This is a re-post of an entry from my old blog about some friends I’ve made in Nova Scotia who took me lobster fishing one day.
Yesterday I joined some friends whom I met playing music two years ago, Tammy and her father Charlie, for a day out on their lobster boat. I had never been lobster fishing before, and so it was a good education for me on the process and some of the concerns associated with it.
Lobster season extends for two months on the Eastern Shore, from April 20th until June 20th. Typically, during season the boats go out everyday to check their traps and collect their catch unless the weather is especially bad, just a couple of days this year. To fish for lobster one must own a permit which is awarded by the province and which allows a fisherman to set up to 250 traps for his/her boat. Some fishermen may own two permits, and those allow up to a total of 425 traps to be set. While the permit entitles one to set traps anywhere on the Eastern Shore each season, generally all of the boats stay to areas that they have trapped in the past—simply setting up traps in areas that have been used by others for many years is quite frowned upon.
We met at the wharf in Murphy’s Cove at 5:00 a.m., and headed out into the dawn to the islands east of the mouth of Ship Harbour. Checking nearly 250 traps takes considerable time no matter how quickly you do it, and Charlie and Tammy typically spend about 8 or 9 hours out each day. There is a definite routine to the day that helps to make things run smoothly. Charlie pilots the boat, a 31 foot wooden lobster boat with a large open back deck where all of the traps can be stacked and carried at the beginning and end of the season, steering to the buoys that identify the location of the individual traps.
Nearing a buoy, Tammy grabs the rope to the trap with a gaffing hook, passes the rope to her father who places it on a hydraulic winch, and they pull the trap to the side of the boat and up on the gunwale. The trap is opened, and Tammy grabs the lobsters, if there are any, making sure they are large enough to keep and checking to see if they are spawning females or notched by the department of natural resources, both of which need to be thrown back. This late in the season, catching lobsters that are too small to keep is not uncommon—things have been picked over for the past six weeks. She places the keepers on a small wooden banding table, which given the chewed-up character of the wood has obviously been clamped onto by many lobsters over the 17 years Charlie has owned the boat, and then bands their claws. Charlie, meanwhile, replaces old bait with some nice fresh, stinky and oily herring or mackerel and perhaps a red fish head, closes up the trap, sends it back to the bottom, and then heads on for the next buoy.
Upon reaching the first trap of the day, I was put to work banding lobsters. Without those rubber bands that keep their claws closed they are rather awkward to handle with their claws splayed and ready to pinch whatever comes in their path. And they are not easily coaxed into letting go. I picked up the practice of holding both claws with one hand and using the banding tool easily enough, as well as measuring the ones that were borderline large enough with a tool that measures the distance between the edge of the carapace and the eye socket, though not without a few mishaps which elicited some good humor from the boat owners. Perhaps the most disconcerting was getting my finger caught in the pincher claw of a small lobster. Not a big deal, but the crushers on some of those 3 and 4 pounders were absolutely huge and not something to get close to. Later in the day, I tried out the gaffing hook, but was often distracted by other things (birds, scenery, seals, etc.) and missed a couple of traps. Missing traps means circling back around, and that can add a lot of extra time to an already long day.
The day was warm, calm and clear, and even out beyond the distant islands the ocean spawned only smooth rounded swells. Tammy pointed out that these kind of days can be tedious and can make you tired. Windy days and rough seas that make the surf crash over every shoal and island keep your attention much more, and the time passes less slowly. By the end of the day, though, we had hoisted about 235 traps, and filled three crates of lobsters, each weighing between 85 and 100 lbs. Immediately after returning to the wharf the lobsters are delivered to the local buyer and factory, where they fetch, these days, $4.50 to $5.00 a pound.