By Doreen Leggett
On both sides of his family, as far back as he can trace, Charlie Dodge descends from commercial fishermen. Some roots go to Norway and England and then there is Tristam Dodge, of Newfoundland, hired by the settlers of Block Island in 1616 to teach them how to fish so they wouldn’t starve.
Charlie Dodge was born on that small island 350 years later. His parents tried to buck centuries of tradition and insisted that he would not become a fisherman.
“I was not allowed to go on my uncles’ and my cousins’ boats,” Dodge recalled.
Fate, and Dodge himself, clearly had other plans. More than 40 years later, history shows three big fishing boats, a few smaller ones, a lengthy list of fishermen he has helped and almost as many fisheries he has pursued.
Wearing a fish belt and a faded green Chatham Fishermen’s Supply shirt, Charlie said that as a youngster he spent a lot of time with his Uncle Mott, duck hunting and pond fishing. His parents were big surfcasters so they didn’t mind Charlie being on the shore. So one day when he was about 12, he and his uncle went to a spot far off the beaten path, Black Rock, so Mott could try again for a big striped bass he had been after.
Mott told the boy to stay put, he would go around the corner and try and nab the bass. Dodge, left to his own devices, ended up catching a 35-pound bass and was feeling pretty good about himself. An even bigger fish got away, so Dodge ignored orders and cast into the middle of the lake to catch an enormous bass, approaching 50 pounds.
When his uncle returned a short while later, outfished by a 12-year-old, “he had a pipe in his mouth and he about chewed the stem off,” said Dodge with a laugh.
Dodge soon divided his time between fishing and working at his parents’ automotive shop, Dodge Enterprises. Like his dad he was a good mechanic, they needed the help, and he was happy to be there.
“I was tearing up motorcycles and surfcasting all the time,” Dodge remembers.
He wanted to lease the business but his parents declined, so his life took a hard right into forbidden territory. He decided to go tuna fishing with his then-girlfriend even though his boat was small. He got laughed at, and his mother told him he’d die. But they caught their first tuna, a 653-pounder, on their first trip at 10 a.m.
“We towed it because there was no way to get it into the boat,” he said. “From that moment it was game on.”
That season they caught 22 fish and did some bass fishing too.
He became nomadic; he put on big draggers out of Point Judith, continued to chase tuna, and went into a charter boat company. He sold his interest in that, made some money, and at around 26 he bought his first serious fishing boat, the Harmony.
He also took on a crewman, Dave Gelfman, who would be with him for many years and eventually bought the boat, which became the Horse Mackerel.
“I inflicted him,” said Dodge of Gelfman — with the fishing bug.
Gelfman, who doesn’t use his master’s in sculpture much, wouldn’t disagree. He is still fishing, his boat now in Ryder’s Cove in Chatham. He was 21 when they met, Dodge 31.
“He was a pretty energetic and excitable kind of guy,” Gelfman said. “Very into it.”
Gelfman said he has used Dodge as a model of sorts for his own career. Not only does Dodge have a sixth sense about fish, as many fisherman do, he has a sixth sense about people as well.
“Part of it is Charlie’s ability to extract useful information from our colleagues,” he said, and then put that information in order of importance, read between the lines and put it all together.
They would leave around June 1 and bounce around from New Jersey to Martha’s Vineyard, then Stellwagen Bank in the Gulf of Maine. They often ended up in Provincetown.
One time he and Gelfman were out in the bay tuna fishing and not doing well at all, bad enough that they had stopped talking to each other.
“We were traveling and living on the boat at the time and the mood was black,” Dodge said.
They decided that the next fish they caught they were going to sell at the dock, skip the market, take whatever they got in hand. That next fish was 950 pounds and they got $18 a pound.
That got them back on good terms, and when they went back to the same area, but a slightly different location, they landed a 1,305-pound tuna.
“I miss the tuna fishery, we had some great fishing,” Dodge said.
When the No Name storm roared through in 1991 and he lost all of his 700-plus lobster traps in Rhode Island, Charlie had a choice to make. His then-wife wanted to get off Block Island and become a nurse so they almost moved to Gloucester, but ended up in Chatham.
“I knew a few more people here, from jigging and cod fishing,” he said.
The Harmony had already done a slew of fisheries, lobstering and codfishing, chasing tuna known as big eye, yellowfin and mahi mahi.
Working from Stage Harbor, Dodge turned the Harmony into a gillnetter. People said it would sink, but it didn’t. In those days he was landing pollock, bluefish, cod.
“It was a lucrative move for me,” he said.
He realized he needed a second boat because he wanted to go monkfishing. So he bought the Edward and Joseph for a quarter of a million, named after his two sons. Going through a divorce with investments to cover, he was dogfishing solo to help cash flow, bringing in 7,000 pounds a day.
Big changes in the groundfisheries were already afoot. Most of the guys in Chatham, said Dodge, were insulated until the regulations really took hold because they were “fine-tuned machines” and could find fish that had become more scarce.
By the late 90s, groundfish catches went to 5,000 pounds a day, then 4,000, then 2,000. Then came limitations on days at sea, and things got ugly fast.
Good fishermen were still catching fish, exceeding their limits, but loath to throw good fish over.
“If you make rules, fishermen will find ways to work with them,” said Dodge.
Around that time, the Harmony broke her anchor and ended up on a rock wall. Dodge needed to get her fixed and he needed another boat, so he went up to Canada.
His parents were resigned to his career choice so he took his dad with him. It took some wrangling but they found a seller, agreed on a price and drove home. They drove back up weeks later to close on the day the U.S, went to war in Afghanistan and the exchange rate of US to Canadian dollars went the wrong way. He ended up paying another $9,000.
When he got her home, he went to his house to clean up and then came back to the harbor. There were 15 guys on the boat checking her out.
“(She) was the first of the big, wide Novi boats to come here. It was as funny as hell,” Dodge said.
He named her the Stranglehold, “because of what the government was doing to us.”
But his boat buying days were not done. With only 11 days of fishing allowed on his monkfish permit, he had to buy another one to try to keep his crew working. So he bought the Lady Irene.
“People say there is money in fishing. I know, I put it there,” Dodge joked.
When he banged himself up, crew took to running all three of his boats. He got back to his mechanic roots and did more work fixing other boats than fishing his own. He still does that in a shop in Chatham’s Commerce Park.
Gelfman remembers being impressed by Dodge taking apart his broken jeep, fixing it, and putting it back together like it was nothing.
“He is the kind of person who figures stuff out,” said Gelfman. “He is very determined.”
Gelfman said Dodge always took the middle-of-the-night phone call when something was broken. Gelfman also suspects that what he charges for work on various boats in the fleet is pro-rated based on how well the captains are doing.
“He definitely takes into account the amount of struggle it takes to get into the business,” said Gelfman.
Matt Hamilton, who Dodge has known for years, is running the Stranglehold now and hopes to buy the boat and the business.
Dodge sold a monkfish permit to Jared Bennett, and was happy to do it, having known Bennett since before he could walk.
“He helped me out as a young fisherman,” said Bennett. “He has been awesome to work with. He definitely made it a lot easier to get into more year-round fishing.”
Dodge is trying to sell the Lady Irene to another younger local fisherman and if everything goes well he and his wife Clancy plan to split his time between the family home on Block Island and a property he owns in Vermont, hard by the Canadian border.
Not that he’s done with the Cape, but as he gets older, and the Cape keeps changing, being here now can get frustrating.
“I can’t do what I like to do all the time so it’s hard to have it in your face,” he said. “ But I’ll be around.”
He will probably still fish; after all, he’ll still have two boats.