Peter Cole looks back on fifty years in the industry
By Doreen Leggett
Peter Cole was sitting in his small bungalow in Chatham, birds inches away at his feeders.
“When I was fishing I never thought much about birds. Ten years ago I started caring about them. As we head toward beneath the ground our spirits follow the birds,” he mused.
Then the phone rang, and Cole set up a rendezvous in Taunton to pick up bait the next morning, real early, to miss the traffic coming back.
“I am the shanty master,” he said with a smile. “P&B Shanty, where the work for fishermen, the work of fishermen, is done onshore.”
The role of supplying bait, be it sea clams, herring, mackerel or squid, is one he is trying to relinquish as he approaches 80.
But on that summer day he couldn’t, not just yet. He doesn’t like to think about how much more difficult it would be for charter boats like the Helen H. to get their sea clams, or how commercial fishermen would fare who are longlining for dogfish with mackerel, cut with a bandsaw, and placed on hundreds of hooks and laid out in totes in his shop.
There are fewer and fewer places to get bait, and without bait many fisheries stop.
“Any kind of bait is so hard to get,” said Captain Ron Braun, who has been getting bait from Cole for decades. “He is the man.”
When Braun first started he longlined for cod and other groundfish. Squid or herring was the lure, then he fished for dogfish with baited hooks and now sea bass or conch. Lately, he has been getting bait for his traps elsewhere, but knows where Cole is if need be.
“He tends to be there every time you count on him,” Braun said.
Even Cole’s shop in Commerce Park South in Chatham, where shuckers make quick work of bushels of sea clams, is a bit of a relic.
“It’s the last of the wild west down there,” said Braun.
Cole is there a lot, although he doesn’t shuck or bait himself anymore. The enterprise is changing as the fisheries change.
“I’ve gone from being a baiting company with a side in sea clam bait, to a sea clam company with a side in baiting,” Cole explained, saying one customer in New York takes 100,000 pounds of sea clams for bait in the course of a year.
Long before Cole opened P&B Shanty, he was a fisherman. That began as a fluke, an arrangement made over drinks and dinner.
He had no prior fishing experience, born in Illinois, moved to Florida where his only water experience was in a rowboat on a lake.
“I was bored,” he said with a laugh. “The boat just sat in the middle of the lake.”
After a stint in foster care, he ended up in New York with his father and stepmother (who he considers his real mother), and years later, while on leave from the Marines (he joined in 1963), he went out to dinner on the Cape with his parents and their friends.
One was Sten Carlson.
“So Peter, you want to go fishing?” Cole remembers Carlson asking. He tried, “and I made $120 in three days which kicked the ass of the $65 I made a month as a PFC, private first class, in the marines.”
The transition wasn’t immediate. Cole enrolled in Haverford College in 1961 and then dropped out and flailed around a bit before enlisting in the marines.
“I was in the Marines when my Commander and Chief was assassinated,” Cole said, referring to President Kennedy.
Cole was in Vietnam and although he couldn’t articulate it at all then, he felt those in power were changing the marines. He wrote to Haverford, who wrote to his commanding officer, and he went back to school for political science in early 1967.
When he returned he worked part time for a small electronics company owned by Dr. Benham, a blind professor of electrical engineering.
“He was extraordinary,” he said.
Cole remembers parties when his best friend graduated from Harvard Medical School or other acquaintances graduated, but he also remembers disliking anti-war and pro-war factions and just wanting to go fishing.
“My dad was sure I was going to be a lawyer,” Cole said; there was a stretch when he thought of it, but didn’t feel like studying for the exams.
He ended back up on Cape with his future wife in 1970 at a place called “Sleepy Hollow,” which was a bit of a commune and art enclave on the Brewster-Orleans line. There were a fair number of fishermen around who had served in Vietnam and they brought some of that pain home with them, said Penny Summers, who is putting together oral histories of fishing in the 1960s and 70s.
“They were fed up with the war and the world,” Summers said.
Cole said he was among fishermen who either flamed out of places like Columbia or Brown or graduated and just walked away.
“Peter is so smart, he is a smart ass,” Summers said.
He ended up with Carlson, a washashore who wasn’t initially welcomed into the Chatham fleet.
Carlson had designed a big 65-foot boat, the Jocelyn C, he had built in Virginia.
“That was a hell of a boat,” Cole remembered.
The vessel was in Chatham, said Cole, but soon after Chatham put a 50-foot size restriction in place so they moved to Wychmere in Harwich, near where Thompson’s Clam Bar used to be. The move also helped them avoid the dangerous Chatham Bar.
The memory makes Cole grin because they gave their cod fish heads to Harry Hunt, an Orleans lobsterman and legend in fishing circles, for bait. Hunt supplied the enormous amount of lobsters served at Thompson’s, so Cole was in and if you were in Hunt’s circle the drinks and raw bar were free and copious.
Cole has been sober for close to 20 years, but will readily admit he lost too much of his life to drugs and alcohol. “I burn with shame when I talk about it, but it’s important to say.”
Not long after that, his dad gave him seed money. He had gotten a Wall Street prospectus on how these new, highly engineered offshore lobster boats, could make investors money. The problem was those working weren’t in on the deal.
