It’s 3:30 am, the third time waking up since I went to bed at 8:30, tossing and turning for who-knows-how-long. I have another 40 minutes before my alarm goes off. I roll over to face my husband and listen to his steady breathing. I close my eyes and wish I could fall asleep straight away as he does, or sleep through the night just once, but it’s fishing season and my brain laughs at me and immediately starts overthinking the day ahead: Does Isley have a ride home? Finn was up late. I hope he doesn’t sleep through his alarm. What day is it? I need to order boxes. Coffee. When’s the last time I checked the propane for the forklift? Did I remember to turn it off? We have dinner plans. No, that’s tomorrow. I wonder if they plugged in the pallet-jack as I asked. Shit! I forgot to check how many boxes are made. If I get up now I’ll have time to make a few before the boat leaves. Coffee. I told them to have the truck there for 9:30. Maybe I should have said earlier. Do we have enough ice? I need to make sure he’s getting more ice. What if I don’t have enough fish for all my orders?! They are sending a whole tractor-trailer truck! Did I oversell? Or undersell? They are expecting a big load! Both, my brother, Luke, and my dad seem to think there’s plenty. “If there’s not,” Luke shrugged, “tell them, that’s fishing.” Luke had nonchalantly said the day before. Yeah, easy for him to say, I think, rolling my eyes.
Corey's daughter @isleyforrest. Photo Credit: @craig_salmon
I listen through the darkness for the rustling trees and wind that’s kept me up half the night. Despite the weatherman, my father predicts the wind will let go by morning, allowing us a small window to haul the trap and harvest the fish before it’s supposed to blow again. I roll out of bed and tiptoe, more like limp, across the room. Everything hurts. I think, oh, this is what “getting old” feels like, or maybe it was that run yesterday, knowing full well I’ll go again later when my dad goes for his bike ride and our daily swim. I gently close the bathroom door before turning on the light and look in the mirror. I look tired. I am tired. I need coffee but first, splash cold water on my face and it wakes me up enough to get ready. I squeeze sunscreen into my palm, rub my hands together, and spread it across my face feeling the coarse calluses from my hands as I do. I brush my teeth and don’t bother brushing my hair because what’s the point? I separate my hair into three strands, ripping knots apart, and braid it. I pull on jeans and my toe gets caught in a worn knee hole ripping it even larger. Despite my best efforts to cover myself from the sun, I have dark, uneven, tan lines I notice as I put on a long-sleeve button-down and tie a bandana around my neck. It takes me less than ten minutes to get ready and I’m somewhat thankful I’m not required to put much effort into my appearance this early in the morning. I grab my pocket knife and chapstick off the counter, shove them into my pocket, and shut the light off. I listen one last time for the wind before I open the door, still not convinced of my father’s forecast. I’m relieved when I don't hear any; one less thing to worry about. Let’s just hope the whole crew shows up.
I’m rushing more than usual this morning and regret not organizing myself better the night before; too tired to think about all the details but now feeling the pressure pile up like the fish will be in a few short hours. While the coffee brews, I hastily make a smoothie knowing I’ll forget about it or be too busy to drink it until I’m famished. I grab my two thermoses and pour in the coffee, fill a giant water-bottle, and throw everything into an oversized waterproof boat bag that’s already holding extra sunscreen, spare sunglasses, a notebook, paperwork, and a fishy trucker hat, (I was wondering what that smell was). I step into my XtraTuf boots by the door and spot the accumulating fish scales that are left behind on the floor. One of these days I’ll vacuum, I think to myself, as I walk out the door.
I feel myself relax as soon as I start driving and take the first sip of coffee. The sun is still below the horizon but I see a warm pink glow beginning to brighten the sky as I drive over the bridge. The sea looks calm enough from here but Sakonnet Point can be a whole different world. I’m about to press play on an audiobook when the phone rings. It’s not even 5 am nor has the coffee had a chance to kick in. A chirper voice comes through the stereo Bluetooth singing John Prine’s “When I go to Heaven…These words my daddy said/ He said, "Buddy, when you're dead / You're a dead peckerhead" / I hope to prove him wrong / That is ... when I get to heaven”. My dad is clearly on his twentieth cup of coffee. “Did you hear it? Are you listening to Outlaw this morning? Where are you? I’m just going by Pardon Grey Preserve, there must be twenty deer in there!” My dad exclaims with too much enthusiasm for anyone this early. ”Dad, I’m just over the bridge and barely have sipped my coffee,” I say shortly. “Let me go. I’ll see you in twenty minutes. Oh! Remind me to check the pallet jack and propane. I don’t want to forget! And boxes!” I quickly add before hanging up, not waiting for a response.
By the time I get to the dock, the whole sky is on fire. “Red sky at night, sailors’ delight. / Red sky at morning, sailors’ take warning”, the familiar mariners’ rhyme echoes through my head reminding me that weather is coming. I sit for a moment sipping coffee, appreciating, and admiring the view. My dad walks toward me as I lower the window. “You ready to party?” he asks. “Not really,” I laugh. “We’ll get through it, no matter what it is. We always do,” he says. “Uggghhhh,” I dramatically groan, getting out of my truck, knowing he’s right. I start walking toward my office, noticing the pallet jack plugged in on the loading dock, I glance through the open door of the rope shed satisfied with the number of boxes made, open the next door and make sure we have at least one full propane tank. I get to my office, turn on the light, and look at my phone to check the time just as a text comes through: “I’m getting more ice first thing. It’ll be there by the time you get back.” I put on my oil gear and grab the forklift key. I start it up and drive into the ice house lining the two forks up with a thousand-pound vat of ice. The forklift dies. I awkwardly turn my entire body around, barely being able to reach the dial, and twist it toward “open”. I guess I did remember to turn off the propane yesterday, I think, patting myself on the back.
