How They Captured Bowdoinham's
A CLOSE-UP STORY OF THE DRIFTERS OF THE OLD CATHANCE RIVER.
Being an account published
in the LEWISTON SATURDAY JOURNAL,
ON or ABOUT MAY 20, 1915
Yelling like a pirate that he desired "a bit . . . a thundering big, buck shad," "Tite" scrambled down the bank into the dim light of the dying log fire. Out of the darkness, a voice rose over the sound of dipping oars, and Joe told "Tite" to "shut up," as he was "scaring all the fish." Tite's reply was an invitation for all Cathance River Shad fishermen to make a visit to the region where Beelzebub is supposed to reign. After that, all was silent except for the splash of oars and net floats, as Douglass threw over his net for the second "shot" of the night. But Tite was insistent. He wanted a Shad, and until he had been supplied, he persisted in reiterating his requirements. Incidentally, he kicked another log on the fire, stirring the fading embers into life, and causing it to throw off a bright and inviting glare. John pulled a bit harder on his port oar, swung the punt's head toward the eastern shore, and a moment later, the craft grounded on the mixed gravel and mud bottom. John and his companion jumped ashore, where Tite was seated beside the fireside, waiting the chance to get that "big buck Shad." This was but one incident of a night spent drifting for Shad on Bowdoinham's Cathance River. It was a night replete with occurrences, interesting, unusual, and worthwhile. Beyond the throwing over of the nets, and drifting down stream or up, as the case may be, hauling the net and going back home at the break of day, nothing is planned. No man can tell what the catch will be; no man will know the troubles that may arise before the night's fishing is ended. All is chance.
On the night in question, it was nearly 7 o'clock when Seldon Williams and his partner, John Malia, put out from the wharf at the village and headed for the fishing ground. Their craft was the punt aforementioned. I had been given the seat of honor, which was the bow. Probably this was due to the fact that there, I was absolutely out of their way, and could not bother them in their fishing or handling of their boat. Ordinarily they would have been forced to row down to the fishing ground-not a particularly hard job- because the tide was on the ebb. This night, Seldon's son-in-law was just starting out, he and his partner, and they had a gasoline motor in their punt. "Give us your painter," said Tom, "we'll give you a tow." The offer was accepted, and the punt jogged down through the Middle Ground Reach, into Graven's Reach, and then to the waters of Sedgeley Reach, over to Goddard's Point, where the advance guard of "drifters" had rendezvoused, preparatory to the night's work.
Four boats were beached on the point. Their crews were grouped
about the fire, chatting and smoking. Some sat in their boats. All
wondered what they were going to get in their nets that night.
"Oughter been here last night," Joe remarked.
"How's that?" he was asked.
"Got a sturgeon in our net. He was a lively chap too. I should say he was about 16 foot long. He got away: too bad, 'cause he was worth some real money. Sturgeon spawn is worth $70 a pound this year. It furnishes the caviar so many people rave about. Most of the supply comes from Russia, but they can't get any right now, because if the war." Malia wanted to know if we'd even eaten caviar. Various members of the group said they had tried it; all agreed they didn't like it. At that, none protested against picking up a sturgeon which carried a liberal supply of spawn, in view of the present prices. None of the men seemed in a hurry to get away, and in explanation, said it was useless to cast the first net until it was dark, because, so long as the Shad could see the twine, they would keep out of the meshes. Only after dark did they become tangled. The boats start drifting in the order they reach the point. Among drifters -for Shad, this is the unwritten law, as old as the industry itself. Thus the first boat to reach Goddard's Point on this night, had the undisputed right to throw its nets first. The second boat went next, and so on. Ours was the last boat to come, so we waited and took the last "shot, " as a drift is termed by Shadders. The net used is limited in length by law to 160 fathoms, or 900 feet. It is made of small, stout twine, in meshes of 5 l/2 inches. The mesh used to be 4 1/2 inches. These nets vary in depth from 38 to 50 meshes. On the top they are fastened to a manila rope, which passes through and is fastened to floats.
The floats are made of round cedar blocks, with a hole thru the center for the rope. These are painted white, so as to be easily distinguished at night. On the bottom, the nets are weighted with lead, to make them float perpendicularly in the water. The 160 fathoms is usually made up of a gang of shorter nets. The meeting points of these nets is indicated in the gang by a flat, paddle shaped float.
Each boat carries a lantern, and the lantern is placed in a box. The shape of these boxes, and their individual arrangement, while along the same general lines, differ according to the tastes of each individual fisherman. Usually it is wide open in the front, and has a rounded back, which is also provided with a reflector. This box is mounted on a pivot, so that the light can be thrown to any part of the boat. This makes it available in throwing the net, so the man can see what he is doing; in hauling the net, so that the fish can be taken out easily; and again for getting out the catch, if necessary.
