By Doreen Leggett
The clock hit 11 a.m. when Captain Scott Rorro got aboard his boat Sea Hunter for another long trip, 20 hours maybe, harvesting sea scallops.
The Hyannis waterfront was quiet on the sunny spring day, a few people walking by. Some stopped to watch the crew of a small, sturdy, grey trapfishing boat named Nancy S. as they hoisted their morning’s catch up and over the pier into a waiting truck a few boat-lengths down.
The Chatham trap boat has a half-century on the water, not too different from Provincetown native Rorro. Rorro asked how the day on the Nancy S went and was told that they pulled up about 10,000 pounds total of scup, pogies and squid. Sounds like a lot, but still less, and less consistent, than in the old days.
“They used to come in half sunk,” Rorro said, sipping his coffee, waiting for his crew.
The crew of the Nancy S. had gotten started at 5:30 am. Captain Kurt Martin and his crew, with a couple of visitors getting in the way, headed into Nantucket Sound as dawn was breaking, a small skiff bouncing along in their wake.
The crew of three included Jared Perry, who goes lobstering with Martin for most of the year, Zach Buckley, Ben Bergquist (a lobsterman himself), and a British bloke named Adrian Frost, an old friend of Martin’s who had arrived from England just a few hours earlier and wanted nothing more than to get on the water.
Traps work only when migrating fish arrive, so the season is short and busy; Martin is on the water tending traps pretty much every day for around 50 days, from April 22 to early June.
The trip to the first weir was a short one, but the Nancy S. flew on by, passing a cluster of 10 charter boats looking for squid and scup. His second trap, off Wianno Yacht Club, loomed up. Poles called the leaders, 75 or so of them planted in the Sound, ran perpendicular to the beach and then formed what looks like a heart from the sky, more like a Medieval maze from the water. The hickory poles are planted six feet into the sand to hold against wind and tides, though Martin remembers coming out one time after a brutal storm to find most of them down.
“It was like Armageddon,” he smiled.
When schooling fish sense the leader, their instinct is to turn out to deeper water — and into the heart. From there they move through a gate into what’s called the bowl, which has a net that creates a fully enclosed space within another circle of poles. That becomes the catch, done in an ancient way, static, waiting for the fish to come to you rather than chasing them, not getting every single one in the water but if all goes well getting a good day’s pay.
Buckley hopped into the trailing skiff and began untying line in careful choreography as Martin maneuvered the boat into the bowl. Calm days are easy, but when it’s snotty it takes skill.
“Better than Six Flags,” Martin said with a smile.
The poles that make up the bowl are connected to lines and anchors on the outside, holding the big net open and on the bottom within. There are so many crisscrossing lines that the crew has to dodge them as them as they go about their work.
“It’s old school; the oldest there is,” said Perry.
The crew’s interplay is like the coordinated moves of a soccer team, seemingly fun and flawless but the result of a lot of practice.
Martin had been trap fishing before he bought the business from Mark Simonitsch, (the boat is named after Mark’s wife Nancy) in 2001. But about 10 years ago the fish disappeared and Martin stopped for four years, focusing on other styles of fishing. Several years ago he started up again, one reason being the equipment wasn’t going to survive if it went unused.
Things are better.
“I really think the fish have come back,” Martin said.
But although he has rights to fish many more traps, Martin fishes just two now, and they’re spotty – one day chock full, the next empty. He had taken his kindergarten son Will on a recent Sunday and they brought in 4,000 pounds.
On the return trip Will said, “I want to go again, but I want a full boat.”
“I like your attitude,” his dad replied.
One of many reasons for smaller catches, and the reason he doesn’t fish his weirs near Chatham anymore, is something smart and fat: seals. “They’ve found us,” said Martin, and indeed part of the catch was gnawed on. “There is nothing we can do.”
On this day there were a few big heads that popped out of the water to gaze at the men working; charter boat captains flagged Martin that they had seen 30 in the weir a few days earlier.
Those heads scattered as the boat pulled into the bowl, but it was hard to see what else awaited them.
“It just looks dark,” said Perry.
That uncertainty is one of the lures for Martin. Born in Orleans, his father David was an electrician who had done some fishing, “but my dad tried to talk me out of fishing, said it was no way to make a living,” Martin said. “It was the one thing I bucked him on.”
He bought his first boat with $150 earned from bay scalloping and from there he just kept on investing. He graduated Nauset High in 1987, built his first house out of pocket because he couldn’t get a loan from the bank, and kept buying businesses and boats over the years.
Lobstering in season has always been a given, but in the winter he either travelled or hopped into another fishery.
“I have worked in every fishery, the only thing I haven’t done is (sea) scalloping,” Martin said.
Just before he bought Nantucket Sound Fishweirs, he thought about buying a dragger, but he bought the trap company instead.
“The fishery was so good then, half the fleet was on the weirs in the spring,” Martin said.
If he had bought the dragger he would likely be sitting on a lot of valuable scallop quota. By contrast the trap business “has been marginal at best,” but Martin seems to have taken his choice in stride.
“I like doing it,” he said. “When we’re catching fish it is a pretty awesome way to do it.” Plus, he is home near noon many days.
They also work in sight of shore. It’s hand-over-hand effort to purse the net up off the bottom without letting the fish escape, slowly bringing one side onto the boat, securing the shrinking net to the gunnel with wooden-handled, spiked prongs that hold mesh and fit into holes on the rail. The fish are drawn to the surface, swimming and flipping as the net space shrinks.
One of the things Martin appreciates is that any fish they can’t sell is released, usually unharmed.
Once the fish is at hand, a crewman swung a dip net attached to a boom, called a killdevil, into the silver moving mass. Scup, pogies, with a little squid squirmed in the net. Buckley emptied the contents into a large, shiny, open box and the crew sorted. The more dips of the killdevil, the more fish.
The scup were roundish, like a dessert plate with a head and tail, destined for market, food for humans. The pogies, or menhaden, were baitfish for lobstermen (Martin would freeze some for his own business) or could be made into fish oil.
Squid were the most valuable. “‘Superb’ would be a trap full of squid,” said Martin.
Today wasn’t superb, not a lot of squid nor as much scup as he would have liked. But Martin was optimistic.
“I think there is hope; we caught a pile of scup,” he said.
At the second trap the harvest was purely pogies, less valuable baitfish, but a fair amount of them. They piled up around Martin’s ankles as they slid down a shiny chute, soon up past his knees.
Martin knows he is one of the last practitioners of an ancient tradition. Maybe that is why he came back after staying out of the fishery for four years.
“I never remember the bad days. I only remember the good days,” he said.
And this day felt good, steaming back on flat water, boat low, sun high.
“If we lose this knowledge we lose something very special,” said Frost, his broad British accent making for a pronouncement. “We have a wonderful world in many ways, but this is just fantastic.”