Remembering days on the back of the boat
By John Pappalardo
“It hasn’t always been this way.”
Fishermen say that a lot, and they mean it in a sad or nostalgic way.
I have my own nostalgia but it’s a little different. My biggest changes have come because I no longer have time to work on the water, even part-time. These days I work rooms, phones, and meetings, trying to do my best navigating political currents to keep this small-boat fleet alive. It’s still all about fishing, but hey, it isn’t fishing.
And I miss those days.
I got started in the mid-1990s, late compared to many, in my mid-20s. I had been one of those young kids who would curl up in the back of the family stationwagon and wind up on Cape Cod after a night drive from Connecticut, loving the place, later a college graduate back to try to make a real life on this peninsula full of good summer vibes.
Don Bramley reluctantly agreed to take me, greenest of greenhorns, as a fill-in deck hand. He was a legendary fisherman, his boat the Pooh Bah, berthed in Wychmere Harbor, 31 feet if it was an inch, and he was a handliner, fishing by hand with hook and line. He was pretty hard on me the first few trips, he’d go below while we were looking for striped bass, leaving me in charge of everything from tiller to throttle to jigging to trying to stay out of the rips, and every 10 minutes or so he’d come up and ask how I was doing. Maybe I had another fish or two.
“We’re gonna be out here a long time,” he’d say.
When we switched over to jigging for cod on bottom with structure on it, like wrecks, where cod like to school, one of the first things he told me was that to jig you need to “see” the bottom with your hands, know when to keep that hook down and when to bring it up to avoid snags. Just when I was about to tell him I was getting the feel of it, I hung up on a wreck. Lost three jigs in one trip, which he took out of my next pay settlement, something like six bucks a jig.
But he stuck with me and I fished with him through a summer, winter, and spring, until he got sick and had to stop. With hooks we were catching 2000-3000 pounds of cod, 1000 pounds of pollock, maybe 100 or more striped bass. We’d stay out until the boat was full, whatever it took, a day and a half or then some.
It hasn’t always been this way.
When Don had to stop, I joined Ronnie Braun. Ronnie had fished with Don too, but branched off to take his dad’s boat. You’ll see elsewhere in this emag that my colleague Doreen Leggett went conching with Ronnie this month, which does my heart good – she took her 12-year-old son Caleb on his first commercial fishing trip that day, which does my heart even better.
But 20 years back, it was still jigging and longlining for groundfish. I filled in whenever I could, sharing the site with Paul Parker as we were sharing our community work. Ronnie would take us into the channel but usually in late August he would get “tuna fever” – even if we were doing fine with cod, he’d want to go look for those big fish. I remember coming home with 3500 pounds of cod, a fine trip, and Ronnie got off the VHF radio to say that we were going to unload, strip the boat, and get ready to chase tuna. That’s what we did, maybe all the way to Halloween, then switch to dogfish in Cape Cod Bay maybe all the way to Christmas, then start the cycle again.
Around 2002, 2003, longlining codfish stopped being the reliable go-to it had been for so long. Gillnetters were still doing well for a while longer, but guys fishing with hooks were dropping off. Hooks only catch fish that are hungry, interested in bait, while gillnets can catch any fish that’s moving in the water column. That major difference meant that the decline in total stocks hit the hook guys much harder and faster, and by the way led to a lot of bitterness and division within the fleet.
By 2002, I first gained a seat on the New England Fisheries Management Council, and my policy and advocacy work made it really hard to be on the water except as an occasional stand-in. My life changed a lot; I even surrendered a hand-gear permit, because I wasn’t using it and didn’t want to sell it given that I was supposed to be making decisions independent of personal gain.
I don’t regret coming ashore to do my work for the Alliance, though I miss those times. If there’s any regret it’s that the pace of improvement is too slow; I want to see the fishery I remember come back a lot faster. That said, I remain confident that what we hear so often, “it hasn’t always been this way,” implies a more hopeful phrase I believe in just as much:
“It won’t always be this way.”
(John Pappalardo is CEO of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance)