"Oh, Jesus," I said, "I can't look."
The buoyline made its usual growling shriek as the first pot came off the bottom.
I was standing at my usual spot, about 5 feet behind Bob at the port rail, just aft of the hauling station. I was leaning against one of the four barrels of bait that we had aboard. If the salmon skins didn't fish, we were going to be in for a long day of slinging the glop overboard, then refilling the bags with our pleasant-by-comparison slightly stinky salted herring bait.
Photo courtesy of the World Wide Web
The first lobster pot broke the surface of the brown, muddy water. There was a flash of dark orange and brown in the middle of a whole mess of spider crabs. "Larry!" Bob shouted.
Larry the Lobster was a children's book character. We'd shout his name whenever one showed up unexpectedly, which, in mid summer, was every damn pot.
"Looks short," I muttered.
"Mah! That's a keeper"
I started flinging crabs out of the pot. Broken spider crab bits flew; we tend not to be very careful with them. They're a pest species.
When I had a clear path to it, I grabbed the lobster by the carapace (the head segment), spun it in my palm to look for eggs on the underside (eggers go overboard, gently, with a little v-shaped notch that we cut in her tail to tell other lobstermen that she's a breeder, and not to be touched), and gauged the size. One end of the gauge went gently into the empty part of the eye socket- the other to the back of the carapace. The gauge fell short of the end of the carapace segment.
Photo courtesy of the world wide web
"Keeper." The pleasant clunk of the lobster being dropped into an empty bait bin followed.
"Nasssssty," Bob said, holding the old bait bag up for my inspection.
And it was nasty. The crabs and lobsters had plucked many of the skins half out of the little meshes in the bait bag. It looked like someone had tried to make a wig out of a mop. There was mud and black goop that must have been pockets of bacteria.
"Hey, it don't smell bad at all!"
And it didn't. The bait bags full of salmon skins had retained the smell of salmon, but the smell of corruption was gone. "Throw some fish in there and we'll fish the skins again." We were going to recycle the salmon skins by adding a herring or two to each bag and putting them back in the traps.
The next trap came up empty. Strangely empty. Only one or two spider crabs were in the pot. Even an empty pot will come up full of spider crabs when you're fishing their territory.
Inside the pot was a bag with five pounds of salmon fillet. "Guess the fillets (prounounced 'fill-its' when you're a fisherman) don't fish."
"Lobster repellent, Bob."
"Glad we didn't use too many."
The next trap came up empty again. This one had a salmon skin bait bag.
"Well, shit, I'm kinda relieived. That bait was fuckin' disgusting."
Bob dumped the bait bag's contents over the side. About half stayed. He then spent about 20 seconds picking the bag clean. "Oh, ain't this some shit! We might be fucked, buddy."
The next trap came up. "Deuce!" two lobsters, damned rare in mid-summer.
"Jeeezuss... two hardshell males... quarters." Two high-valued lobsters, full of meat, and decently sized. Also rare in mid summer. Lobsters take time off in the summer to shed their shells and grow... While they're 'soft' the shell is hardened after a few days, but there's not too much muscle underneath yet- they haven't grown into the new shell... so they're not worth as much money, being made up of more water than hard shells.
When all 25 traps were up, the final count was 10. About 1/2 a lb. per trap. Not bad for the time of year.
"OK, so the skins fish. And they're free."
"Yeah, Bob, but we're going to lose a lot of time fucking with the bait."
"...which is free."
Sigh. "Yes. Free."
The next trawl started only about 100 yards from where the last one was reset.
"Larry!" A keeper and a short lobster in the first pot. The short went over the side in a arcing toss.
"Deuce!" Another double in the second pot.
"Larry!" a single in the third.
"Oh, Shit! Three Bagger! "
The next trap came up with three very fiesty, big lobsters. All keepers.
"Oh, shit, Bob..." At about the same time, a slow grin began to creep onto both of our faces. We sat there smiling at each other like a couple of idiots. Bob was the first to speak.
"Salmon Skins!" said quietly, but with emphasis.
"Big money!" I said, copying the tone.
That trawl averaged out at a pound a pot. 25lbs of lobster, when we were expecting maybe 8 or 10.
As the day wore on, we worked our way out into Quincy Bay. The catch was as good as any October day, when the fall 'runs' of lobster bring in the majority of the annual income of a lobsterman.
Any time another lobsterman swung by to say hello, we stopped hauling. We weren't ready to share the secret, or the glory, just yet. We didn't want anyone to look into our traps and see the cannonball of salmon skins in the bait bag, and the lobsters it was bringing up. Now that we were out of the estuaries, the spider crabs were gone. Instead, we were bringing up the occasional small green crab- a pest that is annoying only when in great numbers. The two or three green crabs in each pot we left alone- they're too small to bother even throwing out of the trap. Now, the only thing coming up was seaweed, little crabs, and lots and lots of lobsters.
By noon, the bottom tier of the holding tank was full. I had to stop the low drain in the tank so the seawater level in the tank would rise.
And the catches kept improving. We were up over 1.5 lbs a pot out in the bay. By the end of the day, the holding tank was full- something I had never even seen before. We were both exhausted. The extra work involved in dealing with all the lobsters, plus the unwieldy nature of the bait, which was still making the deck slippery as hell (though strangely this was no longer important, it being a smasher of a day)... we were burnt out.
When we were both completely, utterly burnt out, we called it a day. Bob called ahead to the lobster dealer, to make sure that he was in.
The next day... same thing. Big, crazy numbers. We had cycled through all the gear once, now. At the end of the second day, we sat down on the pier and started drinking the beer that was waiting in the bait cooler. Bob's father always made sure that there was something in there for us at the end of the day. Most days, Bob's dad would have a beer with us, if he was there, and Bob and I would have two beers each... sometimes three. And, sometimes, seven.
This day was a seven beer day. We toasted the salmon skins, retelling stories that weren't even a day old yet. Chuck, a lobsterman I had worked for when I was in grad school, came by.
"Heard you guys had a slammer yesterday."
Bob and I grinned at each other again, but it was a sickly one.
"Cat's out of the bag, now, Bob." (that was me.)
"What, did the dealer tell you?"
"...no. I heard about it in Scituate when I was getting bait."
"Jesus, Bob, we're highliners!"
Highliners are big money fishermen, the top earners, famed among fishermen. Bob and I had earned temporary fame for bringing in quadruple what anyone else did. Scituate, several towns over, is well outside Boston Harbor, and a world apart, stylistically. Different fishing, different markets, different bait sources, everything... and word was out.
We were never able to get a big consignment of salmon skins again. The skins that became available were snatched up, such that no one that I know of ever found them in bulk like we did again. Perhaps they're not shared equally, but shared enough that no one I know of ever did what we did. But they fish, goddammit. They fish.
Bob and I, in all our years together, never had another set like the salmon skin set. We had a fall run one year that culminated in a big day where we caught more lobster than the day of the salmon skins, but it didn't match the excitement. It was fun, sure, but it was the fall run, and didn't come out of the blue like the salmon skin adventure.
Of all the stories of our time together, that day stands out as among the happiest I've had. The lighthearted avariciousness of the whole situation has to be exactly what gamblers feel when the're in the middle of a roll. Being a highliner for a day was fun for the ego, but mostly the day was about doing our job, and the unexpected nature of being rewarded for years of patience.