Each footfall produced a painful wince, the grimace creasing his face became difficult for me to watch and I prayed he didn’t notice me. Upon his discharge from the Great War he was a strong, proud man who walked with the bearing and confidence of a warrior. Years of difficult work, abusing his body and lack of timely medical attention had taken its toll. The old trooper was dragging an armful of burlap sacks and carrying a grocery bag in his other hand. He should have been using a cane but he was much too proud for that; the decorated Marine veteran who was respected and admired by his peers. He was one of the many walking wounded who were members of the Weetamoe Yacht Club, a working-class boathouse where most of the watercraft were wooden skiffs, many designed and built by their owners.
Danny knocked around after his discharge working in a factory, a job that he tolerated for less than a month. He told his friends that working indoors was worse than being confined in a prisoner of war camp. It was obvious to him and those he kept company with that making a living in the out-of-doors was the only way he could be at peace. He began his self-employment digging clams and quahogs, and then he worked as a deck hand on inshore commercial boats. He was in his element when he began working part time for local boat yards and boat builders, increasing his skills to a degree that allowed him to acquire the proficiency to build a rugged work skiff of his own.
I met this hard-working man in my capacity as an errand boy for the members of the club, and he was always kind and as generous as he could afford to be. One winter he helped renovate a boat shed on the shore of the Taunton River for which his compensation was the lodging of the upper living quarters and the use of the lower boat shed where he honed his skills by building that first solo work skiff. I made a few visits there over that long, frigid winter, swept the floor, ran to the hardware store for essentials and learned a great deal about joinery and the mixing and application of hot glue.
My minimal contribution to that flat iron cedar on oak work skiff provided me with an understanding of the basic skills I had observed in the several boat houses on the river that fostered a desire to one day build a skiff of my own. With genuine appreciation to Danny I achieved that goal and built a dory I employed in an eel potting venture that was also inspired by that supportive old waterman.
Even as I learned from him, I watched his health begin to fail while his strength diminished, yet his desire and determination to get out on the water and tend his gear, never faltered. One cold March morning, after fetching his coffee and toasted Danish, he taught me how to tie off the heavy green nylon cord he attached from the pot to the small black cork buoys he used to mark his pots. Other watermen used big wooden or Styrofoam floats, which my old mentor referred to as invitations for some midnight bandit to pull or steal his gear. When we set his gear, we did our best to disguise their locations, however trying to find that same black cork float in the pre-dawn light was always a challenge. At the time we used horseshoe crabs for bait but other eel potters used cracked quahogs, clams or fish racks that attracted chubs and shiners, which the eels entered the pots to devour. In later years when bait was difficult to come by, I have used the remains of blueshell and Jonah crabs from our kitchen table or from one of the local taverns that served them, and that bait worked very well.
Depending on water temperatures eels go into hibernation between late fall and early winter and don’t come out of the mud until early spring, so commercial eel potters have a very limited season. I can recall walking the shore route home after serving the 6 a.m. mass and sitting at the top of the stairs to see if Danny’s skiff was out. I was well aware that at that time I was living my life vicariously through the old waterman. We always pushed off the dock before first light when the eels began to panic in the confines of the pots, and occasionally swimming out the funnel they came in by. That was why the old timer had the members saving the old nylon stockings of their wives or girlfriends. He cut them into 8-inch lengths and tied them around the outside end of the funnel where they allowed the eels easy access in but prevented them from bumping into the opening and swimming out.
One after-school visit to the club found Danny making his way back across the river towards the float to unload his catch, the little 4hp Evinrude Fast-Twin groaning under the load of the heavy skiff, a deck full of pots, a tub of meat eels and the old man at the tiller. I caught his bow line and noticed concern etched across his furrowed countenance. He had a decent catch, but he told me he wasn’t able to haul all the gear due to severe pain in his right shoulder. He usually sold his eels to a Fall River dealer so one of the regulars carried his catch up to the landing and drove him to that market.
I notified the caretaker who agreed to accompany me in hauling the rest of the gear because I knew the location of the sets and wanted to remove the pots furthest from the club to avoid having them pilfered or stolen. I topped off the fuel in the engine’s self-contained tank, the caretaker pulled the cord and we were on our way. Arriving in the first cove I pointed out the cork float and the caretaker came alongside where I snared the line with the long-handled gaff. We pulled well over a dozen pots, kept the large meat eels and discarded the smaller ones. The old man decided we would haul the pots and take them back with us as he wasn’t sure if Danny would be able to get out after his gear for a while.
Looking back on those trips, now through the eyes of a striper fisherman, I am still amazed at the number of “bass eels” we discarded every trip. In those days of abundance, it was much more than enough to last me and my crew a lifetime of fishing. We returned to the club, deposited the catch in Danny’s floating eel crates and washed the pots and warp before storing them in a safe spot alongside the marine railway. Danny didn’t return to the club for a few days, and when he did, he made me a proposition. “Wann’a make a few bucks? As you can see this old codger will be needing a hand. It’s getting too dangerous for me to be out there alone anymore.”
Pulling pots with him that summer was one of the best jobs I ever had, and it also taught me a great deal about fishing, boating and making a living on the water. Despite all the eels we caught we never took that resource for granted. Several years ago I was in the process of completing a book on live eels entitled, “Snake Charmer” which was several years in the making when a marine biologist suggested that eels might become listed as a threatened species. Those comments gave me cause to halt the project.
Over the past year I’ve received numerous requests for that book and have decided to proceed. The lessons I learned working on the water provided an understanding that all marine life is precious and that some fishermen have no idea as to the amount of work goes into catching bait, building pots, setting and hauling gear, then penning up a catch in live cars before delivery to the tackle shops. You know what it entails just keeping a dozen snakes alive for a night or a few days; just multiply that by the hundreds and you have some understanding as to what it takes to provide live eels to the bait and tackle dealers. That should be incentive enough to make every single eel count!