Decade after decade, Tom Smith stays keeps connected to the sea -- and his customers
Dy Doreen Leggett
Leaving Hyannis Harbor just before 5 a.m., Captain Tom Smith arrives on Horseshoe Shoal in Nantucket Sound a few hours later and pulls alongside a boat with three fishermen trying to use rods to reel in bluefish.
They aren’t having much luck. Smith commiserates; no one has seen many bluefish this year.
“They are hiding in caves – that’s the joke,” says Smith. “The rod and reel guys are frustrated.”
Smith seems to take the lack of fish in stride. That may come from close to 40 years on the water.
The main thing that worries him is his customers.
“I have a lot of small markets that rely on me for fish daily,” says Smith, keeping his eyes on the water looking for signs of the sharp-toothed fish. “I have way more customers than I do fish right now.”
After steaming around in his boat F/V Sea Wolf, Smith finds a spot that looks promising.
He casts his line with a chewed up orange wooden cylinder dangling from the end – the bite marks from legions of bluefish over the years – to see if they are biting. They seem to be.
So he’ll try here, about six miles from shore.
When Smith blares the horn his crew – his nephew, Ricky Marvin, a tall, skinny, friendly 23-year-old -- puts 500 yards of net over the back of the boat.
Marvin loves being out there. A Nauset graduate, he can make good money – he is paying for his wife to go to graduate school – and feel good about what he accomplished when he gets home at night.
“I look forward to the action and I love being able to work with my hands,” says Marvin, who has been lobstering as well. “And I’ve always loved that aspect of it – that the (fish) is going to feed people on the Cape.”
After the net plays out, Marvin grabs a square pole about the length of a broomstick, walks to the middle of the deck, big fish totes on either side of him, huge metal contraption on the stern, and begins banging the pole against the deck.
Clunk, clunk, clunk, clunk, goes the pole.
Smith is now driving the boat in circles.
Clunk, clunk, clunk, clunk.
After several minutes, Smith stops the boat and the two pull up the strike netting. The hope is that the noise spooked the schooling fish into the net.
“It’s a really cool fishery,” says Smith with a grin.
He has been catching bluefish since 1981.
“Once you do it it’s in your blood, you’ll do it till you drop. I really wouldn’t entertain doing anything else,” Smith says.
He remembers when he was first introduced to the fishery. Born in Connecticut, son of a minister and an elementary school teacher, he spent summers on the Cape, then moved to Orleans full-time when he was 10.
Smith’s dad, along with being an ordained minister, was the Harwich harbormaster and a commercial fisherman. He was one of the early supporters of the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association – the forerunner to the Fishermen’s Alliance - because he felt local fishermen could bring about more positive change if they banded together.
Marvin, Smith’s grandson, wishes his grandad could have seen him start his fishing career, but he is happy to fish with his uncle.
“I really look up to Tom and he has a really good work ethic,” Marvin says.
Tom Smith has been fishing since he was 12, when he got a part-time job on the charter boat Empress with Stu Finlay and became a commercial fisherman for life.
After graduating from Cape Cod Technical High School’s commercial fishing program, he headed down to Florida with some friends.
While exploring southern Florida one day looking for a job he ended up at Port Salerno.
“I came around a corner and there were fishing boats and piles of nets,” says Smith. “I thought I had died and went to heaven.”
Smith ended up crewing on a few boats and learned how to bluefish in a way that wasn’t done up north. The technique is a variation of gillnetting, the nets remarkably similar – long with diamond mesh – but instead of soaking for hours they are hauled quickly. All the fish, mostly plump eight pounders this year, come up alive and are quickly bled and brined to protect the flavor.
Smith bought a boat and left Florida a year or two later to come back home. He split his time between the two ports for more than a decade. Bluefish are more cyclical than other species and when Smith started fishing for them off the Cape they seemed to be everywhere.
“We were catching a lot in the 1980s,” Smith remembers.
Twenty or 30 years ago, he says, there were so many bluefish he could smell them. One season he did a quarter of a million pounds from a skiff.
“And I never had any electronics,” he says, one finger holding the binoculars to his eyes with a permanent crook from a knife that missed a fish. “It’s possible it will get there again.”
A few years after Smith began fishing in earnest, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission began regulating the bluefish catch and Massachusetts got just under seven percent of the quota. Smith helped craft the regulations, which set a higher mesh size than many other states and also required fishermen to stay with their gear and not leave it unattended.
As it stands now, Smith has the only permit that allows fishing with strike netting. And when he goes so does the permit. But he, and others, are working on changing this eventuality.
If things don’t change, his crew jokes that they are going to stuff him when he dies, just like in the movie “Weekend at Bernie’s.”
Although 5,000-pound days are not unusual, and years ago there were enough fish to make two trips a day, this year he has seen too many days under 2,000 pounds.
“Nothing is the same this year; next year will be different,” he says, adding he is encouraged by the enormous numbers of small fish he has seen.
On this day there are just enough fish to keep his regular customers happy.
As Smith scouts around for more fish, he calls one of his long-time customers up. He is debating whether to steam out of Provincetown and try Cape Cod Bay tomorrow.
“I am going to try a new zip code,” he tells a market owner. “You going to be there? We will be there after lunch but early.”
They get back to the dock in Hyannis around 11 a.m. which is chockful of curious tourists and a gaggle of kids boarding the “pirate ship” at Bismore Park. The crowds prompt Smith to head over to Baxter’s to unload.
The lunch crowd at Baxter’s, and others on the dock, appreciate the working waterfront and Marvin has had to show more than a few kids bluefish and talk about his day. He doesn’t mind.
“I feel like it’s a rewarding job,” says Marvin.
After getting on the road, the first stop is Chatham Fishermen’s Supply to grab an extra shovel for ice and talk shop with a few other fishermen.
Then it’s on to Orleans where he delivers several hundred pounds of bluefish to Orleans Seafood Market and Nauset Fish and Lobster Pool.
Smith invested in his own truck a few years ago, which means he can deliver fish himself and not rely on a middleman, something he and his customers appreciate.
He normally would have a chance to see his daughters, home from college for the summer, because one works at the fish market and the other nearby at the restaurant Sir Cricket’s. But they both have the day off.
So he and Marvin keep driving into Wellfleet where he brings the rest of his catch to Adrien Kmiec at Hatches Fish Market.
“The biggest thing for us is selling a quality product, and a lot of fishermen, like Tom, take good care of their product,” says Kmiec on a busy day earlier this month.
Kmiec, son of a fisherman, says his customers have always wanted fish caught on the Cape, but in recent years he has noticed the “eat local” movement has prompted more awareness and more people are asking where the fish are from.
That’s one of the reasons why he appreciates fishermen like Smith. They talk in the morning, he tells Tom what he needs, and Smith arrives that afternoon after he gets off the water.
“It’s important to support the local fishermen,” Kmiec says. “And it’s always the best stuff we can get.”
Even this year, when the bluefish haven’t been cooperating, Smith goes out seven days a week and comes home “wiped out,” but the next day he’s up early, “hot to trot.”
“When I think of Cape Cod I think of commercial fishing, I guess it’s because it’s all I’ve ever done,” Smith says. “The Cape, in my mind, would be a boring place without it.”