A history of handlining connects Ted Ligenza with Chatham’s past
Dy Doreen Leggett
Heading around Monomoy Point just after 3 a.m., with no moonlight, the dark is encompassing. The lights on Ted Ligenza’s boat offer no respite from the blackness as he heads to the fishing grounds.
The controls throw a faint blue glow on his face as he stares into the night.
Do you like doing this commute? he is asked.
His look speaks volumes.
“I have to be there when the fish are biting,” Ligenza says.
Gillnetters can leave their nets fishing overnight, come in the morning to haul them, he explains. As a jig fisherman he has to be there early to put four, maybe five, hooks in the water at a time. He’ll jounce them up and down and, hopefully, catch glistening olive cod and grey pollock -- as he has done for 46 years.
In the past the blackness was less of a challenge.
“I used to have an amazing sense of direction,” he says. “When I was young I knew right where I was all the time, even in the fog. A lot has gone with age.”
There were also a lot more boats, a fleet of small boats that created a community of sorts. Now the jigging profession is far more solitary.
“Nick and I are among the only ones left,” he said.
Nick O’Toole, a good 25 years younger, is already out with his lines in the water. He left earlier, says Ligenza with a smile. Ted’s boat, which he got in 1986, is slower, smaller and older, named for his favorite girl and wife of 30 years, Reina Marie.
When he does arrive at the grounds a bit later, O’Toole is there with his crew already fishing.
O’Toole has already done two “drifts,” he tells Ligenza, and although the fishing isn’t terrible, it isn’t great either.
Ligenza has particular spots that have offered fish time after time, even if the amount varies.
He is on one of the spots today and with the sun now coming up is anxious to get started; he worries about charter boat captains who will come later. They watch where he fishes, which annoys him no end, so he always leaves when he sees them coming.
Ligenza has no bait, just red and white lures that he sticks onto hooks on a weighted line that drops in the water. The line – a special order item he is fond of – is 300-feet long, wrapped around a big, wooden spool. Although it’s low tech one must be careful not to get tangled up, a rookie move that takes far too long to rectify.
Ligenza is a bit tired this morning, not so you would notice, but he can feel it. For some reason he looked at his clock while lying in bed and thought it said 1 a.m., which is when he typically gets up. So that’s what he did, turned on a little MSNBC as is his wont, and sat down to have breakfast. It was then he noticed that it was only 11 p.m.
So he went back to bed, but the damage was done. He can’t remember the last time he has done anything like that. His days chasing groundfish, from July to December usually, follow a routine that is 16 hours sometimes. The days now are longer than a few months ago when he was after mackerel.
Then he’d get up at 3 a.m., make sure he was on the grounds by 4, handline until a little after 2 p.m., arrive at the dock to sell his 600-1200 pounds of mackerel, clean the boat, head home, re-rig the lines, have dinner, and have enough time to tend his vegetable garden before being in bed by 9 p.m.
“And it goes on day after day,” he says. “It’s intense, you just keep working.”
These days, getting home after 6 p.m., the garden takes a backseat, although it’s still doing well. Today he was enjoying some Seminole Squash. It is some of the best-tasting squash around, and Ligenza would know; he experiments with lots of different varieties.
Some would say he is following in venerable footsteps because many highliners of old had enviable gardens.
“I am a good gardener, I don’t know how it happened. The old timers were all gardeners. They all had big vegetable gardens and they were competitive with each other too,” he says. “They have all passed away now.”
Ligenza knew many oldtimers. He started fishing when they were in their heyday, when fishing was bigger than it is now.
Although he grew up in New Jersey, son of a chemist and a homemaker, his grandmother lived on Main Street in Chatham (his mom went to Chatham High) so he and his sisters spent a lot of time here.
Considering his dad’s profession, and that he majored in biology in college, the idea was that Ligenza would grow up and be a scientist.
Ligenza was fine with that -- not that he didn’t think about becoming a fisherman. He hung around the pier as kid and was intrigued and impressed. Plus he enjoyed trout fishing as a youth.
He worked at the fish pier too. Back in the 60s and 70s, one guy weighed the fish that came in and two guys would nail the box together.
One day someone suggested Ligenza go bay scalloping. So he quit his $11-a-day job at the pier and went scalloping, but that didn’t work out as the captain soon realized he couldn’t afford a crewman.
But then he went with Kenny Bloomer and came home with a full boat. He found he liked it and was good at it.
“All you need is a handline and a good brain and you could make a living,” he says. “Back then you could get 3,000 pounds, worth $250.”
When he came in to the pier he saw his old work buddies, who had worried about his decision to leave his job on the pier. He told them it all worked out: “See, I’m alright. I just made more money than you’ll make all winter.”
