Parking Lots & Plotters: 800 Needles in a Haystack

December 1, 2016 | By: Merritt Carey

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As someone who never can find her car in the grocery store parking lot, I’ve often wondered how, with 800 traps, fishermen keep track of them all. I’ve seen the plotters, a device similar to a GPS which allows you to put marks in, but these just  look like colorful etch-a-sketches to me.  I know fishermen rely on them to locate their traps, but plotters are a relatively new phenomenon, and even with them, it seems like looking for 800 needles in a haystack.

Peter Miller has been fishing for more than 40 years, well before there were plotters, and the day I went hauling with him I was determined to learn not only how plotters worked, but how fishermen found their traps before them. There must have been tricks of the trade, honed over years of practice.  Earlier in the season, when Peter had helped my kids set their traps in Tenants Harbor for the first time, he asked if I knew where they all were. One look at my face and he didn’t need to wait for my answer. “Madeleine’s got four up in the eel grass in the inner harbor; three on the southern side by the Shipyard; three down by your dock; Liam has five up in the inner harbor; four over on the northern side up high; five down by Witham’s, six over by your dock and five on the southern side of Mouse Island.” I had known the general locations, but definitely not how many traps in each spot. “Geez,” I said, “how did you remember all that?” With a wry smile, he replied “It’s what I do, how I make my living.”

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The early fall day we went hauling was unseasonably warm and we headed offshore. On the steam out, I got a lesson on plotters.  “I’ve had these strings in here for years,” he said. “Some guys are always messing with their gear, making this adjustment or that adjustment, shifting gear around. Not me. I pretty much just set my gear according to season and leave it.” Then he walked me through the colorful lines on the plotter: green for spring, yellow for spring, summer or fall, red for fall. Studying the plotter, even after my tutorial, I was still mystified – the colorful lines simply got you to where each string was, but how did he know how many traps in each sting? He had an answer for this too, “My strings are either 5 or 10 pair strings and off shore they are all 7 triple strings.”

Several strings into hauling, Peter asked, “Merritt, you know what the bottom we’re fishing now is called?” I was instantly reminded of my father, who made asking impossible questions an art form: “Merr, you know what river this is?” driving over the bridge from New Hampshire to Maine; “Merr, what kind of duck is that?” “Merr, what’s the compass course to Graffam Island from the harbor?” I always came up short, I don’t think I ever answered one of his questions right. In any case, I certainly didn’t know the name of the bottom we were fishing. Like my father, Peter didn’t wait for my answer, “It’s called the Ripper – there’s the Southern Ripper, the Middle Ripper and the Northern Ripper – it’s a shoal piece of bottom out here.”  Then he walked me through how he used to find the three pieces of bottom in the pre-plotter days:  To get your co-ordinates for the Northern Ripper, you line up the southern end of Isle Au Haut so it touches the northern end of Matinicus, and then you line up Big Green Island so it’s under ‘Eastern Mountain’, the most easterly mountain in the Camden Hills.  That in essence creates lat-long coordinates. As we fished each piece of the Ripper, he showed me, how, lining up different islands with one another, he could find his strings. He made it sound simple, and I understood the basics on navigation enough to grasp what he was saying conceptually, but when we got back, I had to look at a chart to really understand what he was getting at.

coverWhat I came away with that day was something I had intuited for a long time: whatever I saw on the water in terms of wind, current, weather patterns, landmarks, fishermen, those who plied their trade on the water, saw infinitely more. Peter didn’t have to work to remember where my kids’ traps were in the harbor; it was simply how his brain functioned, his livelihood depended on it. I’m sure there’s a scientific name for the ability to track this type of information; some sort of internal mapping system we all have but which fishermen use, and hone every time they go to haul.  Scientific names aside, I was pretty sure I would never see Peter standing aimlessly in a grocery store parking lot, looking for his truck.