TAKING THE SHOT
It had been dull and threatening, and darkness came on apace this particular night. As we talked, one crew entered its craft, shoved off, and the man at the oars pulled out to midstream and took a position about 60 yards above the apex of Goddard's Point. The man in the stern began to throw out. Their net out, another boat went out and started its shot, and so on, until it was our turn to try the fishing. No boat starts throwing out, until the one ahead has its net all out, and the drift is underway. This separates the net by from 16 to 26 fathoms. "All right, John," said Seldon, as the boat ahead was getting the tag end of its nets out. John shoved the boat off, dipped his oars, and with a few lusty tugs, brought the punt up in position. "We're pretty well over on this shore," said Williams, indicating the western bank of the river, "but I guess it won't do us no harm." He turned the lantern, so that its light shone full upon the stern of the boat, spread his legs completely across the craft so that they straddled the net, which was piled in the bottom. He caught up one end of the net, carefully opened it and began paying it out. This of itself is quite a trick, and it has to begin when the net is piled into the boat. The net must go out so that the floats are at one side and the leaded edge at the other; all the floats must go on the same side or there will be a splendid&emdash;as well as a profanity causing&emdash;tangle. For this reason, if the net is not put in the boat right, it won't feed out properly. As Williams threw out the net, with the rapidity and skill of 30 years' experience, John pulled constantly upon his oars. This was to keep the boat where it stood when the throwing out began. This was quite a trick, but when the last buoy struck the dark waters, the punt was within ten feet of the same point where the operation began. It had required a quarter hour to put the net over. It was dusk but not absolute darkness. The white buoys of the net, stretching away down stream, presented an uncanny sight, bright at the start, but growing fainter and fainter, disappearing completely at a distance of about 26 feet.
FOLLOWING THE NET
"Now we'll drop down along side of her and see if anything is doing," Williams announced. The net was drifting slowly, and John didn't have to work hard to send the punt down past the other end. They clung close to the net, rarely being more than ten feet from it, and most of the time, only six or eight.
Part of their gang was 50 mesh nets, and part 38'8. John had no faith in the thirty-eights, but believed the fifties would scoop out every Shad in the River. Seldon was more sanguine of the thirty eights. He recalled to his partner that the smaller ones had picked up quite a number of fish this season. Both men were watching the buoys closely to see if they gave any sign of Shad. This hoped-for sign was simply the bobbing of a float, caused by a fish getting into the net and starting something in an effort to escape. The net gave little evidence of fish on this trip down. Both men agreed that their first shot was not going to prove so very fruitful. Reaching the end of the net, the boat was swung broadside to it. John ceased rowing and drifted, slowly it seemed, yet it was rapid. Williams said they would go down to the dark pines and there haul the net. The reason for this was that a lot of "hangers" had been left below there by the sucker fishermen. A "hanger" is the stake to which the sucker fishers fastened their big barrel nets. The drifters disliked them. If a net gets hung up on one of these, it makes a lot of bother, even if it doesn't do material damage to the nets.
GETTING THE FISH
The end having reached the dark pines, Seldon and John began preparations for hauling the net. The punt was whirled around, so that the reserved seat occupied by yours truly was headed down stream. The end occupied by Williams was rowed up to the net. With his paddle, he brought the top end into the boat, then pulled up until the leaded line at the bottom was in the craft. Then the actual hauling of the net began. While the net was thrown out over the stern, it was hauled in over the port side, aft. This makes it easier and better when taking fish from the net. This dragging in of the net is no easy task. The net twine with its load of lead at the bottom is heavy. This, with the cold water, makes it a tiresome job. Hand over hand, Williams pulled the net in.
"Shad are scarce tonight," he remarked. John intimated that they wouldn't be likely to get so good a catch as on the previous night, when fourteen of the toothsome fish found their way into the net's meshes. "Easy, John." The exclamation by Williams was followed by a lively splashing in the water, as the net brought up a good-sized, roe Shad. John backed water a bit, and carefully, Williams ran his hand down the opposite side of the net and moved the fish into the boat. "Ker&emdash;splash . . . !" The fish flopped, cleared the net mesh and went back into the black water. Judging by previous fishing experiences, I said good bye to that Shad. Not so Seldon and John. The former merely admonished his partner to hold steady. After a wait of a minute, he again pulled the net, and brought the Shad inboard safely. He then explained that in cases of this kind, the fish rarely got away if the boat was held steady. This was due to the net being bowed in the process of hauling. All this time, the two men had kept busy. Williams was pulling the net, and John was keeping the boat properly headed. "She's caught, " Williams announced suddenly. "On that old hanger?" inquired John. "Guess so," Williams answered, "hope it's not bad." With added speed, Williams hauled the net and John rowed him up toward where the net was caught. Fortunately, it was not a bad one. They quickly cleared the net by simply circling the submerged stake. That done, they continued the hauling-in process. The nets yielded but one more Shad on this shot.
