Fishing in Public

Monhegan Island Mysteries

The first days of spring are a godawful time for any real dedicated fisherman. You know we’re all getting edgy this time of the season, the old “so close yet so far away” routine. Happens every year. You’d think I’d be used to it by now, but no, not me. I’m the proverbial kid at Christmas, dig it? I just can’t seem to wait.

So whilst thinking of days to come, it hits me. Christ almighty, it’s the perfect time to hit on a subject I don’t spend enough time on: lobsters. Once the decision was made, I took a minute to look up the subject in Webster’s, and I couldn’t help but notice how close lobstermen is to lobotomy. Good placement, I think, as maybe they need one!

At first I figure I’ll do an interview-type thing. I do happen to know a lobsterman fishing this time of year. I bump into him uptown and it’s off to the races. However, my luck ends there. Goddamn phone. I just can’t get through to him no matter what.

But hold on, I says. I can answer any questions a lobster person can. Did it for years. On shore, maybe, but I’ve lobstered — weighed ’em, packed ’em and sold ’em till my fuckin’ head caved in. So ask me, I’ll tell ya. First thing I’d say is they hurt. Another thing: they love cold! Makes Maine a veritable crustacean Shangri-La.

You know, ever since I was a younger lad I had a keen interest in a place called Monhegan Island. I guess for me it kinda epitomized what a true Maine seashore should be. It’s always been a fishing and trading location. There are ancient petroglyph rock carvings on the island attesting to that fact, possibly made by visiting Vikings.

Monhegan was an Indian “island getaway” until 1614, when white men landed. Capt. John Smith somehow found his way up there, and it was anything but peace and serenity for awhile. As usual in that era, it’s French against English. In the late 1600s, Baron Castine captured the English settlement on the island for the French, and it went back and forth till the good ol’ U.S.A. took over. It served real well for cod fishing and more trading. Even the migratory birds enjoyed Monhegan, making it one of their favorite stopovers, sort of their own Holiday Inn By the Bay.

Oddly enough, there wasn’t much talk of lobsters back then. That’s because in the olden days they were considered the scourge of the sea and used for fertilizer. You probably heard how prisoners complained about being served lobster all the time. But by the late 1800s, their value did climb a bit, and Monhegan became a great getaway for artists and socialite types.

They even had their own scandal in the summer of 1953 when a high-society lady went off one of the island’s famously high cliffs onto the rocky shore below and into the great beyond. Rockwell Kent was a suspect at the time — she was his mistress — and a few years ago Jamie Wyeth did a painting of Kent depicting a woman falling off a cliff behind him. But there were a couple problems with that story, like the fact Kent wasn’t on the island at the time, and in 2006 the lady’s grandniece figured out it was a suicide.

So anyways, like I say, lobsters were coming into their own heyday, and with that came the grief and greed. In 1907, local lobstermen had the foresight to limit the season around the island to six months a year. Then, in the ’90s, folks from Friendship (of all places) started setting traps there. There was talk of gunplay, and a boat called the Sea Hag was sunk. The islanders got Gov. King to sign a law limiting lobstering within two miles of Monhegan to lobstermen from the island. Problem solved, and it was hallelujah time.

This is where my experience with lobstering kicks in. It’s for the most part a very lonely job. Oh, a few may have a tender or even a visitor, but it’s mainly a solo act. With profits come problems. Christ, now you’re up against huge lobster-boat contraptions that can stay out to sea for longer than any small boats. The price of bait, fuel and ice always seems to go up instead of down. And the goddamn government is always sticking its nose where it don’t belong.

But you know, for all this, the fellas of Monhegan stick it out. It’s an enigma: lobster fishing’s a solo act, but everyone’s kinda lookin’ out for each other. At the end of September, islanders are busy getting their traps together. It’s Trap Day, doncha know? Everyone helps inspect and repair the traps for the blessed event, Oct. 1, the start of the season, and they all steam out at the same time.

So hey, there’s your lesson: it’s good for all to stick together. Simple as that.