How Benny came to dinner

March/April 2022 and 1998

Editor’s note: This article ran in the very first Points East magazine in April 1998. As we celebrate our 25 years of publishing, we felt compelled to rerun this piece, as it reflects so much of what makes this magazine special.

Call me Deckfluff, for I am low man in the smallest lobster gang in the State of Maine. The Captain of the Moore’s Island crew is my fiancée, a svelte Swede who conve­niently has been a resident long enough to qualify for the five-trap limit non­commercial crab and lobster license available under state law to wannabe lobster fishermen like us.

In 1997, 2,613,000 trap tags were issued to 6,926 professional Maine lobster fishermen. By comparison, 2,350 trap tags accompa­nied the 470 licenses issued in the non-commercial cate­gory. In 32 days of fishing, our gang of two became quite a diversion for the Marine Resources officers overseeing the entire indus­try in Maine.

Despite amateur status, our Moore’s Island boat, operating at the mouth of the Bagaduce River, harvested some of the high­est cost lobster anywhere in coastal waters. Benny, weighing in at a little over 22 ounces, was our first keeper. Even at $776 a pound, there was some excitement on board when he finally made his appearance over the transom.

By season’s end, 31 more lobsters had been caught, reducing the cost per crustacean to a bargain $24.27 per pound.

Of course, not one of these lobsters was sold. Every dollar spent for licensing, traps, warp, pots, bait bags and bait, pot buoy paint, lobster gauges, rubber gloves and pants, gas and even Motrin, among other costs, was distributed liberally up and down the coast to the bene­fit of the industry without tilting the available supply of lobster at all. It turns out it’s a lot easier to calculate the high price of becoming a non-commercial fisherman, at what Kenneth Roberts wryly referred to as “the gentle art of lobstering” in his 1938 classic, “Trending into Maine,” than it is to actually bring your meager catch to a boil.

For a fellow who spends lots of time in Maine but didn’t quite meet the permanent resident licens­ing requirement, persuading his fiancée to become boss lobsterwoman proved risky business. The warning was clearly displayed on the framed needlepoint banner in her kitchen. “My favorite thing to make for dinner is a reservation.”

This woman is no wimp. Running six miles before a full day of skiing is stan­dard fare. Her five-day-a-week workout consists of an hour and a half of Stairmaster, treadmill and stationary bike, followed by 45 minutes of Nautilus. Believe me, this is a female with plenty of potential to haul traps. The problem was marketing the concept. It had to be approached damned carefully.

By late April, and with no reference to the word “bait,” there was reluctant concurrence that pulling a few traps was not dissimilar to opening a much-hoped-for present under the Christmas tree, a favorite time of year for Scandinavians. Like the Swedish Christmas, JUL, there was a chance of getting something unusual, but the real fun was the anticipation of sharing.

Ours was to be an informal partnership, but an important demonstration of the bounty our life together in Maine could offer. As licensee and general partner, she could design the pot buoys, select the locations for setting them, and have final say on how the plentiful catch would be cooked and to whom among her friends worldwide they would be shipped. Together, we would be international ambassadors for Homarus Americanus.

As the clincher, it was offered that my generic 17-foot Boston Whaler could be spruced up and named “Swedish Sunrise,” or maybe “Before Columbus” or whatever far superior name she might choose. As limited partner, my duty was to pay for everything and make sure she didn’t get roughed up by area pirates or circled by river sharks.

By early May, pots were painted in a design remi­niscent of the flag of Sverige. This assured our luck. Finding traps was turning out to be a problem. The obvious solution was to head over to Stonington. With cash in hand, we ventured across the big bridge, on by Fish Creek and on by Sunset. There were great piles of traps to the right of us and to the left of us as down the peninsula drove the summer dubbers.

“So you mean you want to use them, not just for a coffee table?” Yup, we said, but not around here of course, way down toward Castine.

“Big tide down there,” he said. “No lobster in the Bagaduce until September worth fishing for.”

Well, you see, my grandfather used to take us kids out fishing after the War. The second big war, I clarified. Since your Legislature said it was OK, we thought we’d try just five traps to keep the tradi­tion alive on Moore’s Island.

“What you going to use for bait if you can find some traps? Might get half barrel of herring down at the fish pier,” he said, looking at my Volvo.

