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Courtesy of Mike Mesko

Courtesy of Mike Mesko

There were two interesting things about tying knots in fishing. First, there was the fact that it mattered whether you were left-handed or right-handed. If you were left-handed, I mean truly left-handed, you really needed to learn how to tie knots from a left-handed person. Why? Because it was all about the motion with the working end, the free end of the line. Like throwing a ball, there is a motion, a way you address the knot. If you are left-handed you hold the working end in your left hand and tie the knot with that hand. The motion becomes like a muscle memory. If you're right-handed, the motion is a right-handed motion. Seems simple, but I later worked on deck with a true left-handed guy who couldn't tie a single knot. No one he had ever fished with—and no one in his family for that matter—was left-handed and so no one had ever been able to teach him how to tie the simplest of knots.

Second, most fishing knots were not tightly tied. Over time, I learned that the mark of a true greenhorn, including myself, was to cinch up and yank on knots so they were tight and rock hard. On fishing boats, most knots at some point will need to be untied. There were exceptions, of course. The only knot that I ever saw anyone yank on—I mean stand on the line with their boot and pull up as hard as they could to tighten it—was the fisherman's knot used to join two lines. Once tied, it could never be untied. Lobster catchers used that knot every day to lengthen out pot warp, or when they had to cut apart snarls where they got tangled up in other people's gear, then re-attach the line. Most fishing knots were variants of regular knots with a kind of slipknot approach for easy untying. Instead of using the straight working end, the loose end of the line, most fisherman make a bight, a loop, with the working end and use that to tie the knot. The bight serves two purposes. Because it is bigger than the single working end, it makes the knot looser against the standing line. In other words, this doubled-up working end is harder to crush into a binding knot that is so tight it takes beating on it with a hammer to get it apart. The bight also gives you the ability to pull the knot apart faster when you're untying it. That's the slipknot aspect. In the last step of untying, you just pull the free end and pull out the bight.

I know that all seems a bit fussy, but it matters in fishing because most knots can come under terrific strain and you often need to get them apart to get yourself out of messes—and there are always messes—without necessarily resorting to “out knife and cut.” And all fishing gear is held together by knots and splices, whether it is the fundamental small knots in a net, that lace the mesh to a corkline or a leadline, a hawser used to hold a boat at a wharf, or a wire towing cable pulling two thousand pounds of dragging doors. Undoubtedly, the most useful knot ever invented is the bowline. No matter how much strain is put on the knot, you can always get it untied. On a regular basis, towing loaded dories behind a workboat, we would put a bowline in the line of the boat to be towed, and then tie another bowline through that bowline to join the two lines. Even after towing a dory loaded with two tons of mackerel, you could easily untie the two lines.

Read a sample of Door in Dark Water by P. D. Callahan


The House

Courtesy of Author's Collection

Courtesy of Author's Collection

First year there, we tried to winter over in an un-insulated summer house but moved when we could still see your breath inside the house at midday. Shortly thereafter our next-door neighbor blew his brains all over the inside of his fish house with a shotgun. Turns out he had an appointment with the IRS and couldn’t find the receipt for the new boat engine he had just installed. Two years—still there—we decided to buy a piece of land and build a house. We had very little money. No matter. I had been working in the winter as a carpenter and in the summer mackerel trapping with Junior during the day and looking for stop-seine herring with Henry at night—out and around John's Bay and the river. Joy was working as an art teacher in Damariscotta. And though teaching was what she loved, she had five hundred-fifty students in seven different elementary schools and no classroom. She also had no storeroom for her supplies, so the storeroom was our car—a green 1965 Dodge Dart with a white fender I had replaced from a junkyard when Joy had gone off the road on ice. She told me one of her school principals had raked her over the coals because she didn't know all the names of her students.

This was our life. Joy and I were at the national poverty level. Our combined income was somewhere in the $6-7,000 range. In the 70s, Maine was always neck and neck with West Virginia for the title of poorest state in the nation. But we figured out how to make money somehow every year and we had no doubt that we could keep doing that, if we wanted to.

In the spring, we borrowed $10,000 and spent $7,000 for the land. That left $3,000 to buy materials and build the house by ourselves. I pounded the nails and Joy learned to use a power saw that was loud enough to make you permanently deaf in one sitting and didn’t cut her hand off in the process. By fall we were out of money and facing winter in the half-built house, so I went to work offshore in a beast of a new fiberglass boat with a big engine, and learned about fear.

Read a sample of Door in Dark Water by P. D. Callahan

Feeling Pole

Courtesy of Joy Vaughan

Courtesy of Joy Vaughan

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.”

More laughter.

“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