It is 1972.
In the smoke-filled galley of the herring boat, Alice M, 64-year old skipper, Henry Jones, is slurping instant coffee and telling the crew about the fish the cannery’s sardine carrier will fetch from their set in John’s Bay. The boys (all men twice or three times my age) have been up all night and just finished running the fish into a pocket, a corral made of net, at first light. Now the herring are ready for pickup and the crew is taking a welcome break—a mug-up—and a smoke.
“They’s about 800 bushel swimming in the pocket, so I told them to send just the one boat.”
“How can you tell?” I ask naively, and you can hear a pin drop as the gnarled and veteran crew look to one another for a moment, and then erupt in a chorus of laughter and smoker’s coughs.
Amid the hilarity, Henry grins as he pulls on his cigarette, “You run across ‘em with a sound machine in the workboat, of course,” and then he pauses for quiet.
“But that ain’t such a stupid question, really. Even from someone who went to college.”
“So I’ll tell ye how we used to do it. They was quite a few men in the days before we had sound machines and electronics, who was quite accurate at telling how many fish you had using a feeling pole. A man would have hisself a long thin pole and could get quite good with it. But the pole was kind of flat-like, don’t you know, not so much a rounded pole as it was flat and thin, so’se it would go easy through the water.” Henry draws his hand along like a fin to demonstrate.
“He would have someone paddle him across the pocket in a skiff while he held this long feeling pole overboard, and down into the fish. An’ he could feel the herring rubbing down there aginst the pole and he’d tell you how many fish you had by the feel of it.”
Read a sample of Door in Dark Water by P. D. Callahan