This story has lived in my memory for many years. It took place when I was an impressionable kid, addicted to fishing and spending the summers with my family on Cape Cod. A nearby neighbor to our rental cottage was a commercial cod fisherman, let’s call him Captain Erick, and after much pestering he finally agreed to take us out cod fishing with him. I believe that my father may have offered him a little cash incentive to take us onboard. Commercial fishing in those days involved the use of a “Long Line” laid on the ocean floor with baited hooks attached along the line. I do not ever remember seeing a commercial boat with any kind of towed net, what today are known as “Draggers,” at the moorings near the commercial fish dock. I have come to understand that hook fishing is a much more sustainable approach with little or no by-catch and no disruption of the bottom structure.
Our day of fishing began with a midnight trip to the dock, where we met Captain Erick and he filled us in on what was about to happen. This was our first excursion on a commercial cod boat, often called a “Novi” because the hull design came from Nova Scotia. The hull was about 32 feet long and was built of wood in the 1930’s, and the inboard engine was rescued from an old Model A Ford car. Four cylinders and not much power, but the engine was reliable. Also, the engine came from a junk yard and it was relatively inexpensive. Electronics consisted of a flashlight! The boat did have a compass for navigation, but finding fish was up to the captain. Captain Erick had been fishing these cod grounds for most of his life and was very skilled at finding fish.
My father, older brother and I made up our party of three novices for this first trip. We arrived at the dock sleepy eyed but on time, and we followed Captain Erick into a room on the dock where captains prepared their gear for a day of fishing. He told us the reason we needed to start so early was because he wanted to be able to leave the harbor at first light, and he needed all their gear ready to fish before they got underway. We soon found out what he meant by gear, three tubs of line, perhaps three miles total, with a hook attached every 50 feet or so. The bait of choice that night was cut herring, and Captain Erick dumped a large sack of frozen herring on a table and the mate began chopping each fish into half a dozen baits. While the mate cut bait, the captain baited the hooks and carefully placed the line with the baited hooks turned in to prevent tangles into the large wooden tubs.
After cleaning up the bait cutting mess and ourselves, as they let us try our hand at chopping up herring, we had a quick breakfast sandwich we had brought with us. Captain Erick loaded the tubs of line with baited hooks in his Novi and started the engine. The sky was just beginning to lighten, and we jumped on board full of excitement. We tried our best to keep out of the way as the captain and mate made necessary preparations for our 15-mile run out to the cod grounds. Dawn was just breaking when we pulled away from the dock and we were impressed with the skill the captain exhibited in avoiding sand bars and maneuvering around the Coast Guard channel marker buoys. We were soon in the open ocean, chugging along at about 15 knots. Seas were calm, the sun was coming up, and I was ready for the adventure of a lifetime.
After about an hour of running Captain Erick reduced power and put the Novi into idle. The mate got out a large chunk of lead with some soft wax on the bottom that was attached to a stout line. As we drifted, he dropped the lead over the side, payed out the line, and when it hit bottom, he bounced it a time or two and then retrieved it. Captain Erick looked at the material that stuck to the wax, was not happy with what he saw, so he engaged the transmission and moved the boat a mile or so. They went through the bottom test again, and on the third try Captain Erick was happy with what he saw so he and the mate began setting their gear. The set begins with dropping an anchor and line attached to a flag buoy. This serves as the locator for gear retrieval. The long line was attached and slowly payed out as Captain Erick idled the boat along. At the time I was not aware of the importance of the skill of the captain taking into account the tide, current, water depth and bottom structure to perfectly place his gear where he knew there would be fish feeding. Soon the tub was empty, and another anchor and marker buoy was dropped to mark the location of the gear. A second and third tub of gear was set, and Captain Erick turned the boat around and headed back to the first line to begin his retrieval. The baited hooks had been soaking for several hours, and we had high hopes for a good catch.
It turned out that we brought the boat good luck that day; as the gear was retrieved the fish box was filling quickly. The retrieval system was simple, the captain steered the boat and pulled the line in over a roller that was installed at the bottom of an opening in the cabin, and when a fish was on, he brought it into the cabin and with a snap of the wrist shook it off the hook and into the fish box. The mate carefully placed the line back in the tub with hooks laid to the inside to prevent tangles. The two had worked together for years, and they operated like a well-oiled machine. Suddenly everything changed!
The captain stopped retrieving the line and moved outside the cabin to the stern of the boat. He used a gaff to grab the line and pulled it to the stern. He then swung the gaff and impaled a fish with a tremendous head the size of a basketball and a mouth full of teeth. He hoisted the fish up and over the gunnel, dropping it onto the deck. I took one wide-eyed look at the fish shouted, “What the heck is that thing?” The mate replied, “It It’s a goose fish. Stand clear, the teeth are very sharp, and it will bite you if given a chance!” Captain Erick had put the boat in neutral to take tension off the long line and got out a fillet knife from the helm locker. He bent down and with a quick slash cut the belly of the goose fish open, exposing the stomach. Another quick slash and the goosefish stomach was cut open and a large codfish slid out, still hooked. The cod was released from the hook and the line retrieved out of the goosefish mouth. Captain Erick picked up the cod and threw it into the fish box with the rest of the catch. My first thought was that I did not want to think about eating that fish. Ugh!! Upon reflection, it had probably only been in the stomach for less than an hour, so digestion activity would be minimal.
We continued picking up gear and by noon we had retrieved all the lines and headed for the fish pier. As we motored back towards the harbor both the mate and Captain Erick gutted the catch, keeping the livers in a five-gallon bucket. I now saw firsthand where that awful tasting cod liver oil that my mother said was good for us came from. We arrived at the dock about 2:00 pm after navigating the channel in from the ocean and began unloading our catch. They used pitchforks to stab the fish and heave it out of the fish box into a dockside container used to take the fish to the scale. Once weighed and sold to a broker, the fish were placed in iced containers for shipment to the Fulton Fish Market in New York City to be sold the next morning. I remember thinking that some poor soul will be served a cod dinner that night in a nice restaurant and will never know that the goosefish was the first to dine on his fish. Tired, excited and hungry, my father purchased a carefully selected cod from Captain Erick, and we headed home for our own fresh fish dinner. Over the years I have fondly remembered Captain Erick and his patience with us on his boat, and the wonderful time we had on this first experience long line fishing for cod.
Some varieties of the goosefish are also called monkfish and have a market for human consumption, vendors claiming they have the taste and texture of lobster. We threw the gutted goosefish over the side, however, and since this experience I have eaten monkfish several times and must say I prefer cod.