, come winter, the captain will strip the boat of rods and dolly onboard an air compressor. With an hose and winter drysuit, he’ll dive overboard to pull up sea urchins. This repeated cycling of gear from one season to the next is product of the necessity of taking a varied approach to making a living as a small-boat commercial fisherman, as the modern North Atlantic simply no longer holds a single fishery to sustain a fleet year around.
Most of the night produces listless action: an undersized striper here, a spiny dogfish there, until about two in the morning when we are inundated by a school of stripers that over the course of two hours bring us close to our take limit, but not close enough for the captain to take us home. Our bait is hacked at by the alarming frenzies of schools of bluefish. I am rebaiting my rods after one school when the captain’s rod at the stern starboard quarter bends down with the force of its having snagged a whale, a sub, or the corner of tectonic plate-shift in progress. He rushes over to his rod to loosen the drag its drag before the line breaks or the rod snaps.
Jesus, look at that!
His girlfriend and I lift our gear from the water while he works his fish. Now, like nurses around a surgeon, we attend to his gear needs as they ensue. First a crack appears in his reel, lifting up the stamped stainless steel tabs which clamp the reel to the rod. He decides the repair requires bailing wire and leader, which we fetch from the wheelhouse, unwrap and hand to him in pieces, each of which he wraps around the rel and cinches down with a pliers around the base of the reel until it is reinforced with a matrix of tape and wire as thick as a cast.
On the depthfinder screen squirms and rolls and nearly doubles back on itself a vivid red streak. This mark represents the fish, the electronic signature sent to the screen by the transducer in the hull. This twirling, sinking, rising squib is the fish’s electronic echo.
The mark is livid: a twisting, blunt clot of color on the screen the captain is able to haul up to forty-foot depth hash before it wavers and twists back down to eighty feet again. The sheer stolidity of what he has caught is spooky. A hooked a bluefin tuna that big is likely to weigh far more than the rating of the line he’s rigged with, 80 pounds. The dips to eighty feet deep are the tuna’s sounding surges, its rises to forty feet the limit to which the captain is able to winch-coax the fish towards the surface. This fish will have to be played a long time before it tires and begins what’s called the death spiral, or the circular swimming pattern, below the surface, which indicates that a tuna has reached exhaustion and which the captain will have to pull against as carefully as if is trying to unbolt from a cement floor an rusted machine screw bigger and heavier than he is. I go down below for the gaff, its crook big as a sheepherder’s. One of us will have to plunge its point into the tuna to secure the fish while the other tries to pull the tuna’s tail over the rail and lassos it with Â½” non-stretch rope. The captain’s girlfriend hands me the line for it. I tie a slip knot into one end and wait for the fish to come to the surface.
The captain works the fish until the anticipation of its being an enormous fish we will have to haul on board achieves a strange, monotonal tedium. If this is, indeed, a blue tuna, I decide as I stand at the rail with the lasso, I will fish again on this boat. The uniqueness to me of the bluefin fishery will be compensation enough for to spend time with these two, even if I have nothing in common with them other than a vested interest in the cash the fish will bring us from a broker.