“That wasn’t the point for me,” said Cole. “The point was to be on the boat and have people on the boat make money.”
Cole went offshore lobstering with Carlson. They drove Carlson’s Saab down to pick up a prototype lobster trap – it only blew off the roof once – and then commenced building 97 of them.
They went out once before Russian draggers destroyed all but 19 of the traps.
“It was like shooting craps,” he said.
At another point they were chasing halibut and found a place without a soul in sight, a goldmine.
“We fished for three days and got about 5,000 pounds of halibut,” Cole said. “Next time we went back out everyone was there. Sten had told one person.”
Cole stayed on other people’s boats until 1972. Then he partnered with Paul Gasek, bought a small boat and went jigging and long lining.
“It was so unsuccessful it almost doesn’t count as a venture,” Cole said. “God must love amateurs. We shouldn’t have survived it.”
Gasek later went on to be an Emmy award winner and executive producer of Deadliest Catch and Shark Week.
Then Cole went into business with Bing Thistle, of Harwich, and they bought Bobby Nickerson’s boat, the Bob and Bill.
“That was a good boat and we had a good year,” Cole said.
They ended up moving to Allen’s Harbor in Harwich and were frozen in when he didn’t move the boat quick enough before a sudden freeze in November.
“I never moved the boat until March so I starved to death,” Cole said.
Not exactly. Sea scallops had come in big off Chatham that year so he was helping shuck them and also helping a fellow fisherman outfit his boat with a scallop dredge. The boat ended up doing well and he got a nice check.
“The check bounced. I laugh about it now,” he said.
They ended up selling the Bob and Bill to a trio of fishermen from Plymouth.
“We got out clean, not great but clean,” said Cole.
The harbor was changing, Cole said, the bar had been easy until the “hump” and the bars moved, putting you broadside to the waves twice.
The fleet at the time was primarily a hook fleet and in 1977 into 1978 few were doing well.
“The only guy succeeding longlining that year was Billy Amaru who would go fishing at night for squid and stay out and use that squid for bait,” remembered Cole.
He reckons the problem landing ground fish, such as cod and haddock, was because there were so many sand eels around that herring bait wasn’t interesting.
“It just felt like there were no fish in the ocean,” he said.
Cole had heard about gillnetting up in Gloucester. Many fishermen in Chatham opposed gillnetting and Cole said he was the first to bring them to town.
“They didn’t approve and they thought it wouldn’t work because we have a lot of tide,” Cole said.
“The first day I came in with about 6,000 pounds from a trip on the Figs,” said Cole, explaining that was probably triple the catch of longliners. “And a tuna, a huge one.”
“Peter was always very enterprising,” said Gasek. “He was always willing to try something, do the extra work. He was always kind of a scientific fisherman.”
Cole said it wasn’t the smoothest transition, he ended up losing gear the first time. And then he refinanced and came up with $5,000 to drive up to Camden, Maine and buy better equipment. Around the same time he almost sank the boat, the Sniktaw, which he had bought about a year earlier.
“I call it the day we all died,” he said. “We were hauling gear and suddenly the stern of the boat disappeared. I put it in gear and floored it and the crew was firing fish into the water. I took a hard left and the stern popped up. I said throw the pollock, not the codfish. I was trying to say we were going to live.”
Cole sold that boat in 1982 and ended up captaining the Black Mariah and another boat or two. He said that by 1987 he had gotten off drugs (not alcohol yet), and at 54 started anew.
“I decided I was going to go fishing like I used to, as crew,” Cole said. “Every year being a captain had gotten less and less fun.”
Over the years he had baited gear and paid people to bait gear and fix nets. There were shanties in backyards and spots all over Chatham where people did the work part time or full time. Sometimes 30 people would be baiting in a rented shanty.
“Before me people would find a shanty or a shed, sometimes not even a freezer,” he said. “The shanty has this cooperative quality to it.”
One winter when he was hurt, he baited gear and made a good amount of money working on 300 or more bundles of gear a week as each boat takes out about 10 or 12 bundles at a time. A good baiter can do a bundle in three-quarters of an hour and with $18 for a bundle the math worked.
“I was good for awhile,” Cole said.
In the last days of 1998 he borrowed $15,000 from his father and bought two freezers. That’s when he completely switched professions, but he knew, to a point, what he was getting into.
Gasek said that by the late 80s fish were getting less plentiful and the old ways of having the crew and the captain bait their own gear for three hours, starting at 2 a.m. on the way to the grounds, was wearing even on guys in their 20s.
“By farming it out it basically bought back some time and fishermen had to become more efficient,” said Gasek.
Cole saw those forces on the horizon. In the busy years he had 24 people working for him. And during dog fish booms 90 totes baited went out the door to ports in Marshfield as well as the Cape.
“Peter has always been kind of an innovator,” Gasek said.
Now an inevitable transition has arrived. Cole has just sold his company to Black Gold Fisheries and said local owner and fisherman Scott Rushnak is a heads-up, diligent guy who is expanding the business.
“I’m impressed with how he is going about it,” said Cole.
Cole plans to spend more time “adventuring” with his grandchildren, but will stay involved. That Sunday afternoon he was heading to Wellfleet to make sure the shuckers had enough bait.
“It’s important,” he said.