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Scallop Fishing on Nantucket
The opportunity was there. Russell, through Johnnie B, connected me with a local scallop fisherman, Cap’n Brian, to accompany him as he fished for Nantucket Bay scallops. I showed up well before dawn at his slip on Straight Wharf. My eyes opened wide as I beheld a big charter fishing cruiser in the assigned slip. It was every bit of 35 feet long and bristling with a network of rods and tackle. This, I thought, is a serious fishing boat.
Brian soon emerged from the cabin. This red-haired, ruddy young man came out in shorts and a sweatshirt, stretched, yawned, and looked me over. He looked to be a young 30-something in age. Did I have any qualms about being on a small boat with the waves pitching us around? I told him no, that I as accustomed to small craft. Do I have any foul weather gear? I only had a pair of Wellingtons recently purchased for this trip. He sized me up, and brought out a yellow slicker jacket and orange bib overalls for me to put on. Some additional foraging in an equipment locker produced a dry pair of insulated rubber gloves.
The weather forecast called for cold and windy conditions, and I knew it could be a lot more uncomfortable out on the water. I was wearing almost every bit of clothing I had. Putting on the overalls presented the first challenge. The snaps for the waistband were salt-rusted shut. I could not budge them open at all. The struggle commenced. I had to get my over-dressed, over-sized torso through this proverbial pinhole in the overalls right there on the dock. Doing it in front of the rest of the scallop fleet didn’t boost my ego either. I am sure my struggle provided the fleet with their morning entertainment. I did conquer it, although I had to shed more clothing than appropriate. I managed to put my fleece back on, tuck it inside the overalls, and the jacket went on nicely after that. Whew! Brian calmly slipped into his gear over his bermudas and sweatshirt.
I asked Brian how he dredged for scallops with this magnificent sport fishing boat. Oh, we were not going out in that. He indicated his scallop boat in the neighboring slip. There was a 20-foot open boat. Like other scallop boats, it is equipped with a short mast and block arrangement for hauling in the dredges. An extra deck is amidships to lay out the catch. Under that, there is a power winch and capstan set up next to the helm to haul in the catch. A separate generator powered the winch. A large outboard motor provided propulsion. Brian would drag six dredge cages behind this boat.
The boat had the residue of many a scallop trip strewn about; clumps of seaweed, shell fragments; catch baskets and bushels; lines and cords everywhere; an occasional squishy unidentifiable part of some shellfish; and even some gull poop; everything in a manner defying organization. I did spot a pile of orange life jackets cluttered under the foredeck. It’s a working fishing boat, Brian explained. Arrrr! I felt saltier already.
Scallop fishing is a very straightforward process. You drag dredges on the bottom and scoop up whatever doesn’t get out of the way. I was put to “culling” the catch. I sorted through whatever came up. I would toss out the eelgrass, slipper shells, whelks, quahogs, rocks, beverage cans, even a few small flounder, and keep the legal sized scallops. I then had to wash the catch by dipping it over the side in a wire basket, and then pack it into bushel crates. The gear and gloves Brian provided were a godsend. I stayed warm and dry even with all the spray and handling of the catch. We reached the allowed commercial limit of five bushels in a little over four hours. However, Brian wasn’t pleased. It had taken longer than he thought it should. There were good reasons why.
We started out well enough. The day was bright and sunny. A cold north wind blew off the sound and across the dunes into Nantucket Harbor. We drove through enough chop to put salty streaks on my glasses. Within the first hour, we had three bushels of scallops collected.
Things were going great, until we ran out of gas. Brian gave me a how-in-the- #$%&* -did-that-happen look. In the middle of the bay, with that merciless wind pushing us toward the far shore, I refilled the tank with his spare fuel while he tried to keep the dredge lines from fouling. It didn’t work. The lines crossed and tangled. With the engine running again, we had to work the lines back into order one dredge at a time.
Brian then decided to leave the Second Point shoal area we were fishing and head farther east up the bay. We dredged for another half-hour, and came up with nothing but eel grass. Brian was consternated. He gave me an I’ve-never-been- #$%&* -skunked-like-that-before look. We returned to Second Point, and finally filled the daily limit over the next hour.
As Brian headed the boat back to the wharf, I was leaning against the culling deck facing back toward him. We were approaching the inner harbor entrance, chatting about the usual – weather, fishing, taxes, - when CLUNK!! We hit something. It was solid enough to stop the boat and lurch me into the foredeck. The 250 HP Yamaha outboard kicked up from the stern and screamed out as the propeller spun free in the air.
We had run directly into a mooring buoy. I mean, we couldn’t have hit it squarer if we had aimed for it. I am not sure how Brian didn’t see it. It is a long wooden cylinder, painted white, and sticks about 5 feet out of the water. Brian frowned and gave me a where-did-that- #$%&* -thing-come-from look. Fortunately, we sustained no damage, but the buoy showed a severe gash as it bobbed up in our wake. Brian was a bit ruddier as we finished our trip.
It was a fun and interesting experience. It was also hard work. We managed to get a good catch in a short time thanks to Brian’s experience and a great scallop season. In less productive years, or even later into the season, it might take all day to catch the limit. I concluded I would enjoy being out on the water harvesting the bounty, enjoying the open air and sunshine, but I am quite sure I would not want to do it as a full time job. Brian and others are out fishing every day throughout the entire season (November 1 through March 31) in any weather “as long as it doesn’t have a name”.
Bay scallops are much smaller than sea scallops, but they are reputedly much tastier. While bay scallops are harvested from many different regions, Nantucket proudly boasts theirs to be the best. That evening, as I shared the experience with Russell and Johnnie B over a well-earned, fresh-caught scallop dinner, I was able to confirm that claim. They are absolutely the best.
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