Trap fishing with the Wheeler family requires a strong back, finesse and A healthy dose of old-fashioned seamanship.
It is a little after 6 o’clock in the morning, and the moon is still up as the 62-foot Maria Mendonsa steams west from Sakonnet Point in Little Compton, Rhode Island, with her brood of three aluminum workboats and a small skiff in tow. The destination is a floating fish trap anchored off Newport.
A dozen men in foul-weather gear, some red-eyed, some yawning, sit on the bench seats or stand in the 30-foot skiffs, talking, smoking, drinking coffee, trying to wake up on the short run to the grounds. The clouds are gray and layered, and there is a bite to the air. Weather is moving in.
Crowded into the small pilothouse is the Wheeler family. Patriarch Alan Wheeler, 67, an intense, high-energy waterman whose gaze doesn’t miss a thing, has been fishing full time for a good half century. He drinks coffee from a battered thermos as he talks business with daughter Corey Wheeler Forrest, a mother of two and a college graduate who has found her calling working in the family fishing business. Corey “pulls twine” — that’s what they call hauling nets by hand — with the rest of the crew and also handles the shipping and paperwork required by the state. Miles, 31, the youngest of this generation, leans against a bulkhead.
Luke, a 40-year-old graduate of the Maine Maritime Academy, has the helm of the well-worn 52-year-old Gladding-Hearn fishing boat, which in the jargon of trapping is still referred to as a “steamer,” a reference to the propulsion of its long-gone predecessors.
“There’s a saying: no wind, no tide, no fish,” says Luke as he guides the purpose-built Maria Mendonsa on what is a very familiar milk run for everyone in the pilothouse. “Nice weather is nice to work in, but not for fish. When they move, we catch ’em.”
In one fishery or another, the Wheelers have been making a living off the water for more than 100 years. Lobstering, quahogging, dragging, gillnetting. They are among the last in these parts to fish the traps, which basically work like enormous lobster pots, funneling a variety of fish — from the mainstay scup to sea bass, squid, butterfish, mackerel and striped bass — into a net parlor from which they can’t escape.
In Rhode Island, fish trapping is pretty much a bygone fishery, one whose origins drift back to Colonial times and possibly to the Native Americans. More than 200 fish traps lined the shores of Narragansett Bay and the state’s south coast from the late 1800s into the 1920s, some extending a good distance offshore.
The Wheeler family owns two of the four or five companies remaining. They are permitted to set five traps in the same location each year. With the late spring and the terrible weather, they set only three this season.
“It’s a very old fishery,” says Alan, pausing to reflect for a moment. “Who would have thought I’d be the last man standing? I never thought about it. It’s pretty bizarre.”
Trap fishing may be dwindling, but the Wheelers have no intention of packing it in. They have a bit of leverage on Father Time in the form of active third-generation family members who are intent on keeping this traditional form of fishing alive.
“It feels viable,” says Alan. “We still catch a lot of fish.”
Trap fishing moves with the rhythm of seasons, tides, migrations and the lives of the many crew who have passed through the boats, pulling twine shoulder-to-shoulder until their backs ached. Luke was taken on board before he could walk. By the time he was in sixth grade, he was fishing with his father on weekends and summer vacation. Corey carried her two children as tykes on her back while working at the wharf.
Alan played Little League baseball with one of his crew more than 55 years ago, and he has been a shipmate for more than four decades with a 77-year-old member of the trap gang.
George Mendonsa, a venerable retired fisherman who sold the Wheelers his trap company and helped show them the ropes, saved Alan’s father’s life more than 50 years ago in a fishing accident. “My dad said he was going down for the third time when George reached down with his big hand and hauled him into the skiff,” Alan says.
It is a complicated intersection of lines, nets, anchors, fish and friendships.
“We have a great crew,” says Corey. “They feel like my family. My fishing family. I love the camaraderie. We never hold a grudge. And it’s a special thing to work with my dad. He and I are close anyway.”
The work is tough, but you get the impression the Wheelers wouldn’t want it any other way. “We’re all hard workers,” says Luke, who is used to 12-hour days. “There’s not a fisherman out here who isn’t a hard worker. It’s the nature of the job.”
