Enjoying one of the last days of black sea bass season
Captain Kurt Martin had caught his limit of black sea bass, but the last line of pots had only brought up a few of the beautifully-marked fish.
Still, Martin had a huge grin on his face. The owner of the F/V Time Bandit was looking at his fish finder and seeing a bunch of activity a little farther on. That was where he was going to drop the pots next.
“I wake up at 3 a.m. thinking about this,” he said, not at all unhappily. “It’s the fishing, not the catching.
“When it becomes a job I’ll do something different,” he said.
Martin, of Orleans, had gotten up not too much after three that day to leave Chatham Fish Pier for a 12-mile jaunt to Nantucket Sound around 4:30 a.m.
Earlier in the week, he thought he may be pulling his pots because the summer fishery was winding down. The fishery, which was hit hard decades ago, has rebounded well. Jointly managed in state and federal waters by Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, it has been under a management plan that sets an overall quota, limits his catch to 300 pounds a day and restricts fishermen to three days a week. But Martin had checked the night before and there was still a fair amount of quota available, so he figured he may have a few more days at sea.
The fishery is relatively new in this area, the fish story is that lobstermen stumbled upon the sea bass business plan.
Decades ago, they kept getting the black fish with the fringed fins in pots when they were out lobstering and, after a bit, they brought them into the fish market just for kicks. And, turns out, they could turn a nice profit on them. So a new local fishery was born.
Martin said fishermen also discovered they don’t need bait to attract sea bass.
“Some deckhand slacked off and forgot the bait,” chuckled Jared Perry, Martin’s deckhand.
For some reason, once one sea bass goes in the trap – which look rather like lobster pots - more gather around and swim in themselves. Some fishermen have taken to leaving a fish in the trap to lure some of his or her peers (they are hermaphrodites), but Martin hasn’t found that necessary.
So far the fishery has been good to him. He primarily goes lobstering, and he also owns weirs, but going out and working for four or five hours and then coming home is gratifying.
“Oh my God it’s great,” he said.
That morning is warm, but it’s dark, very dark, and there is no moon to be seen. On the hour or so trip out to a spot near Great Point Light it is hard to make out anything, except the iridescent profile of Martin as he looks at his screens and the flash of Perry’s teeth when he talks.
Dawn seems very far away and the two use the lights to illuminate the deck as they bring the first line of 20 pots aboard. They work together, Martin running the pulley, the two bringing the trap aboard, Perry opening the trap and the two flipping the contents into a tote.
Small fish, bite-size lobsters and a spider crab bigger than someone’s head go back for a swim in the water. The grey and black-lined sea bass are separated out, with the larger ones, which fetch more money, getting a tote of their own.
It’s relatively messy work, with the wriggling catch – which are iced and still moving when the Time Bandit hits the dock about two hours later- spewing fish slime across the deck.
The first line brought aboard is rife with fish, the second has far more small fish, which, not reaching the legal limit of a foot, are put back in the water.
“Guppies,” said Perry.
They also catch a small amount of tautog and scup, privileges which Martin pays for by paying additional fees, which are tacked onto the cost of his permit. Both Martin and Perry wish scup was more popular locally. It is a great fish to eat, but takes a little more prep work to enjoy. Perry, who grew up in Central Massachusetts, has a friend from Greece who loves when he gives her scup. It is far more popular there.
Perry, who now lives in Eastham, grew up recreational fishing, but he has only been doing it commercially full-time for about five years.
He was in production before, building stages for rock bands and graduations. One day someone he worked with asked him if he wanted to go offshore slime eel fishing for a few weeks. Although it is not the most coveted trip to be on, Perry has been hooked on fishing ever since.
He connected with Martin because they both have kids about the same age.
The price of black bass has ranged from $2 to $5 since the two began working the fishery when the season opened on July 9 and Martin brings his catch into Red’s Best at the pier. Red’s Best will ship the fish anywhere, but there is a strong market in New York.
The black sea bass are sold around here as well, Mac’s Seafood carries them (and staff also sometimes cooks the whole fish for patrons of the restaurants, which Martin describes as a worthwhile epicurean experience.)
But they aren’t common, something Martin would like to see change. He, and Perry, love them.
“It’s excellent eating,” said Perry, describing it as a nice, white fish.
Perry said his two young children are spoiled when it comes to food because he goes lobstering with Martin and brings back dinner. He also goes shellfishing and this summer they had bay scallops every week.
“What’s it all for if you can’t eat well,” Perry said with a smile.