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Lobsters That Got Away, and Those That Didn’t

By Charles McGrath
November 6, 2009

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WESTPORT, Mass. — IN this little town on the south coast, people like me — summer folk — are known as skukes. I’ve never met anyone who knows the real derivation of the term, but it’s not a compliment. Skukes are annoying because they drive up the price of real estate and because they do for fun what year-rounders do for a living. Take lobstering, for example. Most of the summer there was a local man at the town dock selling lobsters for a very reasonable $4.99 a pound. Skukishly, I thought I would be more enterprising and try to catch my own. My goal was by the end of the summer to hear my family complain: “What? Lobster again?”

Over about a month Chip Gillespie, my pal and partner in this enterprise, and I managed to land six keepable bugs — as we lobstermen say — and taking into account the cost of gas, bait and the lobster traps themselves, I figure they worked out to about $50 a pound. Not a bargain, certainly, but they tasted better than any lobster I’d ever had.

I also had incalculable amounts of fun and on two occasions scared myself half to death — once in seas swollen by Hurricane Bill that were almost more than my boat could handle, and once by almost falling overboard before I was even out of the harbor. This was very early in the morning, though, and except for Chip, I’m pretty sure no one saw me, or else I would be a new skuke legend.

The first thing you learn about lobstering is that nobody really understands lobsters. Lobsters like the shelter of rocks and prefer cold water to warm. They move around a lot and find their food by smell — that’s what the antennas are for — and not by sight. But the whole notion of trapping them may be a misconception. There is some evidence to suggest that the traditional lobster pot, with its two “rooms” — the kitchen and the parlor, as they’re known — and funnel-shaped nets, is not as confining as fishermen think, and that the bugs come and go more or less as they please. The cage may be more a restaurant, in other words, than a jail. One theory says that the bugs you catch are just the ones that happen to be there at the time.

Chip and I nevertheless bought a couple of new traps for about $50 each from a professional outfit in New Bedford, where the man who helped us took his calling very seriously. He had a huge lobster tattooed on his forearm. We got 8 more — 10 is the state limit for “recreational” lobstering — from Chip’s brother-in-law, a professional lobsterman, who gave us the family discount. Each trap came with 50 feet of line and a plain white buoy, and we wasted about a month painting the buoys a garish blue and orange, not very traditional but smart as it happened, because garish orange is easy to spot from a distance. Finding your traps after you put them in, we discovered, is by far the hardest part of lobstering.

The ocean is a very big place, even a small sliver of it, and we spent a lot of time circling around and peering into the distance. We initially set four traps near some rocks fairly close to shore and six more about a mile out. On a good day we’d find all 10, but often one or two went unaccountably AWOL for a day or two, and a couple of times we failed to find the offshore set altogether.

We tried taking bearings with a hand-held compass, but it proved fairly useless because even on a calm day the boat bounced around too much. A good trick, we finally decided, was to look for other guys’ traps and hope that ours might be nearby.

Next year a portable GPS device might be in order, but even that won’t be foolproof, because traps sometimes move, either in storms or because poachers pick them up. At the end of the season one of our traps had vanished permanently, and two were a considerable distance from where we thought we had set them. Both were stuck on the bottom, and we had to break them out the way you would an anchor, cleating the line and gunning the engine.

Ideally you do this in such a way that you’re heading into the swells, and they’re not washing over the transom. I almost swamped us, but I’m pretty sure no one saw that either. It was unseasonably cold that morning, and you had to be a knucklehead (or someone who fishes for a living) to be out on the water at all.

For bait we used frozen pogies from the local tackle shop. Fresh would have been cheaper but also smellier. Next year we might even think about catching our own. By far the best lure of the summer was a scup that had wandered into one of our traps and was being fought over by two hefty lobsters when we chanced to pull up the line. All of our bugs came in pairs, come to think of it — another unexplainable lobster fact.

Checking the traps, allowing time for aimless circling, took a couple of hours, and we did it every few days. They were some of the best hours of the summer. I especially liked what I called the commute — the trip out and back. We’d leave my house around dawn, go down to the dock where I keep a dinghy, row out to my skiff, a beautiful wooden work boat made by a local builder, Scott Gifford, and gas up and load the bait.

The sky would be red, the boat still covered with dew. The egrets and cormorants would already be up, making their matinal rounds. These mornings were so still, the sound of the engine starting up almost seemed irreverent, like shouting in church.

Down the east branch of the Westport River, threading between two big landmark rocks, and under the Route 88 bridge and into the harbor. As the sun came up, the water changed from molten silver to sparkling blue. Sometimes we’d get a delicious whiff of coffee or bacon from one of the big sailboats anchored in the harbor, and that mixed with the tang of pogy just now starting to thaw in the bait bucket.

If the tide was right, we’d take a little shortcut by the beach and then turn the corner and go out to the ocean — always a thrill somehow to discover it there, so vast and various. We saw lots of people out fishing, but oddly we never came upon anyone else working lobster gear. Maybe they do it at night, when lobsters are supposed to be more active.

More often than not we’d return empty handed — “What? No lobster again?” — though on three memorable occasions there were a pair of bugs, yellow rubber bands now around their claws, scuttling in the bucket. When they got too rambunctious, we told them to cut it out.

Back at the house my family would just be having breakfast when I got home, and like a molting lobster I’d shed my yellow foul-weather pants before stepping into the kitchen. They’re so grungy now they’ve been banished to the barn. Whatever their owner may be, those are not the pants of a skuke.