When the getting’s good, especially early in the season, they trap for as many as 60 days in a row without a day off. “Seven days a week if the fish are there,” says Luke, who suggests, with affection, that his father can be driven at times.
“Unless it’s blowing a hurricane,” Corey says, “we fish.”
Corey sets her alarm for 4 a.m. but is usually up by 3:30, and arrives at the boat by 5:30. Her husband gets the kids up and off to school. Once the catch is offloaded, boxed and iced, she still has paperwork to fill out.
“I’m really exhausted, every day,” says Corey, who will be 38 in November. But she says she wouldn’t trade the job for anything. “It’s tough to call it hard when it’s something I love doing,” she says. “I honestly can say I look forward to going every single day. I like the routine of it. And you feel you’ve accomplished something at the end of the day.”
Pulling twine is a life you can literally lean into. The Wheelers find the work engaging in part because it is so challenging — and not just the physical aspects. Trap-net fishing does not come with an operating manual. You figure things out, improvise and make changes as you go.
“No two situations are ever the same,” says Corey. “There are so many details. It’s always something — equipment, weather, fish.” And once the season is well underway and the gear has been fished hard, she adds, “We have to fix things every day. Every day.”
Alan has been wresting a living from the sea for about 57 years. “I was 10 years old when I first made money off the water,” he recalls. He harvested bay scallops from a 14-foot skiff powered by a 5-hp Scott-Atwater outboard pulling a little dredge. “As Rhode Island residents, each of us could keep a bushel of scallops,” he says. “I was just a kid. My mom and dad did it. It was great.”
He liked the money, but soon it became something more. “What’s not to like?” asks the strong, wiry fisherman. “It’s exciting. You’re feeding people. You get up in the morning and you know what you’re doing. I love the challenge of hauling the net.” Besides, he notes with a grin, “I don’t know any better.”
Alan’s father, George, trapped up until just a few months before he died at age 87. Alan seems to be following the same path. “He’ll never retire,” Corey predicts. “My dad is ridiculous. He’s non-stop, super-fit.”
An avid backcountry skier who also rides a mountain bike and beach bike, Alan prefers the action of the small boats to helming the old steamer. “I’d rather be a cowboy, jumping around and getting in the boats,” he says. “You can’t be a cowboy behind the wheel.”
A Type A personality with a penchant for calculated risk-taking, Alan works on skis as a snowmaker in the winter at a resort in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, one of the hardest jobs on the mountain. Between work and backcountry skiing, he spent 94 days on skis last winter, each day duly recorded.
“You have to live,” says Alan. “You can’t be too careful, and you can be too ‘out there,’ either. Somewhere in the middle.”
A floating fish trap is simple enough in concept. Fish migrating along the shore run into a twine leader, which is about a quarter-mile long. When they encounter this wall, their natural reaction is to swim seaward for deeper water. As they do so, they are funneled into the net trap, which is about 300 feet by 60 feet, where they swim in a circular fashion until the net is raised and the fish are bailed out and dropped on the deck of the steamer.
“Imagine a lobster trap the size of a building,” says Luke. “But instead of tricking the lobster to go into the trap with bait,” he continues, they are led into the trap by way of the leader. “You’d need to have imagination to find your way out,” says Luke. “And fish don’t have imagination.”
Setting the traps each spring takes about a month, and it’s one of the hardest parts of the job. Each trap is secured with 26 fisherman anchors weighing 900 pounds apiece and a framework of lines. Getting that positioned just right takes imagination, experience and a strong spatial sense, Luke says.
The trap fishery is heavy on the geometry of wind, current, lines, nets, floats and anchors. “All the pieces are simple, but putting them together is complex,” says Luke, who is still surprised at all of the little particulars of the operation, especially what goes into setting the nets. “There’s just a lot of details. I don’t even know it like some of the old-timers. I sometimes have to search through my head for all the details. You need to see the big picture.”
