By Lisa Cavanaugh
“I will tell ya, this was the most romantic place I’d ever laid eyes on in my life,” says Mike Anderson about Cape Cod, circa 1968. “This was rock-n-roll and fishing.”
Anderson came after getting a college degree in English in Boston and spending summers on Plum Island, where he earned money commercial striped bass fishing.
“I rented a house on stilts on the marsh there above brackish water. It was this kind of idealistic lifestyle. No restrictions, people building any ramshackle things they wanted, all dirt roads at the time. It was spectacular.”
Familiar with Cape Cod from teenage quail hunting, Anderson fell into the local fishing industry.
“I was just knocking around when I came down here and the Cape had a wildness that I was looking for. I never meant to settle here or become a fisherman,” he laughs. “I don’t know how that happened!”
That first year, Mike continued bass fishing until the weather turned. “It became winter, so I started long raking, digging clams. There was a tremendous set of quahogs in Pleasant Bay then.” He and other fishermen would go out in small boats into the middle of the bay, use three anchors to secure themselves, and rake for clams using 28-foot wooden poles.
“There were over 100 rakers in Pleasant Bay when I came here,” he says. “Now there’s just three of us.”
Before long he signed on with longliners, fishing for cod.
“I fished with Fred Bennett, Ritchie Eldridge, Billy Nichols, ‘Tiggie’ (Charles Peluso) — all the famous old guys. I was a neophyte, but they took me under their wing.”
Anderson admits that he got seasick “every day for the first 17 trips I made” but plugged away, eventually saving up enough to buy his own boat in the early 1970s.
He started out handlining, dropping weighted lines with hooks into the ocean, hauling fish by hand and using a metal gaff to hoist them aboard.
“There were probably 70 to 80 boats in the Chatham fleet in those days and a big percentage of them were handliners,” recalls Anderson. “At any one time there would be 25 boats fishing on the Great Hill Grounds or the Mussels; there were boats all over the ocean. It was completely different fishing, the change in my lifetime is absolutely dramatic. We didn’t have any electronics, we were flying by the seat of our pants. We had gas engines and wood boats, and you know, no direction finders.” Having veteran fishermen like Ed Tucker and Jimmy Hardy show him the ropes made all the difference, and Anderson thrived in the industry.
But he wonders about all that success bringing in cod. Hookfishing is relatively inefficient and Anderson noted the change as soon as the gear type changed over to gillnets.
“Say you have a good day handlining and you get 20 boxes of fish. That’s about 2500 pounds. And that is a good fishing day… But then they put the nets in and got 20,000 pounds out of the same spot. The fish were always there, they just wouldn’t always bite. When you used hooks, sometimes the fish didn’t care about your bait. But then the nets went in and it didn’t matter if they cared, they got caught.”
Anderson was one of the founders of the Fishermen’s Alliance, then called the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association, to try to ring the alarm about what was happening to groundfish stocks.
“It was just too efficient a way of fishing,” he says. “I’d see the nets and they were catching all the giant whale cod by the millions and selling them for 20 cents a pound. They were filling the boats and I said, ‘Wait a minute, aren’t you getting this?’ I would point out that the world is finite and everything ends! But there was an actual feeling here that codfish would never end.”
Anderson misses the adventure of off-shore fishing, even in harsh conditions.
“I remember fishing single dory in the middle of winter asking myself what in the Christ I was doing! But it was something I really loved,” he says. Today he continues to bull rake for quahogs and has passed a fishing legacy onto his daughter Faye, who with her fiancé owns a lobster business in Nauset and is a metal artist as well.
He also spends time sharing his experiences on the water with hundreds of visitors who crowd to the Chatham Fish Pier each summer. He is one of four Pier Hosts who, as part of the Fishermen’s Alliance Pier Program, offer insight into the local fishing industry and traditions to tourists and residents.
“People shake my hand and say they’ve learned more about fishing in the last 20 minutes than they’ve ever known before,” he says, “so you have impact.”
That’s a significant achievement for someone who never planned on being a fisherman in the first place. “And I still haven’t made an actual commitment,” jokes Anderson.