I appreciate your good lead there, but any idea about where we could find a few traps, just little ones ­– three-footers… mouse traps…don’t need them big offshore bear traps you professionals here in Stonington use. Just a couple of starter traps, seeing we probably won’t catch nothing but green crabs down on the Bagaduce.

“Nope,” he concluded. “Everybody round here is pretty well booked up making their own traps. Hardly ever hear of anybody selling used ones you could fish with. Try over Blue Hill way.

There weren’t five traps to be had in Blue Hill. We found this out four hours later.

On the ride back to Castine, it was decided that the concept of, and all specific aspects of, “bait,” which had been raised as a new complication, was to be delegated per order of the Captain. No prob­lem, leave it to your sternman.

In due course, five new traps were bought in Portland. The question of bait was unresolved. Small steps for little fishermen seemed the prudent course. The solution came at Shaw’s supermarket: canned cat food. A fine selection of mixed grill was assembled and liberally bagged in the 5 best-look­ing traps you ever saw. Anticipation was some high as the first haul of the season commenced.

Not long thereafter, a gun-bearing officer of the Maine Marine Patrol told us politely to stop engines. The steersman stopped engine. License? Trap tags? Vents in traps? Pot buoy displayed? Boat registra­tion, life jackets, flares, throwable cushions? All there, Sir… “Did I see you lift that trap over the side of the boat after this lobster fisherman hauled trap to the surface?”

“Yes sir… Trying to help. Boat’s kind of slippery. I figure this trap weighs more than half as much as the fisherman and it’s been lifted by hand 35 feet from the bottom. This being the fifth trap means the fisherman has already hoisted today 175 feet of trap weighing 65 pounds. Thought I’d help with the last three feet. Could be kinda dangerous in this tide rip. Just helping out.

“You got a license to fish?”

“No sir.”

Big Trouble.

After a good dressing down, the lowly sternman gratefully received a courtesy warning promising a $300 fine if caught again fishing without a lobster license: Turns out that unless one is licensed it’s illegal to drive the boat, lift traps or even open the cat food cans.

My Viking Captain was amused. “The lobster policeman says you can’t drive the boat anymore. He says you’re an illegal baitboy, but I’m going to keep you as Deckfluff, just for show.”

It was about this time that I began appreciating the wisdom of the professional lobsterman working alone. It’s one thing to name your boat after your girlfriend, quite another not being allowed to steer. Just then my favorite area lobster boat, Old Bull, went by. I don’t suppose he named it after his missus.

Real lobstermen are hard fellows, tending on average a string of 200 to 300 traps. Good days and bad, they are out there. I began thinking it was sort of like golf pros going out each day to be challenged by nature on a constantly changing course. They play by the rules, ignore discouragement, and look for a better day for themselves and respect in their profession. Like golf, lobstering is not a game for amateurs if your livelihood depends on it.

Perhaps on the boat right over there was the Jack Nicklaus of lobstering, the pro who had a unique feel for the currents and the bottom terrain, who could drop his trap on the most likely spot to consis­tently score week after week in all conditions. No doubt, up and down the coast, there is in training for the coming century the next Tiger Woods of the art of lobstering. It is likely, however, he or she might work at it for years and never be acknowledged, while barely covering expenses.

In golf, sponsors and the public pay big money to see how the sport is played at the highest professional level. In lobstering, everybody appreciates the lobster at the lowest price per pound, but not what perseverance and talent it takes to bring them to the wharf and actually create contin­uing economic value from the sea.

Well, the season is over and the traps are stored. Next time, two proper licenses will be on board, and I hope, if the Mrs. agrees, we might have ten traps and she still will be Captain. On the way in on our final day we passed another boat full of traps. “Make your first million yet?” came a shout over the river. We just waved.

“You know, Captain, next season, I’ll do all the lifting and it won’t hurt your arm so much,” said I in a failed attempt to dull the reality that hauling traps by hand in the fog is not exactly Christmas morning in July.

“Give me a couple of months to think about it,” she said good-naturedly. “But for now, Deckfluff, how about stand­ing downwind. You’re too Puss’n Bootsy for me.”

David Rogers is a Points East original. We’re not sure where we found him or he found us – we’re just glad it happened. Since this piece appeared in the April 1998 edition – our first – David has written frequently for Points East. David and Robbi were married in Iceland. They still live in Cape Elizabeth, but are no longer lobstering. Dave notes, however, that Robbi did obtain the status of “best fisherman” after loading one of her traps with a bottle of Jack Daniels for her father to discover.