We slowly make our way out of the harbor, workboats unfolding behind us, toward our fish trap sites, a 40-minute boat ride. I look out the wheelhouse window toward the stern and count how many crew we have. Some are taking down the bullnet that’s been tied to the rigging, a few are taking turns crushing the ice with a pitchfork to make it easier to shovel, someone is hosing off the deck, another has his phone out taking a picture of the sky with workboats in tow, and my niece has her eyes closed curled up next to the muffler. My brother is standing on the stern gesturing animatedly, all eyes on him. I can’t hear what he’s saying over the engine, but I’m pretty sure he’s reciting the monologue from The Lighthouse film he’s memorized for entertainment purposes only, “Let Neptune strike ye dead, Winslow!... Haaaaark! Hark, Triton! Hark!” Everyone is laughing now, and I know his distinct laugh is rising above everyone else’s. I can’t help but laugh too. He called in some extra hands today, friends and former crew members, knowing we could use the help and I’m thankful for it. He’s not so bad, I think. Any grievances left over from yesterday are long gone. I feel the usual rhythm of work unfold and I soften.
We arrive at the trap and everyone gets in their designated workboat. I grab the oarlock and 15-foot oar and place it in the bow of the nozzle boat, Luke does the same in the stern. As we row across the trap I already see fish. Either there’s big fish on the bottom chasing smaller fish causing a disturbance on the surface or we have a lot of fish. We tie up and start winching the bottom of the trap before we start hauling the twine with our hands. I notice a few bubbles pop up and for a moment the surface of the water inside the trap is perfectly slick like polished glass. This is the calm before the storm; I know what’s coming next. I can’t help feeling the excitement rise in me, even after 20-plus years, the anticipation of the catch never gets old. Everyone is quiet and watches in awe as the water swirls and boils just like water in a pot on a hot stove. “Well, this is worth the price of admission,” my father breaks the silence with something an old friend and trapper used to say. “We better start hauling!”
There’s a thick sea of fish between us in the workboat and the FV/Maria Mendonsa, the 65-foot boat, where they end up. Luke grabs the skiff tied up behind us, three of us get in, and he expertly sculls us to the portside of the Maria. The wind is starting to pick up and the sea is growing. The boats are banging together. I’ve done this a million times but I still get nervous. Brent, who’s been doing this even longer than me, holds the tires hanging off the side trying to steady the boat and keep it close for me. I not-so-gracefully climb over the rail and fall onto the deck. I get up, grab the painter, and hold the skiff while each of them climbs aboard and then tie it off on the forward bit. Luke grabs the bullnet handle on the stern, I grab the tow line attached to it and head to the starboard side winch, Brent on the portside. 400 lbs per scoop of the bullnet, the boat starts filling up with fish. ‘“Pull Corey!” my dad shouts each time. “Going up!” Luke echoes. We’re running out of room and there’s still quite a few left in the trap. “Hold up,” I shout over the engine, “We need to figure this out!” “You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” someone calls out. We throw anything that’s in the way: totes, baskets, and rope, upon the bow, and keep bailing. I’m getting nervous that this is way more fish than I have sold. My head, full of expletives, races on what to do if I can’t move them all today. I know trying to convince my brother and dad to leave any behind will not go well for me. Sensing my uneasiness, my friend Ian, who fishes with us when he’s not captaining his own boat, offers to call his buddy in Point Judith to buy some. “Please Do!” I shout over the engine, gratefully. This is a good problem to have, I remind myself.
Over a hundred bails later and every fish from the trap is onboard. “This is a lot of fish,” I say nervously to my brother, as we wait for the rest of the crew to board again. “It’s 40,000. That’s what you said you have sold,” he says harshly. “It’s way more than that!” I answer. “We don’t even have the side rails up,” he argues. I don’t bother saying anything more because I know better. We start heading back toward the dock. By now there are white caps, and fish are spilling overboard as the boat rocks, but the hard part is over. I glance over my shoulder at the fish second-guessing myself for the umpteenth time. Ian catches my eye across the boatload and gives me the thumbs up; a few more get sold. I grab my phone to let my buyers know I’ll have their fish. “Pete’s still coming right, dad?” I say to my father stepping back from the wheel so he can take over. “His truck is ready. He’ll take 30. He’s just waiting for the word.” “Thanks,” I say. “I’ve got your back,” he winks, “I always do.”
Photo Credit: @maaikephoto
Within a few hours, over 50,000 lbs of fish are sold, offloaded, and sent on their respective trucks. Luke and his dog, my dad, and I are on our daily swim, floating in the brisk bay, staring at the sky. “This isn’t the worst thing I’ve done today,” my dad repeats every time we swim, letting out a sigh of relief. “Thanks, Corey,” my dad says out of nowhere, not exactly sure what he’s thanking me for. “Let’s party again tomorrow,” I hear him say, as he always does, and I close my eyes. The grime, grit, and drudgery of the day slips away and a familiar wave of exhaustion and satisfaction washes over me.
Learn more about Corey here.