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Grays Best

Codstock

Greetings from the foggy coast of Maine, where technology marches on, and even catch-and-releasers have to eat.
by James R. Babb

There was nothing Melvillean about our dawn-patrol departure from the foggy coast of Maine. Despite the dour weather, we didn’t suffer from a damp, drizzly November in our souls, nor do we seek a substitute for pistol and ball. We had simply accounted it high time to get to sea for the age-old reason that we were hungry for fish.

And like the Basques, French and English who began fishing here nearly five centuries ago, we expected to fill our hold with cod, the googly-eyed bottom-feeders that brought Europeans to North America long before they came looking for a northwest passage or religious freedom.

Cod certainly lured my ancestors here. And cod are luring Teuf and Jerry and me out into the fog this chilly June morning. As the coffee kicks in, the conversation strays from the going-fishing conventions of techniques and tackle and into the merits of crumbs versus batter, evaporated milk versus cream, Crown Pilot Biscuits versus Vermont Common Crackers.

And why not? Few fish are more culinarily useful than cod. Few freeze as well, or better retain their mild, meaty flavor when cured by salt and sun. Cod are the beef of the sea, the fish everyone who likes fish likes to eat, the essential ingredient in fish and chips, in that splendid mélange of garlic and potatoes and pureed codfish known as brandade, in that New England ubiquity, chowder— “Chowder for breakfast, and chowder for dinner, and chowder for supper,” wrote Melville, “till you began to look for fish-bones coming through your clothes.”

So what if they fight with the tenacity of a hip boot? So what if they rival the goosefish for sheer unlovableness? Codfish, as we say in Maine, eat real good. Shouldn’t that be enough to drag three fly fishermen from warm beds and out into the fog for an unrepentant day atop the food chain? I mean, even catch-andreleasers have to eat.

We’re headed toward a submerged hillock called Tanta, a 30-mile run from Teuf’s place back in Harpswell. According to Walter Rich’s 1929 book Fishing Grounds of the Gulf of Maine, Tanta is “2 to 3 miles in diameter and has depths of about 40 fathoms over a bottom of broken ground of rocks and gravel. This is a spring and summer fishing ground for cod... Herring and mackerel usually are present.”

One of Teuf’s friends was out here yesterday looking for tuna and saw lots of herring. With herring, you get cod. And with cod you get, well, us, for one thing. A big Portland-based bottom dragger, for another.

It’s a crowded ocean, and thanks to GPS and sonar it harbors few secrets—especially few in the Gulf of Maine, where fishermen long ago charted its submarine topography by sounding with tallow-smeared lead weights.

The very names of these fertile concentrators of fish conjure wooden ships and iron men: The Bounties, Inner Kettle, Three-Dory Ridge, Cod Ridge, Pollack Hub, Haddock Nubble.

In the old days you followed your compass to the fishing grounds, casting the log, running out your time— For Fippennies, run 59 miles south by east three-quarter east from the Cuckolds, nine hours and a bit, full and by. Everywhere you probed the bottom with tallow-armed lead— 45-fathoms and black gravel, the leadsman sings out, and over the halibut gear goes.

Nowadays we punch in numbers on the GPS, set the depth alarm on the sonar. We pick out individual rocks on its glowing screen, see fish clustered just above them and herring shoals 15 fathoms down.

A statistician’s spreadsheet graphing the growth of fishing technology against the decline of fish populations looks like the Cross of Saint Andrew. Researchers at the University of New Hampshire estimate that Gulf of Maine codstocks are only four percent of their pre-European numbers and have declined 90 percent since the 1950s, about when sonar began to move from antisubmarine warfare to fish-finding, about when big bottom draggers began replacing small boats setting gillnets or a half-dozen tubs of trawl—bottom- tending longlines stored in half-barrels, for inlanders.

