Dan Howes celebrates a catch of striped bass with Bob St. Pierre around 1980. Courtesy photo.
By Doreen Leggett
Just after 9 a.m. on a warm March day, Dan Howes was in his barn sorting oysters taken off the grant that morning. He had recently stopped going for bay scallops and his boat, Last Resort, would have a little time off while he concentrated on filling oyster orders through Memorial Day.
“This is my primary source of income, though I didn’t set out for that,” Howes said with a philosophical shrug as he sized and separated shellfish into baskets.
He has had a grant in Orleans since 1994, the first resident to put his name on a waiting the list, but has always done something else as well.
“I like being able to jump in and out of fisheries,” he said.
One of those jumps has been to bay scallops in the winter in Cape Cod Bay. Stories abound from the heydays when the “sea candy” was abundant. Fishermen could go out in Pleasant Bay, and spots up and down the Cape, with just a skiff and small dredge and do well.
Those days are gone, now the catch is much smaller and harder to get to, but for the last decade Howes has found them in Cape Cod Bay.
“A lot of the years I was about the only one doing it,” said Howes. “Recent years there are quite a few boats – 2018 and 2019 were as good as it gets. Other than that it is just a grind.”
Still, Howes gets his limit.
“We call him the king,” said fellow captain Tom Smith with a laugh. “He’s like a magician.”
Howes also goes quahogging in the Last Resort, keeping with his focus on shellfish.
“I’m quick to point out I’m not a fisherman,” he said.
Although he may not be fishing now, Howes has been fishing for most of his life and has always worked on the water.
“I didn’t really fit in anywhere else,” he said.
His grandad was an electrician and his father worked at Mid-Cape Home Centers. He grew up Brewster, but his mom’s family had a place in Eastham and his father’s family had deep roots in Chatham, “I don’t know how many million generations,” he said with a grin.
He fell into fishing for fun.
“I was exposed to it through recreational fishing. I fished with my dad – it sort of grew on me,” Howes said.
Working on charter boats was the next step and when he got his license it was easy to skip school.
“At that point I knew it was something I wanted to do,” he said.
Howes started on the White Hunter with Jim Whittaker, but then began fishing with Stu Finlay on the Empress.
“Stu turned out more commercial fishermen than any charter boat captain on the planet,” said Howes, rattling off Smith, Mike Russo, the late Brian Gibbons.
During the off-season he began piecing together fishing trips.
“We both started off bass fishing,” remembers Smith, who has known Howes since middle school.
They would dig clams, but mostly catch flounder, scup.
“We’d go out in my dad’s boat – 26 feet. When I needed a guy I’d call Danny and he was always up for it,” said Smith. “We did well gillnetting scup. And then they banned it in Nantucket Sound.”
Over the years they went for bluefish and tuna as well. Howes was also going on two-day gillnetting trips out of Chatham with Joe Herbst on the Sea Lust, owned by Stu Tolley at the time, in the early 1980s.
He’d fish with Herbst again on the Sea Witch, Walter Tolley on the Punkin, Doug Matteson on the Destiny. And he fished with Bob. St. Pierre on the Rugrats.
“The money was good and I just liked it,” Howes said. “I never stayed on a boat long, a few years at most.”
He’d often go hook fishing in the winter, although he hated tub trawling – too labor intensive. Not that an oyster grant isn’t labor intensive, but it’s different, he said.
Mike Abdow, who fished for close to 20 years before he became a charter boat captain, remembers meeting Howes in the 1980s.
“He has done everything. He was cod fishing, tuna fishing, dogfishing…. bay scalloping. Danny was always a waterman,” Abdow said.
When there was more money in dogfishing, in 1995, Howes headed down to Ocean City, Maryland and fished with Lee Tallman on the I’m Alone.
“I did a lot of dogging,” Howes said.
A bunch of fishermen from here went, and each boat would rent a house in a tiny town called Ocean Pines.
“It was worth doing it,” Howes said. “Then they changed the regs.”
Howes had also gotten back into bass fishing and dogfishing solo. By then he had his grant and was able to make everything work.
“You had three or four closed days for bass and the dogfish limit was 2000 pounds so a lot of times I would get home early enough to get to the grant,” Howes said.
The grant wasn’t paying the bills in the beginning.
“When I first started no one wanted (my oysters). They weren’t Wellfleets,” Howes said.
But it gave him stability.
“I didn’t want to go offshore anymore. I just felt like I had a little more control over my destiny,” he said.
A couple of times when he was crewing for various captains he thought of making the jump – go on his own, invest in a bigger boat and federal permit.
Howes remembers handlining in the early 1990s and the federal government was encouraging fishermen to explore different fisheries and promised they wouldn’t penalize you at quota time if you had low landings for one stock.
“‘Explore other options, we won’t hold it against you,’” Howes remembered the mantra. “The first thing they did was hold it against you.”
He opted to stay in state and local fisheries. He felt they were more trustworthy.
“Fishing was still good enough that I could jump on a trip or two. I liked that pace,” Howes said.
He bought Last Resort in 2004 and started quahogging in Cape Cod Bay. There were probably a dozen boats, now there are a handful.
Even then he was dogfishing. He enjoyed fishing out of Provincetown, had a mooring there. But it got to the point where fish buyers didn’t want to send a truck to the tip of the Cape anymore, so he moved to Chatham. He was there until one year when prices were terrible he didn’t hit the landing number required by town, so his application was flagged. Instead of fighting it he moved away from finfish altogether.
“Every town just grounds you. They are looking for ways not to raise property taxes. Everybody is getting squeezed,” he said.
Howes went bass fishing until several years ago.
“That was a fishery I used to be proud to participate in. And it became an embarrassment. I look around and I see a guy in a boat that is worth more than my house. I don’t call that entry-level fishermen,” Howes said.
As he culled oysters there was the faint sound of construction in his house on the hill. Howes was getting new flooring in and the guys doing it were old friends and bass fishermen.
“They keep asking me to go again. The temptation is there,” he said.
He may resist stripers, he won’t resist the water.
“As long as I am healthy enough to put on a pair of waders and go to work, I plan on doing it,” Howes said.