Wednesday, April 11, 2007

A Closet Lobsterman

Forget about mud season. We had the biggest snowstorm of the year last week after three days of flurries. A foot of snow buried the mud, snapped branches as loud as gunshots and stole our power.

My daughter sighed, “It’s just like Narnia: always winter and never Christmas.”

My son added, “Well, we didn’t have a white Christmas, but maybe we’ll have a white Easter. Guess we won’t be looking for eggs outside this year.”

The kids were at least happy for a snow day. Needless to say, they were up at 5am. We snarled at them to be quiet and went back to sleep, hiding from the cold house under the covers. When I came down, I was overjoyed to find that the kids had shoveled out the walkways.

We’re usually plowed out before dawn but still plenty to shovel. Five years ago Carl said that he was too old to get out of his truck for the remainders. Every fall I call to check back in with him.

Carl replies, “Oh yeah. I’ll be plowin’ for as long as the good Lord be willin.’”

Many locals enjoy the extra income of a snowstorm’s bounty. We don’t usually get this much snow in April, but anything can happen in mud season. There’s an expression in Maine that if you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute.

Flowers and green leaves don’t even make an appearance until May. It’s a good thing I’m traveling south to NYC next week –I can catch a spot of daffodils. There's still snow on the ground here with another snow storm due tomorrow.

Spring is the off-season for lobster fishing except for those who are willing to pay for an offshore fishing permit. In March the lobsters migrate to the open ocean and don’t come back until June. Many lobstermen work a second job during that time or build and repair their traps.

Dave Merryman with a v-notched female lobster

I met a lobsterman in my closet. Dave Merryman was subcontracting to my builder Mark Wild. It was a big walk in closet, but Dave looked cramped and resigned to shelving a New York shoe collection. Even discussing the most intimate details, he was always a gentleman.

When I created the character of Jake Marlin, the lobsterman in my second novel S.A.D., I called on Dave. I had read The Secret Life of Lobsters, so I was well prepared in my wellies, waterproofs and life jacket.

Lobster fishing is wet. There’s the ocean spray and several inches of fishy wash on the deck flowing out the open stern. It’s no mean trick balancing on the swells, but luckily we had a calm day in September. Doped up on anti-nausea drugs, I nibbled through a box of saltines as I inhaled the diesel fumes.

I’m no stranger to doing research on a boat, having spent a summer studying dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico. I soon rediscovered my sea legs. Snapping photos of lobstering is easier than catching a dorsal fin in the instant it breaks clear. You don’t get to name the lobsters, as I did the dolphins, but at least you can eat the catch.

I asked Dave what was the strangest thing he ever hauled up in a lobster trap. “Other than a dead body?” he asked with a knowing smile.

“Sorry, I’ve changed course. It’s commercial women’s fiction. I don’t think I can use severed limbs, although I’m still going with the marauding lobster gangs.”

Aside from the dead body, it’s a true story. Dave’s father runs a cooperative on Pott’s Point to sell their catch. One year some guys were stealing lobsters from the holding crates that float below the docks. Dave and his family set out a video camera and caught them at night.

Lobstermen have a code of honor. If you break the rules, someone will cut your lines, and you’ll lose your traps. A lobstermen, however, won’t hesitate to aid another in need – we stopped to help another fishermen detangle his lines.

Lobstering is one of the few sustainable fisheries due to decades of self-regulation. The state has only more recently gotten involved and not always with the most desirable results.

Baby lobster (not a keeper)

I watched Dave throw back more than half his catch, measuring each and every lobster with lightening speed. The little ones, big ones and breeding females are tossed back; the rest are “keepers.” If a lobsterman catches an egg-laying female, he cuts a v-notch in her tail fin so that she’ll be protected even without her spawn.

Female lobster with eggs

It’s hard work hauling up the 40-pound brick weighted traps, and it’s dangerous. It would be easy to step into a loop of rope and be pulled down to the seabed. Dave keeps a sharp knife close to hand at all times. I nervously kept an eye on the open stern.

Dave keeps track of his trap location by GPS and a chart plotter. It’s a jealously guarded art as to where to set the traps and quite a privilege to be allowed on board to watch. Dave says he trusts me. What a gift.

I came back dockside full of humble respect and joy. I had found the romantic interest for my divorced naval wife in S.A.D. My fictional lobsterman had come to life in the salt spray. He’s not Dave in character, but he’ll have his knowledge and love of the sea.

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