James Beard Award-winning chef, Karen Akunowicz, heads to Spruce Head Harbor, Maine to join …
Big Lobsters and No Land in Sight
This winter in Maine has been mild by any measure, but not the day I went to haul with Ivan Bly. The forecast was for single digits warming to the 20s and we had a 3am start. It’s never warm at 3am, no matter what time of year it is.
In the summer, on any given morning, the wharf is a hive of activity – with 20+ fishermen and their stern men bantering away as they get ready for the day: loading bait on, fueling up. This February morning there were just three of us: Ivan, myself and Carl. The night was clear with a spray of stars across the sky and a waning moon as we took the skiff out to Ivan’s boat, Iris Irene. The northerly breeze that had kicked up the day before had begun to drop out but it was still biting in the predawn hours.
I knew Ivan reasonably well but had never hauled with him, and it had been sometime since I’d been out hauling at all – I felt the familiar nerves as I hopped aboard: would I be strong enough, fast enough, helpful enough?
Iris Irene was 42 feet and meticulously maintained. Down below was a cabin with a kerosene stove for warmth, a small table and two forward berths covered in leopard skin print – “I had envisioned a nice hunter green,” Ivan told me, “but my mother made these.” A full fledged wheelhouse allowed the skipper to drive from inside the boat, or open the sliding door and access another wheel outside.
Winter fishing, I’d gleaned from conversations I’d had, is a different animal altogether from fishing any other time of year. First, there’s the cold, second, the weather: weather windows are few and far between in the winter. A seemingly calm day ashore could mean gusts of 20-30 knots with considerable seas running, making hauling impossible. The relative lack of weather windows is compounded by the fact that in the winter, the lobsters, after coming inshore during the warm months to shed, head offshore, and so too do the fishermen. I’d learned that “offshore” had different meanings – I’d fished with guys “offshore” in the fall, but we were always in sight of land. This morning, as day broke, I scanned the horizon: no land, anywhere. And no other boats either. We were truly offshore.
Off shore, the rules for hauling are different as well. Inshore, in this particular fishing zone, fishermen hauled singles, pairs or triples, but offshore, everyone was required to haul trawls of at least 15 traps. This is in part to protect the right whale, an endangered species of whale native to Atlantic waters. And fishermen in federal waters (3 miles or more offshore) require a federal permit, mandating certain safety gear such as a life raft and survival suits.
Neither Carl or I had ever hauled with Ivan. We started the day with me emptying the traps as they came up and banding the lobsters, but after a few strings, we switched and Ivan had me running the traps back and stacking them. I worried at first that I hadn’t been fast enough picking the lobsters, but then found that running the traps back and stacking them three high consumed all my energy – there was no time to worry. It also kept me warm, and by mid-morning, with clear skies and the breeze dropping, I shed several layers.
Here’s the other thing about offshore lobstering: the lobsters are big. And I mean very big – one so large that it took us several minutes to extract it from the trap – as I threw it back overboard (Maine prohibits keeping lobsters with a carapace over 5 inches long) I guessed it was 15 pounds easy. Also, crabs – lots of them – in every trap – the big ones we kept as they could be sold along with the lobsters.
As the day wore on, the thing I love most about hauling happened: the easy comradery of working together. I knew I was the weak link – less experienced and not nearly as strong as I should have been for the job I was doing – but managing nonetheless. Carl and I switched off when necessary – me rebaiting bags, and him running the traps back, so that by the end of the day, we began slowly to have a fluidity – though I knew he was doing the lion’s share and I was just keeping up.
We hauled our last string around 3pm and headed in. After scrubbing the boat down, Carl and I changed out of our wet weather gear and joined Ivan in the wheelhouse where we all settled in for the long steam back to the harbor – our conversations running from what the water temperature was relative to last year (colder, oddly) to Carl’s pet Python Rocky. The breeze had kicked up and I looked out the window of the wheelhouse as the sun dipped down – no land in sight and the seas starting to run, whitecaps topping off the waves, contrasting against the darkening sky.
It was well after dark when we landed at the float to take the lobsters (and crabs) out. The harbor and the float were deserted, no wharf crew to help us crate up the lobsters: just the three of us picking, weighing each crate and dropping them overboard to be collected some other day. When we had calculated the final weight of the catch Ivan slipped below – “We’ll settle up here,” he said. He came back up a few minutes later and handed me a check – one I felt too generous – calculated on a percentage of the catch. I hesitated, not sure I’d earned my keep, but then I remembered getting up at 2:30, my cold hands, running and stacking the traps, and felt the deep exhaustion that comes with a long day on the water. I took the check.