Fishing in Public

by “Tackle Box” Billy Kelley

Five Spot

Hey folks! I’m doing things just a bit different this month. I’m going to introduce you to an old pal of mine and also get into some lobsterman/fisherman problems. By the way, I’m not being sexist saying “lobsterman.” Just a phrase, that’s all, just a phrase.

You know, I’ve been hanging around the Portland waterfront seems like since I was born, off and on. Yes sir, I’ve ’bout done it all in the fish biz, but I’ve yet to commercially fish on a boat. That’s how I got the idea of introducing you to a guy I’m going to call Five Spot. No real reason to the name, just he don’t want his real name used for some reason. Modesty?

For the price of a few bottles and some of his time, I got his story. Five Spot was born in Gorham and raised in a family I can certainly identify with — some paternal and juvenile problems, probably due to the fact dad was a mite abusive and son was a mite rebellious. This usually ends with a life behind bars, or at a mortuary, but not this case. After one too many monetary disputes Five Spot says “Fuck this” and starts hanging his hat, more or less, at Widgery Wharf.

Well, one thing leads to another and he finds himself fishing with a pal of his name of Dickie Merrill. And better than that, enjoying it. He was about 16 at the time, and only stuck with Mr. Merrill about a year, but he learned a lot about lobstering and started picking up general fishing tips too.

So he goes off with another fella known as German Joe, one of the most interesting characters on the Portland waterfront. That’s quite an honor when you consider just how many interesting characters Portland possesses. Well, German Joe (Rybeck) is a sort of stern fella, but honest and fair. By the way, you’ll find most fishermen are fair and honest, or they don’t last long. German Joe treated Five Spot pretty well. He even customized his boat to better accommodate Five Spot’s proportions, cutting it to make it easier for him to pull up the traps. He also converted his vessel into a winter boat by closing in the stern. See, lobsters go out deeper in the cold — I guess their idea of a winter retreat.

Portland lost a great guy when it lost German Joe, but Five Spot had to keep working, so he did. Even took on shore work for a few years. That’s around when I got to knowing him. Son of a gun went and married my sister! Oh well. How’s that go? You can pick your friends but not your relatives? Just kidding. I always liked him, and had I been a fisherman I wouldn’t have minded going out to sea with him for awhile.

Well, back to the sea he went, doing different things like purse-seine fishing, which is where you put out your net and draw it in almost as you would a lasso. Another thing he’d done was swordfishing. Anyone who’s seen Perfect Storm has an idea of that kind of fishing. You get some astronomical paychecks but it really takes a certain kind of fella to do those trips. You might be out 10-15 days for Christsake. Just like dragging, one of the more hated methods by conservationists. You drag a weighted net and it brings up whatever’s down there. Five Spot didn’t care for that for the same reason he didn’t especially like swordfishing. He had young ’uns by this time, and you can guess how missing your wife and kids must be, huh?

Between all these stints fishing Five Spot was harvesting lobsters. I happened to catch him on a rare off day, because if you’ve got a good captain, well, he’ll keep you busy during a bad stretch by having you mend traps or tie bait bags. Seems there’s always something. Today, for instance, the boat he’s on is being pulled out of the water to have its keel scraped or cracks filled or whatever it might need. As luck would have it, he’s got a temporary spot on another boat to keep him going. Gotta pay the rent, doncha know!

I asked him if anything interesting ever happened in all these years at sea. Well, come to think, he has pulled a couple fellas out of the drink (ocean). They were doing a chore he had refused to do as too dangerous. Here comes the life ring, boys! And of course he’s been boarded now and again by the Water Police. A necessary nuisance, I figure. They got me once. To this day I wince just thinking of the happy coastal warden pouring my lobsters back into the drink. Someday I’ll tell you all about it.

I asked Five Spot what his job as a sternman entails on a daily basis. First the phone — always that goddamn phone, huh? The phone call, meet the captain, load the boat with whatever they need, fuel, etc. Then bait, stuffing bags (recycled old net) with the day’s worth, then cruise around, set the traps and pull the damn things up. Sound simple? Sound dull? Sound tedious? You’re fuckin’ right it is! And right now he’s doing about 800 traps per day, give or take. It’s days like these that a body can appreciate a tailor-cut boat.

I figure about now you’re wondering, “How much pay?” Well, I will tell you this. He’s earning a bit more than he started out with as a $60/day sternman. Most sterners get themselves up to a percentage of the take. But the thing is about all fishin’, it’s up and down, nothing is guaranteed. That can be another problem for relationships.

Five Spot has a boy now fishing. I asked him what advice he’d give him. “It’s a dying game,” he said. “However, if you like, stick with it.” Myself, I tell his son, “Be safe.” I’ve lost too many friends to the sea, and boy, nothing hurts me more than an untimely death.

Other problems? Well, the weather, for sure. And usually the engine will start right up and purr like a kitten. Then again, maybe she won’t. And stingy dealers: “Oh, let’s lower the price today. We’re payin’ them SOB’s too much as it is.” And an old lady griping yet again, “I never see you enough. Remember the kids?”

The big problem this year is bait. Now, let me clue you in about lobstermen in particular. As God is my judge, lobstermen are the most bitching motherfuckers you will ever meet in your life. They might be the nicest folks in the world, kind, polite, generous – you name it. But come the end of the day it’s bitch with a capital B. Don’t believe me? Ask anybody within earshot of a lobster boat. I mean, “It’s too dry” in the midst of a rainstorm. You get the picture.

That bein’ said, the price of bait is going up lickety-split. Some are even predicting $500 per drum (barrel), more than four times its steady value. Gets kinda crazy when the bait costs more than your treasure. Now, there may be some good come out of this. Because of an accident or flooding or something, there’s a fish called Asian carp thriving in the Midwest. They’re still testing, mind you, but there just may be a solution to the high cost of herring these days. There better be. I don’t know about $500 (remember what I said about lobstermen and the truth), but the situation does look grim. I’m going to look into this more deeply. Stay tuned.

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