By Doreen Leggett
Longraking is hard work, hours in a skiff scouring for quahogs with a 25-foot-pole attached to a 30-pound basket, often in miserable weather.
Harvesters might get grumpy, exhausted, then dissolve into laughter when John Linnell takes a break for pushups.
“Or sit ups,” said Mike Anderson, who has longraked beside Linnell for decades. “You could see his boots in the air. And he used to run home in those boots.
“He was, is, bigger than life,” said Anderson.
At 83, Linnell is still longraking. When he talked about life and times recently it was at a park on Sam Ryder Road in Chatham where he was doing resistance training and running the field.
“I wanted to be a carpenter, but I changed my mind,” he said. “Fishing itself and anything to do with food has to be number one because you can’t eat money.”
Linnell was born in West Harwich, moved to Coco, Florida when he was a kid.
His family moved back again after several years and he went to high school in Barnstable. Although both his grandfathers fished, Linnell’s dad worked in a lumberyard. He gets his ability to spread smiles from his mother.
“My mom was a dynamite waitress. She had a great personality. Patti Page gave her a $100 tip,” Linnell said.
Linnell became infatuated with fishing while landscaping in Barnstable.
“I noticed a guy shellfishing out in Lewis Bay. Biggest guy I have ever seen. Muscles all over him,” Linnell said. “He was a Finn. They can take the cold like you wouldn’t believe.”
Linnell decided to shellfish and lived in Hyannis in his 20s. He rented a house for $10 a week on top of the hill on School Street. Cultured Clam – the precursor to ARC, the shellfish hatchery, retailer and wholesaler in Dennis – would come to his house and pick up his clams. He also sold to a fellow in Falmouth, Olin Kelly. He also remembered Kelly’s car, a Nash Rambler.
“The summer was so great. Girls used to come water ski and we used to look forward to it. That whole big bay had nothing in it, no buoys.”
The winters were colder than now.
“In February it would really freeze up. We would take refrigerator tops and cut them off for sleds.”
He ended up moving to Chatham in his 20s because he read an article about how good the shellfishing was.
“I wanted to make some money and I did,” said Linnell.
He prefers being in a smaller skiff close to shore – he gets seasick. But he went out with a lot of Chatham guys, mostly Dave Jerauld on the Pocahontas.
Jerauld and Linnell have been close friends for 50 years. Jerauld, a few years younger, still works as well. He is a landscaper.
“We are not the kind of people who sit down and watch TV,” Jerauld said.
Linnell’s whole family ended up fishing, sons Tim and Matt, Matt’s daughter, Tim’s three sons. Tim’s oldest Sam once landed a lucrative, brutally tough fishing job in California by mentioning his granddad’s name.
Jerauld has innumerable stories about Linnell, and a couple close calls.
“It’s all part of the game,” Jerauld said.
“One time Don Kent (Boston’s best-known TV weatherman) didn’t forecast the weather right. We thought we were going to lose the boat, but we didn’t,” Linnell recalled.
One of the scarier moments didn’t involve a storm.
Linnell always said that anything out of the sea was edible and so on one occasion he popped a sea carrot in his mouth.
Jerauld said Linnell got so sick his wife Patricia (they have been married close to 60 years “so I did something right,” Linnell says) had to rush him to the hospital.
“He survived,” Jerauld deadpanned.
“He would eat lunch with his gloves on. Nothing phased him,” said the chair of Chatham’s Selectboard Jeff Dykens.
Dykens started fishing with Linnell in 1978: “We spent hours shucking together on the Pocahontas. We had a blast.”
Linnell said they spent a lot of time trying to get Red Sox games on the radio. Dykens remembers it well – the year Jim Rice won Most Valuable Player.
In the 1970s and 80s Chatham had great inshore sets of mussels, bay scallops, and a sea clam bonanza, so Dykens and Linnell had many opportunities to fish side by side.
“He is really a colorful dude,” Dykens said.
Dykens fished for close to a decade but ended up changing careers and is now Chief Financial Officer at Duffy Health Center in addition to his elected town position.
“I always give him a vote because he went fishing,” said Linnell.
After the mussel boom ended, Linnell spent more time longraking, as did many fishermen. When various fisheries ebbed, or “crapped out” as old-timers called it, shellfishing was the fallback.
Dozens plied the craft of longraking, also called bullraking, in Round Cove in Harwich, Quanset in Orleans and Pleasant Bay.
“Longraking is an interesting business because there are only three or four of us left in the world,” Anderson joked.
In its heyday, harvesters could get 250 pounds in three or four hours. They wouldn’t even pack a lunch. People would anchor boats and leave their rakes sticking up, mostly made of ash, so Pleasant Bay resembled a forest.
Now the rewards aren’t as commensurate with the effort.
So it’s Anderson, Linnell and a few other “young” guys – in their 60s, said Anderson laughing.
Anderson calls Linnell the “Quahog Wizard,” which he will sing to the tune of the famous song by “The Who.”
“He has big strong, long arms like an orangutan,” he laughed.
Linnell has no plans to retire, but is thinking he may try and publish some of the stories he writes or make more shell jewelry he designs.
After a September day his legs were a bit tired because he had been running in his boots – training for an upcoming race in Chatham. He had harvested four bags of quahogs, “not bad for an old guy.”
He says his buyer, North Coast, likes to see him come in.
“Because I am a wild man,” he said with a laugh.