He was living at grandmom’s and bouncing around; he remembers living at six or seven places one winter.
“Halibut were a big deal back then, and I was fluking, bay scalloping, getting scup,” he says. “In a skiff.”
Succumbing to peer pressure, he moved to a bigger boat, this one with a compass.
“I was risking my life and the whole town was worried about me,” Ligenza says. So he bought a new boat. “I caught a lot of fish with that boat.”
When he first started fishing there were more cod around, but things were changing.
More of the fleet began using gillnets, more efficient and flexible than handlining, and then midwater trawl boats came in and sucked up most of the forage fish.
“The herring boats did an incredible amount of damage,” Ligenza says. “It was like a perfect storm for cod.”
When things were bad he went shellfishing, which he still does.
When he went fishing a quarter century ago he was one of dozens of jiggers. But when cod stocks began to decline in the 1990s the government put in a raft of new regulations.
Around this time Ligenza became a stalwart at meetings of the New England Fishery Management Council, “meeting after meeting,” he says.
Ligenza was groundfishing less because of the rules and was supplementing his income with other fisheries. He was doing the best he could going dogfishing, or catching striped bass. After four or five years of work done by researchers, including cooperative research with fishermen and the Fishermen’s Alliance, the regulations began to change.
“By then all the guys who went hook fishing were out of business,” Ligenza says. “That’s why there are so few of us left.”
There are some young folks getting into the fishery, but it is vastly different from years past.
“There is not enough fish around to gain experience,” he says. “It’s not like you can just drive out and catch fish.”
Even for Ligenza, fishing can be hit or miss. Last year went fairly well, he would go out and get 200 pounds of cod and 200 pounds of pollock, make a decent living.
Now, not so much.
“I’m concerned about it,” he said. “Not a lot of codfish around.”
Although he can’t see the bottom, Ligenza seems to intuitively know what is there more than his machines can reveal.
Nick O’Toole, who has known Ligenza for decades, has seen evidence of Ted’s sixth sense on the water.
“I think he is very in tune with what is going on in the ocean,” O’Toole says.
The spot where Ligenza is now has a lot of dogfish. When he lets the line down he can sometimes tell the size and type of fish when it bounces off their backs. Then he knows it will be a good haul.
Ligenza uses nippers, which look like black rings he slips over his fingers to rest on his palms. He brings the fish up hand over hand and quickly unhooks them to throw them in the tote.
“I’m the only one around who still uses these, saves my hands,” he says.
There are some fish, and they are big and pretty, but not enough.
Ligenza will return to a spot and drift down again to get some more, but it’s slow. He checks with O’Toole who hasn’t had a banner time of either.
“We are getting two or three every drift,” O’Toole says. “But (at least) it’s something.”
“Yup,” Ligenza echoes.
But then O’Toole moves off his spot, plagued by blue sharks.
Ligenza has had his own experience with blue sharks. He hooked one the other day and tried to save it, but the big animal thrashed and the hook nearly severed a tendon.
That’s why he worries a bit about being alone. He used to shut his engine off when he was fishing, but now he leaves it on. His son, Willy, has gone out with him, but he has a business of his own and goes scalloping.
As if on cue, blue sharks begin following his boat so Ligenza takes off and thinks about heading home. It has been that kind of day.
But, of course, being a fisherman there are still some spots he has to try so he stops to give it a whirl.
“This used to be a real good spot for steakers,” he says. “I know I am in a place that holds a lot of fish.”
He ends up getting a box, at least, on the way back.
Now, with a slight smile, he heads for home. After he rounds Monomoy and has cell service, Ligenza calls his buyer, Red’s Best and asks someone to meet him at the dock. He then calls his wife to tell her he will be getting home in an hour and a half. The car ride from the fish pier to Stage Harbor may be only four minutes, but having to avoid the harbor during certain tides adds another three hours – at least – to the fishing day.
Ligenza gets to Stage Harbor around 6 p.m. and unloads with the help of Jake Fuller of Red’s Best. The wholesaler values Ligenza’s fish.
“Ted Ligenza is a great fisherman and the exact type of person we are in business to try and help support. He makes a living off the land and feeds his community. We're proud to represent his products on the market,” says Jared Auerbach, who owns Red’s, and works with a number of Chatham fishermen.
After unloading, Ligenza still has to go home and get ready for tomorrow.
“I am a little old to be doing this by myself,” says the 66-year-old.
He would like to work a little less hard, but the thought of not fishing is anathema.
“I like catching fish; it’s what I’ve done,” he says. “It’s fun.”