Maine islanders carry on venerable ritual
Trap Day marks the start of the winter lobster season for a Maine island
MONHEGAN ISLAND, Maine - Sherm Stanley, wearing his orange oilskin, eases his 40-foot boat from the stubby town dock just after dawn and navigates the foggy harbor in slow pirouettes.
This is Trap Day, the beginning of Monhegan’s lobster season, and Stanley will wait until all 11 boats are ready to begin a frenzied, exhausting, and exhilarating day of setting 300 traps each for the long winter harvest.
That’s the tradition, replayed yesterday, on this tiny island of dirt roads, forest, and towering cliffs 10 miles off mid-coast Maine. No one begins until everyone begins, and neighbors pitch in to help neighbors.
Finally, Stanley’s radio crackles, the chase commences, and 11 skippers push 11 throttles in a madcap scamper to drop trap after baited trap toward the rocky bottom of a choppy ocean.
“Do you think we got one yet?’’ laughs Stanley, 63, the dean of the island fleet, as he eyes one of his traps, marked with a white and lime-green buoy, that he has just pushed into the water.
“Not bad for a 50-year-old!’’ Lisa Brackett, Stanley’s sternman, says with a grin as she hoists another 40-pound trap onto the starboard railing, her sea legs swaying but steady on the Legacy’s rolling deck.
As they work, synchronized in a wave-bounced ballet, the mood is upbeat, focused, and energized to be back on the water. The tourist season is nearly over, the talk turns again to fishing, and the 40 people who live on Monhegan year-round are ready to reclaim their surf-battered home.
“In the middle of August, we look like an ant farm,’’ says Stanley, whose lobster license was first issued to his great-grandfather.
On Trap Day, however, any resemblance to an ant farm is confined to the congested dock, where clusters of crew, relatives, and curious visitors congregate before dawn to drag or carry traps to the waiting boats, bobbing in the water.
Beat-up pickups, carrying 10-feet-high stacks of traps that jut over the rusted sides, back up through a towering maze of lobster cages to deliver their cargo to the waiting help.
Despite thousands of traps, which fill nearly every square foot of muddy gravel on the dock, no one but the tourists is confused by which boat lays claim to which equipment.
“It’s kind of like silverware,’’ says Maxwell Powell, 24, after he hoists yet another trap skyward. “You look in the drawer, and you know it’s not yours. It’s a neighbor’s.’’
That familiarity is instinctive to the year-rounders.
“This is probably my 35th Trap Day, and I’m 43,’’ says Chris Rollins, a lanky, blond, ninth-generation resident of Monhegan. “I like everything about this. Everything. It’s all I know.’’
Monhegan also knows winter lobstering, which is the tradition here during a season when many Maine ports have stored their traps and hunkered down.
More than the thrill of beating the winter weather is at play for Monhegan lobstermen. The waters around the island are generally deep, which migrating lobsters prefer during winter because the bottom temperatures are warmer. And prices, because of lower supply, tend to be higher than in summer.
From early June through Sept. 30, lobsters are not trapped in Monhegan’s exclusive, island-circling zone. That conservation measure is designed to manage and conserve a crop that sustains the year-round residents here.
Still, despite decades of hard-earned knowledge, even seasoned lobstermen concede the limits of their expertise.
“I tend to think there are 30 or 40 reasons why a lobster does what it does, and we know about one or two of them,’’ said Doug Boynton, a captain who is two weeks younger than Stanley.
On Trap Day, tried and tested rules prove popular. Most captains set course for the rocky shore, where lobsters still are feeding. As colder weather arrives and lobsters migrate seaward, the boats will follow.
Andy Whitaker, 28, another sternman on the Legacy, knows these rhythms even though he comes from Chattanooga, Tenn. Yesterday, he helped Brackett unstack 4-foot-wide wire traps, one by one, that stood six high in the rear of the boat.
Despite the constant movement of the sea, they rarely missed a step. Each grabbed a cage, walked it to the railing, thrust a bag of herring bait inside, and pushed the trap toward Stanley in a nonstop, ocean-going assembly line.
When Stanley found a spot he liked, he pushed a trap into the water with a slow, elegant, purposeful push of his right hand.
“What a blast,’’ said Whitaker, who will work here into November.
Brackett, who began her fourth season with Stanley, says the work provides her with a connection to history.
“Fishing’s been in my family for centuries,’’ Brackett said, catching her breath, after the first batch of 90 traps had been set. “I like to carry on the tradition.’’
Hours earlier, at 3:30 a.m., she wasn’t so sure. Stanley had phoned her house, which he could see from his window, but “for a long time’’ did not see the follow-up glow of a light bulb.
Brackett heard the phone, she admitted later. But in the dark, lying in bed, she muttered to herself: “There’s got to be a better way to make a living.’’
Once at the dock, however, Brackett was a whirlwind wrapped in rain-wet fishing garb. She helped Rollins unload traps for another boat, fetched extra rope for the Legacy, and bantered with neighbors who brought the spirit of a festive barn-raising to the grueling opening of another work year.
Even tourists pitched in. Dustin Haack and Abby Morrison, visiting for the weekend from Portsmouth, N.H., and southern Maine, planned to pull traps to the boats until “we’re told we’re done,’’ Haack said.
Ann Douglass of York, Maine, stood on the dock and watched the drama in the predawn dark. “It’s a sense of community, and it’s exciting,’’ said Douglass, who has traveled to Monhegan for Trap Day for the last few years.
After an hour on the water, Stanley returned to the dock to load another batch of traps. The winch wouldn’t work, the tide was low, and the traps had to be handed down 20 feet to the boat.
Still, the mood of captain and crew remained buoyant. Brackett donned a large, garish hat for fun, and Stanley seemed blissfully unperturbed by the equipment problems. Trap Day would proceed, and the first lobsters of the season would be landed by dusk.
Another season, another cycle, had begun.
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at bmacquarrie@ globe.com.