At 2:30 a.m., it’s so early it’s hard to think.
The sun has yet to touch the sky, and the only source of light in the Frances Fleet parking lot is the dim glow coming from the Gail Frances, a 90-foot commercial fishing boat. There’s a flurry of activity on the dock, as groggy anglers carrying empty coolers and fishing poles work their way onto the boat.
The fishermen are after codfish. A staple in New England, cod used to be so prolific in the northern Atlantic waters that Cape Cod was named after them. Today, scientists worry they could have to shut down the fishery.
But loading onto the boat, people don’t talk about that. Instead they talk about how much they are going to catch, the frigid 32 degree weather, the early hour and beer.
Optimism about what the day might bring colors the conversation, as people clamor to get the perfect fishing spot. Making our way through the crowd, my sister and I find what seem to be the last two rod holders next to each other and guard them. Inside, our father looks for a place to sit out of the cold. A couple of times during our vigil, men ask about our spot. Once somebody even tries to stick his pole in.
“They’re taken,” I snapped through chattering teeth.
By the time the boat’s motor hums to life, I can’t smell the salt of the water. The salty scent is overpowered by cigar smoke, fresh bait and diesel.
Decades ago, you could catch a cod off the shore, according to the mates. All it took was some bait and a decent rod. Today, it takes a two and a half hour boat ride to get to their swimming grounds. Instead of the shallow shore fishery, they live at a depth of about 200 feet.
And once you get out there, there is no guarantee of catching them.
We started fishing before the sun had finished rising and before the moon had completely set. Many of the more experienced fishermen didn’t even put their line in the water, grumbling that is was too early for the fish. An old Russian man walked around the boat explaining in a thick accent to anyone who would listen that it would take at least a half hour for the fish to bite.
“Girls, do you see the moon? Thee fish are not biting. They will not bite for another…” he pauses. Using his thumb he measures the distance between the moon and the waves. “Another half an hour, so come inside and have a drink with me. You won’t be missing anything.”
I don’t know if it was the sun or the moon, but he was right. The fish weren’t biting. It didn’t matter if you jigged your line, wiggled it, changed your bait or just left it hanging off the railing, the fish didn’t care. For that first hour, nobody caught anything.
Eventually the captain gave up and announced over the staticy intercom to reel in the lines.
“We’re going to try another spot now,” he said.
According to the ships log, in the days leading up my trip, people were catching lots of fish. Anglers were reeling up as many as a dozen fish, with some people bringing in two fish at once. On the day I went out, the captain marked schools of cod 40 feet deep using sonar technology. But not many of those fish made it into the boat.
Of the small haul, two fish were mine.
The first fish I caught was a pout, a brown eel-like fish that dwells in cold water. Worthless, one of the mates tossed it back into the ocean before I could even pet it.
The second fish was what I had come for: a cod.
Using a rented rod (my usual rod is not equipped for fishing this deep), you get stuck with monochromatic fishing line. A solid piece of stretchy plastic, it’s difficult to feel what is happening at the end of the line. So difficult, I wasn’t even sure the bite I thought I felt was a bite.
“I think I might have a fish, but I’m not sure,” I whispered to my sister, desperately hoping the men around me wouldn’t catch onto my ignorance.
“What do you mean you’re not sure?”
“I mean, I don’t know,” I said.
As discreetly as I could, I started to reel in my line. It felt just a little heavier than usual, so I allowed myself to hope that perhaps there was a fish at the end of it. Slowly, I cranked and cranked until I saw a long streak of white appear just below the surface. A fish. An incredibly anticlimactic cod fish.
Quickly I pulled it on to the deck, and the guy next to me — an experienced fishermen, although barely old enough to purchase a Budweiser — unhooked it for me. With a slap, he dropped the fish onto the deck behind me. At first, it flopped around, then it just gave up and laid there.
Before throwing it into a brown sack, a mate came by and measured it. It was 24 inches, two inches longer than the necessary 22 to keep it.
It was the only fish I brought home that day. But it was still something.
When the boat was heading into shore one of the men who knew I was writing a story asked me if I caught any cod. After I responded with “just one” he said:
“You are going to write that fishing sucks now, aren’t you? That there are no fish left.”
But judging the health of a fish population based on a day of fishing is like judging the climate based on a day of New England weather. It could be an indicator, but it could also be an abnormality. It’s a snapshot that only means something when placed in the context of a larger trend, a fact that is frequently forgotten.
Fishing from a charter boat and going out on a commercial dragger are vastly different experiences. On a charter boat, the method of fishing is easier, the boat is cleaner and the stakes are lower. But what is the same is the desperate desire to catch a fish and the frustration when you don’t.
Frustration is likely to become a more common emotion for cod fishermen. An ugly fish with an odd beard on its chin, cod are seemingly gone from the Gulf of Maine, either dead or header for colder waters. To keep fishing them, fishermen will have to start traveling even farther off shore. If they can catch them at all.