As a little girl, I didn’t know I was going to grow up to be a fisherman, or follow in my father’s footsteps, and his father’s footsteps. It was a man’s world at the dock of Sakonnet Point, no women working in sight. The faces of fishing, as I recall, were a blue-collar gang of burley, brutish men, unkept in their oilskins, fish scales hanging from their beards, and cigarettes dangling from their mouths. There was unfiltered grumbling of men sorting, weighing, boxing and icing, as the fish were shoveled off the boat onto a conveyor belt. Most hadn’t had a day off in forty days, were probably hungover, definitely in need of sleep, and completely indifferent about offending any passersby or fellow shipmates. This is why it took me nearly twenty years to step foot aboard my father’s fishing boats.
Fishing has dominated our lives for as long as I can remember; a fishy smell always lingered in our home from where my dad hung his lobster bait infused hat and jacket. The smell of fiberglass rose in the sweltering summer heat as a skiff was being mended or a boat built in the backyard. There was an old pickup truck parked beside piles of nets and lobster pots stacked high made the best forts. I’d hear my parents and grandparents talk about fish, weather conditions, equipment, trucking, nets, and fish markets. To an outsider, they may as well have been speaking a foreign language.
I’d hear the stories about my great-grandfather carting fish, horse and wagon, from Sakonnet Point to the train station in Tiverton, or catches so large they couldn’t haul the nets. They’d talk about the time my grandfather was leaning against the pilot house door when it swung open and he was flung into the frigid April waters, going under a third time before a hand reached down to save him. Consciously and subconsciously, I had been taking in these stories, legends, culture, and lore my whole life, so when my father asked me during the summer of 1996, when I was home from college, if I’d be interested in working for the family’s trap fishing business, I knew it was my turn.
Trap fishing is a unique fishery to Rhode Island; it’s been around for hundreds of years, yet we are some of the last to fish this way. We are licensed to set in the same spots every year off the coast of Little Compton and Newport, a short boat ride from the dock. It is a sustainable, passive fishery; we don’t use bait, the fish have to come to us. If they don’t, we miss them. The floating fish traps are like a giant aquarium, held in place by twenty-six, 900-pound anchors, where fish are funneled into the head of the trap where they can’t escape. Everything is alive, so anything we can’t keep because of quota or size restrictions, is thrown back and swims away. At the core of trap fishing we are working with nature. However, it is incredibly labor and equipment intensive, which is why there are only a few of us left that fish this way. As my dad says, “If it were easy, everyone would do it.”
I started out learning the age-old craft of mending fishing nets. I’d show up at “the lot” at sunrise, the field where the giant fish traps were spread out to dry and be mended, where two old-timers in their seventies and eighties, Louie Waite and Joe “Baldy”, would be. We’d start at one end of the net, overhauling the twine hand-over-hand, looking for holes. When a hole was found, the net would be hung on an iron stake specifically designed for the job. At first, they’d have me fill their needles, hold the twine, and watch them mend the holes. We’d work for a few hours and then “mug up” around 8am. I’d jump in Joe’s pickup truck and we’d head to The Common’s Lunch for coffee and a grilled muffin.
I loved the looks we’d get from people seeing this young girl in overalls and old guy in beige Dickies blasting country music with the windows down because he was so hard of hearing. We’d take the long way back and continue mending for a few hours or until the heat was too unbearable. I would listen to them talk about the way fishing used to be when “the boats were made of wood and the men were made of steel.” Joe would reminisce about the barrels of liquor during prohibition that would get thrown into the traps by passing boats and get hauled up with the fish to be shipped to the Fulton Fish Market.
Louie knew hundreds of sea chanteys that he’d be humming and singing all day long, getting excited when he’d remember one that he thought he’d forgotten fifty years ago. I’d start out mending the smallest holes, or “one-bars,” gradually increasing to bigger holes as I got the hang of it. Every so often, one of them would walk over and check my work, shrug and say, “the fish won’t know the difference;” a saying likely passed to them, that we still say today.
My first day trap fishing happened by chance. I had stopped at the dock to see my dad before heading to the lot and they were short-handed, I was told to hop aboard. We had just bought another trap company from the iconic “Kissing Sailor”, and old-school trap fisherman, George Mendonsa, who agreed to run the boat for the first year and brought along some of his key crew from Newport. George ended up staying for another ten years and the other two, John Souza and Joe “Monk”, until the day they died. My father said that when he was growing up trap fishing, the old-timers would literally turn their backs so a newcomer couldn’t learn the knots they were tying, in fear they’d take their jobs. John and Monk became my mentors and protectors, literally showing me the ropes. Those who underestimated me and muttered their displeasure about a female aboard, were quickly silenced when the bluefish would chew the traps and I was the only crew in the boat, twine needle in hand, who knew how to mend.
Once I started fishing, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else; it was like feeling the pull of the sea and not being able to stay away, like being homesick. We watch the sunrise every morning, fingers in the twine, salt in our hair, pulling shoulder to shoulder, feeling the weight of the fish, and drawing strength from the rhythms of the sea. I knew I earned George’s approval the day I fell between the boats with a big sea. Once I was safely aboard, he asked, “Did your boots fill up with water?” “Yes,” I answered. “Now you’re a real fisherman.”
Story written by Corey Forrest
Photography by Maaike Bernstrom