“Deadliest Catch” producer remembers commercial fishing in Chatham
By Doreen Leggett
Paul Gasek has a Novi skiff at Sesuit Harbor in Dennis and heads out to fish among the bigger, yacht-like boats that boast an accoutrement of fish-finding electronics.
If he catches fish, he throws a buoy on the spot and keeps drifting on it. He calls it “the other GPS,” the Gasek Positioning System.
“It’s the oldest analog marker in the book,” he says.
Gasek, who lives in Brewster, has won an Emmy for “The Deadliest Catch,” a television program he produced for six seasons, as well as accolades for his work as executive producer of “Shark Week”, from 2016 to 2018.
He isn’t as well known for his decade as a commercial fisherman after graduating Hobart College in 1972.
“Fishing taught me good lessons that would serve me the rest of my life,” Gasek says. “I got confidence, real confidence, confidence based on experience.”
And, he adds with a smile, a fishing crew isn’t much different from the crew on a television show.
Gasek and his dad, an Episcopalian minister, fished together. They spent time on the Saint Lawrence River and, beginning in 1958, summers on the Cape, looking for pickerel and yellow perch.
But his entry into commercial fishing was marked with two twists of fate, one involving the military draft during the Vietnam War, the second a chance meeting at the bar at the Land Ho! in Orleans.
With a lottery number of 99, it looked like Gasek was set to be called up and sent to Southeast Asia. But that year, 1972, the draft was cut back and only those with lottery numbers lower than 75 were taken. Reprieved, Gasek decided to stay on the Cape, and one night in the bar ended up running into Peter Cole, a commercial fisherman in Orleans.
Cole took him along for a daytrip on Captain Robert “Bobby Nick” Nickerson’s F/V Bob and Bill. Gasek liked it far better than working at the concrete form company in Brewster.
So, in the summer of ’73, he got a site on the Bob and Bill, working as a “dollar-a-box” man. For every 125 pounds of fish he dressed, rinsed, and packed in ice, he got just a dollar.
“I was learning things, but at first I thought it was going to kill me, the work was so hard,” Gasek remembers.
“We were catching a lot of cod, haddock, pollack, hake, sometimes a halibut. There were blue sharks around, whales. We spent nights out on the ocean. I saw new things for the first time. It was mind-expanding,” he says.
He was making $300 or less a week. But others on the boat were making more, getting shares of the total, so his aspirations were rising.
Engine issues “flung” them onshore so Gasek, now hooked, looked for another boat and ended up on the F/V Eileen Mary with Skip Campbell.
All the while, he was learning to bait and coil gear and had his mind set on being the best fisherman in Chatham.
“The fishing community had some stature in the town. You were really part of something the town was proud of.”
In the kitchen of his historic home near Stony Brook in Brewster, he takes out a box of old #10 Mustad hooks stashed in a drawer, and goes through the intricate process of tying a gangion and fitting it with a hook. In line trawling, to catch a few hundred fish you had to bait and set a few thousand of these hooks, tied onto miles of heavier ground line.
He also keeps a “fid” from those times in his desk. The fid was used to splice gear, which was essential.
“We used to make a lot of our own gear,” he says. “The care we took of the gear and the boat were very personal expressions.”
In the backyard, Gasek still has a piece of tarred buoy line that Nickerson gave him. He uses it as a clothesline.
Baiting hooks most often took place on the four-hour steam to the grounds. There was little sleep to be had on those trips.
But if there was a day off they would bait in the shanties that stood in a line leading down to the north jog at the Fish Pier.
“A lot happened in the shanties,” Gasek remembers. Different crews would come in and bait, but there were regulars as well, such as old dorymen Vince LeBlanc and Louis Dentremont. They cut bait (herring was cut into golf ball size pieces and put in freezers), and whittled lobster pegs - elastics weren’t yet used to hold claws shut.
They stand out in his mind because those dorymen were living history.
“They made the connection between the old schooner days and what we did line-trawling,” Gasek says. “Our fishery was a vestige of that whole age-of-sail cod fishery.”
After his stint on the F/V Eileen Mary, he went back with Nickerson in 1975, this time on a full share.
Fishing in the winter was tough, like times off Nauset when they used sea clams for bait (they called them snots). The crew would set 10 tubs and maybe come back with 16 boxes and get 26 cents a pound for the cod.
“It was horrendous,” Gasek says, but he always went back, with Nickerson’s words ringing in his ears:
“You young guys only want to show up for the 500 dollar days. You have to go fishing every day – for the 50 dollar days as well as the 500 dollar days. You have to show up.”
In 1976, Gasek went aboard the F/V Pocahontas with Dave Jerauld and Ned Crockett.
“By that point I was considered good crew,” Gasek says. “I was a fast coiler. I was neat. I was helpful. I was trained by Bobby Nickerson.”
They had enormous bait and fuel bills, but still he remembers weeks when he made $1,500 and one when he pulled in $2,000. The boat had to be bringing in close to $12,000 a week - huge money in those days.
Then his life changed. He fell in love and the girl’s parents didn’t want their daughter to end up with a commercial fisherman, no matter his college degree. He started planning for graduate school at Boston University, something he had thought about before. But he had to pay for it so he kept fishing.
He hopped off the Pocahontas to study for his exams and ended up at the bottom of the totem pole again, “lumping for the Silver Mink,” he says. Gasek also did some tile fishing out of Martha’s Vineyard.
But fishing for cod “down the Channel” stands out. Most codfish boats went out for three tides: Two slacks the first day and one the morning of the second. They listened to the weather all the time. “I became a weather freak. I still am,” Gasek says.
But there were days when the weathermen got it wrong and the fleet had to haul the afternoon set, head home quick, “and try to make last call at the Chatham Squire. Good times!!”
He also fished with Tommy and Dougie Matteson, Kenny Bloomer, Billy Amaru, and Roger Horne. After 10 years on the water, he left for good when he got a job making documentaries at National Geographic in 1985, once again working closely as a team for a common goal.
“It was really hard to give up fishing,” he says, but then again, it was fishing that launched his second career, and fishing that became his best-known subject.