(Captain Fred Bennett, a Chatham stalwart, has seen a lot, done a lot, and caught a lot of fish. Now 82 years old, we asked him to take a look back and inform us as to what fishing life and times were like around here half a century ago. Here is his tale.)
In 1964, I started work at Ryder’s Cove boatyard as a marine mechanic.
Observing a few fishermen piqued my interest in striper fishing, but lacking funds to purchase a boat I built a flat-bottom skiff and got a 10-horsepower motor secondhand. From 1965 all my spare time night and day was spent catching stripers.
I was observing not only the fish, but the total marine environment. My observation included fishermen, water, birds, and anything else associated with fishing.
In the early spring I would catch a meal of cod by Old Harbor Station. Then, later in the season, after the cod had departed, black-backed flounder would come around inshore. On a nice day we would go flounder fishing and often caught two wood boxes full of flounder at 10-20 cents a pound.
Striper fishing started in early May with schoolies and by May 10 to 15 there were nice large bass in Pleasant Bay. The big stripers like eels, so I caught eels for bait. The herring runs were booming at that time and they provided bait as well.
In 1964, the first year I came here, I was trying to survive making like $2 an hour. I sold my skiff so I could buy my house. Back in the day we fished seven days a week.
In 1965, fishermen went on strike because they were only getting two or four cents a pound for codfish. It got up to 12 or 14 cents 10 years later; hard to say that was a success.
In Pleasant Bay off Minister’s Point at night, there would be a fleet of boats. When the tide slackened an acre of fish would come up to the surface. And they weren’t small; they were great big things.
Almost everything was sold at Old Harbor Fish. I saw these guys come in with all these fish and they were big and I was excited.
I wanted that to be my life so I asked for advice.
I was a flatlander. No one was going to tell a flatlander what to do, so I went out to try and figure it out on my own. It was just coming on dark and I was coming down along the shore and there was a little rip. It’s still there. I put an eel over and I caught a striped bass and it was a big one. I caught 12 or 13 nice fish a night and did that for two solid weeks.
Finally I got in with the crowd. They said, “I guess he can fish. Maybe we will talk to him.”
I learned more every day. A lot of people you learn from observation. Jimmy Andrews, he took me to one of his secret spots. He was a great caster, he could cast a mile. You were competing with great fishermen, Mother Nature and the fish themselves.
If there was the slightest bit of fog I was gone, trying to find a spot away from the crowd. I had a great spot and didn’t want anyone to know. I was catching great big ones, 30- or 40-pounders. I used to see a guy with binoculars and one time he came up and I had the bass on the line and of course I pretended I didn’t. I talked to him for 15 minutes! It felt interminable. There was a lot of competition in bass fishing back then.
Chatham was called fog city, may have been cooler then. People didn’t go to lay around the beach, they went to go fishing. Now most of the fishermen are at the Cape Cod Canal.
I continued fishing until 2001 when I retired from a life offshore. But I haven’t retired from fishing. I’ve spent the last 18 years commercial quahogging and striped bass fishing. It’s kept me busy. I have also spent a bit of time working with a company doing seal surveys and rescues.
I am not nostalgic for the good old days. But those days were better, for fishermen at least. Not for seals I guess. This time is undoubtedly their time.
I go to all my spots that used to have fish. Nothing.
As I go through the North Inlet on early mornings there are a number of beach buggies and campers. However, no one is fishing. As I head up to Nauset Inlet I see the same situation, plenty of campers and no one fishing.
No, it’s not the sharks, it’s the seals.
While I was surveying seals on Monomoy in April and May several years ago massive herds were seen, numbering in the thousands. Those numbers have only increased.
A few years ago, when I worked at Chatham Fish Pier as a fish pier host, I saw seals eating striped bass. Seals must be quick to catch stripers. Sadly, they seem to eat the bellies and discard the rest.
All of these memories were on my mind as I headed out this fall. At low tide there were 500-1000 seals sleeping between Strong Island and Scataree Landing. I can’t help but wonder what they ate that day.
Seals have certainly helped tourism with seal cruises and surveys. But perhaps when a species becomes over-abundant some kind of control should be available.
What would you do with a cute creature that has ruined the fishing in Pleasant Bay?
While working digging quahogs I used to see eels and juvenile flounders. In the past 10 years I have seen two eels and a few flounder. This is not pollution but predation.
I am not saying there is no striped bass in Pleasant Bay, but seals have really driven them out. If we didn’t have any seals these fish would return.
There are other things in the world besides seals. Give the other creatures a chance.
By Fred Bennett, transcribed and edited by Doreen Leggett