By Doreen Leggett
“If we are representing the last generation of commercial fishermen on Cape Cod, we have failed.”
Those words are often said by John Pappalardo, CEO of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance, but one of the reasons there are fewer fishermen on the peninsula is that there are fewer role models.
When Captain Mike Anderson began his fishing career in Chatham 50 years ago, virtually everyone in town had a pair of boots. And the smell of fish was a heady thing.
“You get real stinky fishing — if you catch them. In the old days when we came home, when the town was a fishing town, they would say it smells like money. It doesn’t smell like fish, it smells like money,” he told a class of entranced third graders at Harwich Elementary School last month.
The teacher, Jackie Cleary, smiled. Her father used to commercial fish and when he came home she used to ask to smell his hands.
“I knew he had a good day if that smell was strong,” she remembers.
Cleary, whose parents live on the same street as Anderson, grew up with the fish pier as a central part of her life.
She remembers being clad in pajamas and slippers as her mom took to meet her father, Wally Bicknell, and later, her older brother Jeremy, at the pier.
“My brother was meant to be on the ocean, just like my dad,” said Cleary. “It definitely runs in my family’s blood. My dad’s dad was a fisherman in Chatham as well.”
But fewer children on the Cape grow up watching their parents go to work on the ocean. Fewer go down to the pier to watch a loved one come in with a full boat of fish.
Although 3000 people, mostly tourists, visit the fish pier on a typical day in the summer, most kids in Cleary’s class had never been.
That surprised Anderson, who can be found down there most summer weekends answering questions from curious visitors.
“You should get your parents to take you, drag them down there. It’s very educational,” said Anderson with a grin.
The students had spent some class time learning about commercial fishing and had done a creative writing project. The assignment: Imagine your life as a fisherman and design your own fishing boat.
“Captain” Carissa Follett’s boat would be hard to reproduce:
“I’m Captain of the Katrina Greatness and it is awesome because it is a self-driving boat and it’s made out of a material that if you run into an iceberg it won’t split in two … I forget what the material is called,” she wrote.
Talking to the students in Cleary’s class wasn’t much different than answering the multitude of questions that Anderson fields at the pier as one of the pier hosts for the Alliance.
“What is the biggest fish you caught?” was one of the first questions.
“More than 1000 pounds,” he said, “a blue fin tuna.”
One time he was only paid around $2 a pound, at another time he got $14,000 for one fish.
“If it happens to be the right time and the right fish, it can be worth a tremendous amount,” Anderson explained.
Some of the students thought $14,000 was probably not that much for someone like Anderson, who laughed at that notion.
But then again, their imaginary careers were proving more lucrative:
“Hi, I’m Shawn the captain. I get paid $100,000 for fishing. I fish for groupers which pay me $100,000,000,” wrote student Shawn Eddy.
“Have you ever been overboard?” was another question.
“Yup,” said Anderson. One time he was knocked out of the boat by a line and found himself eye to eye with the anchor. He kicked off his boots and was hanging on to the bow in a current that was running real fast.
Since he was alone he had a big choice to make so with a burst of adrenaline he pulled himself up.
“I survived and I am here, still telling the same stories,” he said with a laugh.
Another time a rogue sea catapulted a crewmember over the side of the boat. Only moments before Anderson had fortuitously shut the hauling door or he would have been in the drink himself. Those are the moments that are hard to forget.
“We got him,” he said.
“What is the most fish you have ever caught?”
Anderson said he caught 3,800 pounds cod and close to 10,000 pounds of dogfish in a day.
Those numbers were a bit higher than the recollections of some of the students.
“I fish for salmon,” wrote Captain Darcy Addison, who sails out of Wellfleet so she can toot her horn at her Nonny’s house when she motors by. “I sell salmon at the Chatham Squire. I usually catch 50 pounds of salmon a day. Since I really like salmon sometimes I keep a pound for myself.”
But unlike Anderson, a washashore who began crewing with acquaintances before he got his own boat, several students imagine having family to rely upon:
“Hello my name is Glen and I am a fisherman with a crew. My crew are my family because they are perfect for fishing,” wrote Glen Devlin.
Other students pictured themselves introduced to fishing at a young age and found themselves hooked.
“I became a fisherman by going fishing when I was a kid and learning how,” wrote Hank Brown. “I was a great fisher when I was a kid … We had a great time and that is how I became a fisherman.”
As a former English major there is always a chance that Anderson will write a book about this exploits, but student Tea Donna is one step ahead of him.
“Hi I’m Tea and I am always fishing in my boat. I have a book of all the things I have caught,” she wrote.
Anderson didn’t pause when one of the last questions was asked: “Is your job fun?”
“It is,” he said. “It is great fun. I want adventure in my life and fishing is a great adventure.”