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Cowboys on the Water, Part I

Published: 8/14/2010
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By Maddy Butcher Gray

Nine-tenths of the time, my mind is a sieve. Jokes, anecdotes, fine memories all flow out as quickly as they flow in.
But the notion of lobstermen as Cowboys of the American East is at least one thing that’s been lodged in my noggin for years.
Author Trevor Corson introduced me to the parallels in the opening pages of his best-selling book, “The Secret Life of Lobsters.”

Still, why write about lobstermen for NickerNews?

I’m a proud Mainer.
And, let’s face it, Maine doesn’t have too many rodeo champs.
But we got darn good seamen.
Just like good cowboys:
  • They are life-long learners.
  • They brave fierce elements.
  • They work in harmony with nature.
Just like cowboys:
  • they have a deep understanding and even compassion for the animals they harvest.
  • They must tolerate the government’s regulation of their livelihood.
  • They work through their day with an immense and impressive repertoire of physical skills. Just like cowboys.

And did I mention toughness?

Lobsterman Rick Hollingshead agreed to take horseman Elijah Moore and me out on the water earlier this summer. Elijah grew up in Wyoming and probably has more fingers than trips on the water. As many years as he has in the saddle, Rick has at sea.

Rick has been lobstering since he was a kid. At about age 10, he set up traps of his own. He’d bike down to his skiff with bait bags full of mackerel and herring dangling off the handlebars.
Rick’s in his 40’s now and works a 20-foot lobsterboat with a 90-horse outboard. For years, he had a 35-footer. This new, used boat is quicker, requires less maintenance, and uses much less gas.

Elijah and I watch as Rick deftly maneuvers the boat to pick us up from a wharf near Cundy’s Harbor. It lightly touches the dock and he keeps it steady as we clamor aboard. One of us highlanders does something inappropriate and he shakes his head, “Oh, I don’t want a Joner coming out with me.”
A Joner. As in Davey Jones’ locker. As in Bad Luck.
Some lobstermen are awful superstitious. Rick worked as a sternman for one of them.
“Never ever flip a hatch upside down,” he recalled. Once, when he did accidentally, they went out hauling anyway. All hell broke loose. They were lucky to get home alive.

Never bring pork on board. Never squeal like a pig. Never even talk about pigs. (I brought BLT’s for lunch. Shit.)
Elijah laughed. Cowboys, it seems, can be suspicious, too. He recalled his grandfather, a Texas Ranger and one of the first to work cattle in Utah.
“Something happened when my granddad was in Texas,” he told us. “And from then on, he would never turn around if he forgot something. It didn’t matter what it was, there was no turning around. “And that’s been passed down through the family. There’s no going back, ever.”

Rick set about his business of hauling traps. If he was a rider, you'd be watching a ranch versatility performance at every buoy:
He’d maneuver the boat so that the buoy appeared without fail on the starboard side, within easy reach. Within the 30 seconds it took to grab and haul, Rick would have his hands on the throttle, the wheel, the shifter, the line to the trap, and to the lever for the hydraulic hauler.
With his eyes, he would watch the hauler, the line, the water and how the boat was shifting as the weight of the trap affected it.
One trap, sometimes two if he’d set a double line, were brought effortlessly to the sideboard. Most often, there were lobsters inside. Most often, many were tossed overboard.
Keepers must have a body between 3 ¼ to 5 inches in length. Any lobster measuring more or less must be returned to the sea. Any female with eggs must be returned (see photo at right). Any female with a notched tail must be returned.

The lobster trap itself is not a particularly tricky mechanism, explained Rick. “They’ve put cameras on the traps…You should see the lobsters going in and out.”
But for eight years (the length of time it takes to mature to 3 ¼ inches) lobsters learn there is little consequence for entering: They get fed. They get hauled. They get tossed back into the ocean.
“We take good care of them,” he said.

Click here to read Part II




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8/20/2010 Julie
So true! My husband is a lobsterman and he is extremely athletic, business smart, talented, tough, and a wonderful dad and husband. He's definitely my idea of a "cowboy." I love to ride with him, when he has the time and inclination...wish we rode together more. I can always hope that when fishing winds down for him, riding horses together might happen more often :)
8/23/2010 Paulette
I never thought about the similarities between the two before. I too am married to a lobsterman. When I moved east from Michigan my dad told me that wasn't horse country. Maybe that is why moving east and going without a horse for 10 years made sense?? My husband now tells everyone he is a lobsterman and a rancher.

   
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