By Doreen Leggett
Although not fond of snakes, Joseph Nickerson spent several summers catching eels in eel pots and selling them to a company owned by a couple of really well-dressed brothers who came down from Gloucester every other week and transfered the harvest from eel car to tank truck.
“They looked like two guys getting out of the truck in tuxes,” he said. “They were first class.”
In the 70s, Nickerson also spent time spearing those long, squiggly eels through the ice, once the salt ponds and coves had enough salt ice on them to support that activity. Now salt ponds rarely freeze, no one goes eeling, and fish buyers don’t wear suits. All that remains of the fishery are spears used to stab eels, and stories.
Much of what Nickerson did has been relegated to a bygone era and he wanted to make sure it wasn’t lost.
“I thought I would write it down for my grandkids, put it in a manilla envelope and give it to them,” Nickerson said.
His wife Suzy convinced him to do a book instead. Now Nickerson’s stories, mostly from the 1950s through 1980s, has been published as “Over the Bar” (a name we enjoy and have used in this publication as well).
Some non-fishing Chatham tidbits are included – baseball games, a neighbor using a horse-drawn buckboard – but mostly it is tales from Nickerson’s days fishing and shellfishing.
“Fishing can be big money one year and very little the next. What made it appealing was the way of life it offered. In the era before technology, you had to figure things out for yourself,” he wrote. “You needed to know how to read the weather, the clouds, the wind direction, and the swing of the tide both offshore and inshore.
“If you were good at reading the signs you caught fish.”
Nickerson recently talked about his 200-page memoir, a life on the water split with a life on land teaching and coaching at Chatham High.
“Over the Bar” also explores the lives of men who came before him. Nickerson’s grandfather, Joseph Nickerson Senior, lived when seining for striped bass was still allowed – a 10,000-pound catch was not unheard of.
The elder Nickerson fished from a catboat. “When he fished he sailed,” his grandson said, bringing in fish from the mooring to a shoreside shanty at Scatteree Landing in a dory where the fish were dressed and then packed in wooden boxes, salted and readied for pick up.
“He built his house with the money he made pollocking one spring,” Nickerson said.
Nickerson started fishing when he was around 14 with relatives Ed Tucker and Bob Griffin. He also went lobstering with yet another relative, Sonny Mallows, on the Thelma M. He still remembers the smell of the shanties at the Chatham Fish Pier, a mix of tar, fish and tobacco, where he spent much time growing up.
Nickerson also worked for his cousin, Willard “The Cod Father” Nickerson, at Nickerson’s Fish and Lobster (now the Chatham Fish Pier Market). He used to eat his lunch on the pier and one Saturday Captain Bob Ryder asked him what he was doing on Sunday.
“Nothing I guess,” Nickerson replied. He was told to be at the pier at 4 a.m., and he was. They went jigging for cod and at the end of the trip, Nickerson recalls that Ryder said, “‘Hey you did a good job.’ And gave me $100.” That was really good money; he was making $75 working 50 or 60 hours a week at the market.
The money drew him, but it was the culture of the profession that hooked him. Nickerson went fishing as much as he could and the book is filled with memorable moments and people.
Nickerson relates one time he was out fishing with the late Jack Our.
“We were at the codfish grounds down at the channel and had 70 boxes of dressed fish in the boat. As we start to leave for home Jack asks us if we want to spend the night there, set more gear in the morning and then go home. We didn’t care, but I made a comment about how we didn’t bring any food on the trip. We usually ate very well on the boat,” Nickerson recalled.
With that comment, Nickerson added, Jack said ‘Ok, college boy’, Nickerson’s nickname, and went chasing after a gigantic scallop boat, many times their size. At the time there was no 200-mile limit and the foreign fleet shared the fishing grounds.
They traded cod for scallops.
“I’m sure at least one of those crewmen has told the story of meeting up with some crazy American fishermen looking for something to eat – on a boatload of fish!” Nickerson wrote.
The book describes the long-gone freezer plants in Chatham and Harwich where you got 50-pound pans of squid and herring bait, Kendrick Box and Barrell where fish boxes were made and packed. Lines of gear were straightened on Spruce Road in Harwich.
Nickerson writes in detail about the lost art of how tarred ganglions were cut and attached to cotton line.
“I bet I could still tie one today,” Nickerson said.
The book also boasts big fish stories, including how cod fish were so big you could only fit two in a box.
Nickerson said he has heard stories recently about enormous halibut – not as big as the 400-pounders caught years ago -but still a good sign.
“What I am hoping is that it takes just one good year class of one species of fish, to help some of the species to bounce back,” he said.
Nickerson describes himself as “gypsy” fisherman because he went when he came home from college and when he wasn’t teaching. The day school was out Nickerson would go “over the bar.” Nickerson remembers one year in the 1970s when the F/V Kristen averaged 115 to 120 boxes a day all summer, which set a record for Chatham Fishermen’s Co-op (which no longer exists).
He remembers when a big catch almost sank the boat, being lost in the fog worried about running out of gas, and rescuing the crew of the Fairwind.
“Fairwind’s rails were awash, and half the house was underwater, with three guys hanging onto it, their eyes wide, their faces ghastly white. I understood! I would have been out of my mind if I found myself nearly 20 miles offshore in thirty-two fathoms of water in black fog with sharks about.”
One could argue it was fishing that led to Nickerson’s close to 40-year career teaching at the high school. After graduating college with a teaching degree, he was drafted to go to Vietnam, but was deferred. After working on base doing hydrotherapy for servicemen badly injured overseas, he got a teaching job in New York. Nickerson, with his young family, came home to North Chatham that summer and worked at the fish market until Willard told him the high school physical education teacher had quit.
“I’m covered in fish, and he says, ‘You have to go,’” said Nickerson, who got the job, which paid $5,280 a year.
Athletic, Nickerson also became the soccer, girls basketball and baseball coach. He had gotten a scholarship to play soccer in college, even played semi-pro with the “Norwalk Greeks.”
“They were all Hungarian,” laughed Nickerson.
He worked various fisheries in his decades on the water. Nickerson said when he went conching he was told to beware of wood-eating worms. Most fishermen had two sets of traps and they would switch during the summer and put the old ones in freshwater ponds to kill worms. Nickerson never did see the worms, but he saw what they did to traps which dissolved when he pulled them up.
“Your pots just vanish,” he said.
Nickerson eventually bought his own boat, the Aquarius, which he later sold because he couldn’t go fishing enough with his teaching job. He still went fishing though, in a skiff.
Now he has a 10-pot lobster trap license and goes scratching for quahogs. He was racing the tide quahogging recently when the shellfish warden checked in and asked his name.
“Are you the Joe Nickerson who wrote the book?” she asked.
He replied in the affirmative.
“Thank you. That was very nice,” she said.