The nets all in, it was back to Goddard's Point to await our next turn. The boat had just landed when Tite appeared. Tite having got his Shad, all hands sat around and compared notes. The other boat had four fish, one of them a tremendous big one which we had to photograph. This called to the mind of all the fact that two weeks ago, one drifter got a nine pound Shad, which was one of the largest taken on the river for years. On the next shot, the net was paid out more slowly. This was because the ebb of the tide was nearly ended, and it was almost slack water. To put it out too fast would not give time for the net to stretch out in the manner desired. As he threw out, Williams explained that this time when he hauled the net, he would start at the end last put out. This was because it was then slack water, and by the time they were ready to haul, the tide would be on the flood, or running up-stream. The net out, the boat made a trip its entire length. Coming back, the fun began. "There's a Shad," Seldon said, as a buoy began to bob. "There's another," he added, as a section of the net started toward the other shore, thanks to the active effort of a big Shad trying to break through the meshes. "Going to under-run it?" asked John, as Williams began to haul up the net. Williams said no, that he was just going to show the passenger how it was done. "Under-running" consists of hauling up the lower end of the net, without disturbing the top. Doing this, they run the entire length of the net, taking out such Shad, as are caught, without taking the net entirely out of the water. Williams doesn't approve of this because all Shad may escape which otherwise might be caught. As the boat was rowed back up-stream, preparatory to hauling the net, lively agitation at one point caused a halt. A Shad had become entangled close to the top of the net. The light from the boat's lantern startled the fish and set him to going. Williams suggested that they had best make sure of the fish then, and the boat was rowed along side the net and the fish taken in. This shot netted the boat 11 Shad, three of them being roes. This was on the slack water. It was explained that this shot usually brings the most Shad. It is the theory of Shad fishermen that, on the slack of low water, when there is practically no movement of current, the Shad start playing about, which accounts for more of them getting into the nets then than at any other time. This was the last drift of the night, and Williams and Malia had taken 13 fish. This was a good catch for this season, though years ago, it would have been called mighty small.
At the time of this trip, roe shad were worth 60 cents each, and buck Shad 35 cents. As they had three roe and ten bucks, their night's work, which began at about 6 o'clock and was completed by 1 the next morning, netted them $5.30.
COST OF AN OUTFIT
These nets used by Shad fishermen average to a cost of $30 for the entire 150 fathoms. Its life is but one season . . . Sometimes a man will use one part of the second season, but this is rare. This constitutes the big expense of the fisherman's outfit. A boat lasts for years. Most of the men use the flat bottom, square ended punt, though some prefer the sharper, flat iron type. Then there are the boxes and ice for shipping the fish to market. The Shad fishermen say this is the best season for a number of years, but it does not compare with the old days. They love to sit down, especially the older ones, and retell the time when a catch of a couple hundred Shad a night was common for all in the business, but, they never fail to point out that prices were lower in proportion, so that the amount made was not much greater. One night a few years ago, Seldon Williams struck it lucky, and when he came ashore, had 150 good Shad, which netted him $70.00. That was called a very good night's work. Other men have had equally good luck at different times. Various reasons are assigned for the good fishing this year, but the most frequently mentioned is the large amount of sucker fishing done in recent years on the Cathance. That may seem puzzling, but it isn't, if you understand. The theory is that the suckers eat the spawn of the Shad, as they are known to eat that of other fish. The wholesale catching of Suckers in recent years has given the Shad a chance to multiply, say the advocates of this theory.
UP THE CREEK
Both men in the boat agreed that it would be useless to try longer, because, this spring, the fish have not been running on the flood tide. With this thought, the punt was headed up-stream, John bent to the oars, while Seldon steered the craft around the bends and curves of the many winds which the Cathance makes between Goddard's Point and the old mill at Bowdoinham village. And then came the closing adventure of the night. As the trio in the punt talked, Williams swung her around, and next, she passed under an overhead covering&emdash;a railroad bridge. The sides of the river narrowed up to a few feet, everything became a very black dark. A storehouse, inside which a dog howled mournfully, loomed up as the boat moved silently along. Next, great willows spread their branches over the water and the boat. It was all for the world like a chapter from one of Alger's smuggling stories. At last the boat was stranded in the soft mud at the head of the creek. John and Seldon divided the catch, said good night, and John made his way to the other hilltop, where a light in a window served as a beacon to guide him along the path. We climbed up the other way, past high bridge, to another beacon light, where Mrs. Seldon Williams had ready a fine baked Shad, with potatoes, hot coffee, delicious hot bread and butter, a banquet good enough for anybody . . . and our night's Shad drifting was ended.
SAM E. CONNER
(The original story was a full-page spread with 10 very poor quality photographs. Talbert Williams of the Topsham Police Department has the newspaper from which my copy was made. FDC)
Bowdoinham Advertiser &endash;June 1982
Frank Connors, Editor