Of course when tub trawling began replacing hand lining in the 1860s, and when gillnets began replacing tub trawls in the 1880s, cranky old diehards predicted the fishery’s imminent collapse, too. And they were wrong. But there’s a world of difference between a 36-foot boat fishing a 400-hook longline or 400 fathoms of gillnet and a 120-foot dragger vacuuming the bottom at four and a half knots, the net’s 150- foot maw spread by a pair of steel doors as big as king-size beds plowing twin furrows, the immense rock-hopper rollers on its foot rope crushing everything in its path, including deepwater corals that need centuries to grow. After a half-century of relentless bottom dragging, many of these jagged, ragged seamounts that have nurtured marine life beyond imagining since the glaciers retreated have been planed as smooth as marble slabs and left nearly as lifeless.

Not that Teuf and Jerry and I are technologically pure. We’re not burning 100 gallons of diesel per hour, like our Portland friend, though we’ll likely feed Teuf’s yowling Yamaha 30 or 40 gallons of gasoline before the day’s over. But if we limit out at 10 cod each, we’ll be buying our families’ winter fish for around a dollar a pound—nearly a dollar less than the dragger’s cod will bring at auction and four dollars less than retail. And, like our ancestors who came here with hand lines, tub trawls and gillnets, we won’t be obliterating the very nurseries meant to provide fish, and fishing, long after we’ve become ancestors ourselves.

Still, we have our own technological revolution on board. Teuf and I are armed as codfishermen have been for half a century: with broom-stick boat rods, 4/0 reels spooled with 50-pound monofilament, a pound and a half of chrome-plated lead jig trailing a treble hook. Jerry has a skinny graphite rod, a little Shimano level-wind reel spooled with 40-pound superbraid and a tiny—at least by offshore standards—six-ounce jig with a single hook.

Teuf and I—a couple of experienced offshore guys—don’t think Jerry’s dinky jig will tend bottom in the fierce current, or that his toy tackle will withstand winching up a good codfish from 240 feet down.

Teuf and I, of course, are dead wrong. Our fat mono billows downcurrent and drags our big jigs along with it, while Jerry’s tiny jig with its thread-like superbraid arrows for the bottom and stays there. And while we methodically grind up our codfish like the dead weights they are, Jerry pumps and plays his cod like proper game fish. Which, unfettered by a pound and a half of lead stuck in their jaws and 40 fathoms of heavy monofilament dragging in the current, they are. Jerry doesn’t just catch more fish than us; he works less at it and has more fun doing it. This of course fills us with technological envy and silent resolve to come back next year suitably armed, the perennial reaction of anglers everywhere, anytime anyone outfishes them.

Finally the tide turns and the wind starts to make from the southeast, and it’s time to head back for Harpswell. Four hours of jigging put around 20 codfish between six- and 12 pounds in the fish box and another dozen or so undersize fish back over the side. Not great fishing by any means, but not bad in these pinched times. And plenty to feed our three families their winter’s fish.

The Portland dragger has dissolved into the gathering fog, but from the way the gulls are crying in the distance I’m guessing he’s hauled back and is culling through the catch—sorting by size and by species, no cod under 22 inches, no haddock under 19, no more than 600 pounds of cod for the trip. Like bottom draggers throughout the Gulf of Maine, he’s shoveling back into the sea everything that’s too small or too unmarketable or, like the crushed and mangled lobsters, simply illegal to catch with bottom trawls but which bottom trawls inevitably catch—shoveling back the deepwater corals, the sea slugs, the starfish, the unbelievable wealth of life for which there is no market but for which there was, before it was towed for two hours crushed in the net’s cod-end, a purpose and a future.

There’s no premeditated evil in all this. Like fishermen up and down the coast, the dragger’s skipper is simply trying to navigate the Byzantine tangle of federal and state regulations that strive to preserve both fish and fishermen and are essentially doing neither.

I wonder what our ancestors would think of fishing today. Would they admire the technological advances that allow three men to replace a hundred? The regulations that favor big corporate-owned draggers over owner-operated gillnetters and longliners? Or would they turn away in
shame after seeing an ecosystem, and a way of life, being destroyed in a single lifetime?


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James R. Babb is the author of Crosscurrents, River Music, and Fly-Fishing Fool, all of which which are available from Amazon.com.

 
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