Some years ago I applied for a Maine Recreational Lobster License. I owned a boat. I figured my back was strong enough to pull a few traps by hand. On Peaks Island, where I live, the recreational lobstermen and commercial lobstermen seemed to co-exist reasonably well. What could go wrong?
First, I needed to pass a test. I downloaded the lobstering study guide from the maine.gov site. The test was open book. I took the test while eating a bag of Doritos and drinking Baxter beer. I was uber confident. A few days later, a letter arrived: I flunked.
Mistake #1: Don’t drink beer while taking an open book test.
Luckily, my incorrect answers were circled in red. I passed the retest. A week later, my lobster tags arrived in the mail.
A commercial lobsterman friend of mine gave me a few of his old traps and a pile of line and threw in a few old bait bags. I purchased 5 buoys and painted them red-white-and green (recreational lobstermen can fish only 5 traps). Then I plunked my traps near some rotting pilings in Portland harbor. It looked promising. I wondered why there weren’t other buoys nearby. When I returned 3 days later and pulled the traps, the first came up with 3 undersized lobsters–which I dutifully threw back. The second seemed to be stuck on the bottom. I pulled hard. It didn’t budge. I pulled harder. No go. Then I had an idea; I wrapped the line around a sturdy cleat on the stern of my sixteen-foot boat, DASAKAMO, and gunned the motor. That should do it. The trap didn’t budge. Abruptly, my stern was nearly pulled under as the line stretched taut. Sea-water flooded over the engine. Whoa!
Mistake #2: If there are no lobster buoys nearby, there’s usually a good reason.
In this case, the rotting pilings above the water were a dead give-a-way that rotten pilings littered the bottom, ready to hold a wayward line. I undid the line, bailed out the boat, and called it a day.
Eventually, I got the hang of it. On a good day, my five traps yielded 3–5 legal-sized lobsters. I upgraded my gray hooded sweatshirt for a yellow slicker with suspenders. I kept a log of where I was catching lobster. One afternoon I pulled a trap with two keepers, tossed the re-baited trap overboard, and…before it registered, flung the buoy over the side. The line followed the trap. The buoy, well, the buoy followed the line, and disappeared in a blink. My entire rig was gone. Poof.
Mistake #3: Hold onto the buoy until the trap settles on the seafloor. Repeat after me: Release the buoy only after the line goes slack and the trap is on the seafloor.
It makes sense. Between the time you pull, empty, and rebait a trap, your boat may drift over deeper water. If you are fishing with short lines in shallow water this is a good way to lose your gear.
My son-in-law, Dan, and I hunted for that buoy nearly every day at low-tide. I figured it was lost. On the lowest tide of the month, I was idling in the general vicinity of my lost buoy with Dan on the bow peering into the water. “I see it!” he shouted. In a blink of an eye, he stripped down and dove into the water. I shut down the motor and watched as he wrestled with the buoy like an alligator wrestler. Because Dan is stronger than stink, he was able to reach up and grab onto the stern while holding onto the buoy.
Mistake #4: You can’t swim a buoy topside but if anyone can, Dan can.
I grabbed a boat hook and snared the buoy. Dan and the buoy came aboard. Inside the trap were a collection of sea squirts and whelk, rockweed and sea-lettuce, a small flounder, a sculpin and an eel, but no lobsters.
Into the fall I fished the shoreline along Cushing Island and Peaks. One day I pulled up a trap and it was a load. Hand over hand I raised it to the surface and muscled it aboard. Inside the empty trap were four bricks. I looked around. I was close by several buoys belonging to one of the Peaks Island lobstermen. I guessed that my line had entangled his gear.
Mistake #5: Don’t get lazy. Respect the lobstermen who fish Casco Bay for their livelihood.
It was a warning. I was lucky my line hadn’t been cut. I’d tried hard to avoid entanglement, but not hard enough. It was a lesson I’ve not forgotten. Forget the picture-card image of a lobsterman on a warm summer day. Think October and wind-blown spray and three hundred more traps to pull before calling it a day. Up comes a gnarly mess with another man’s gear entangled in yours. Do you take the time to untangle the gear and leave a “message” with a few bricks in the guilty party’s trap? Or do you slice the line?
There’s enough room on the coast of Maine for both recreational and commercial lobstermen but only if people like me remember that our hobby is another man’s (or woman’s) livelihood. I appreciated the bricks. Lesson learned.
If you enjoyed this check out Chapter 1 of Dr. Chuck’s book “Go By Boat” here