Through the three seasons they are in the water, the traps catch about a dozen species, including scup, squid, sea robins, skates, butterfish, sea bass, striped bass and bluefish. The fishery is subject to daily and monthly quotas, as well as size limits on specific species. A good day during the spring run is 50,000 to 60,000 pounds or more of scup or porgies, a small, bony fish with sweet-tasting flesh that make up the bulk of their catch.
I was out with the crew a couple of years ago on a slow day, which Luke nicely summed up in a dozen words: “Too much to eat, not enough to sell. But that’s fishing.”
The Wheelers rightly tout the sustainability of trap fishing over other methods. “It’s a zero by-catch fishery,” says Luke. “Super-high-quality product.” There are very few dead discharges. And what isn’t wanted, either because it’s too small or not in the quota scheme, is released unharmed.
If there are a lot of small fish in the net, Alan says, “We just roll them over the corks, and they swim away.”
“They’re our future,” Luke says. “And we burn like 20 gallons of fuel a day. It’s such a sustainable fishery.”
There is an art to the fishery — tying knots and handling lines, sculling, and setting, hauling and mending the nets. It has its own pace, pulse and tempo, just as the migrating fish do. It is a rough ballet performed in Grundens and Guy Cotton bibs and boots, with a cigarette between your lips. Burly grace. Brute strength and finesse.
The engine room is ancient and warm, and smells of oil and diesel. That’s Alan’s domain. Everything is oversized and heavy. The 1962 165-hp Cat is the personification of the “big iron” of yesterday. Slow and steady still wins the race in this operation.
The fishery also has its own dusty language. Take the parts of the trap: leaders, wings, nozzles, kitchen and parlor. And the three 30-footers are named for their positions on the net: west boat, nozzle boat and east boat. The steamer lies at the head of the trap.
With a crew of 16, teamwork is critical for keeping things running smoothly and safely, be it setting a trap, raising the net or bailing the fish. “Everybody looks out for one another,” says Corey. “You have to trust people. You have to put your life in other people’s hands.”
The experienced crew move about the boats as if by second nature, working with the wind and current and swells. I watch Corey slip easily into the nozzle boat from the steamer when the ground swell lifts the boats together. When there is a big sea running, Luke times the swells when he’s dipping fish with the bull net to dump on the steamer’s deck.
“In trap fishing, seamanship is the name of the game, using the sea to our advantage,” says Luke, who also runs a 40-foot gill-net boat. “I can’t image another job with more seamanship involved. Lines, tides, wind, swells, currents.”
A lot of it is timing and technique. Young guys in their 20s work their backsides off trying to keep up with a 70-year-old who knows when to pull hard and when to let nature give him a hand.
“They did everything easy,” Alan says of the trappers of yesterday. “They used the skiff as a tool.” Alan, too, says the best part of trap fishing is the seamanship. “You’re rowing a 30-foot boat,” he says. “You’re tying up to a trap, no matter what the wind. It goes beyond seamanship.”
As in other fisheries, trapping has its dangers. You don’t want to find your hand, for instance, on the wrong side of a line under strain.
When the crew is setting the traps in spring or pulling them in fall at the end of the season, they’re handling dozens of 900-pound anchors; working with heavy stuff over your head means keeping your eyes open and staying alert.
Luke has gone in the water twice, once jumping between boats. The other time, he says, “I basically got clotheslined at my waist by a line and got flipped out.”
Corey, too, has been baptized on the job. She got her start mending nets the summer before entering college. When the trap crew was short a man one day, she was asked aboard. In those days, veteran trapper Mendonsa was still running the steamer. Initially, Corey worked on the 62-footer until Mendonsa felt comfortable with her moving to one of the smaller boats.
One day with a good sea on, Corey fell between the Maria Mendonsa and one of the 30-foot aluminum boats. A dozen hands quickly hauled her back on board.
“Did your boots fill up with water?” Mendonsa asked her.
“Yes,” she answered.
“Now,” he told her, “you’re a real fisherman.”
The banter among the crew is the friendly, unfiltered talk of men who work with their hands and backs and might have only gotten to bed (the young ones) a few hours earlier. When a fisherman slips and falls on his backside before the boat gets off the dock, he gets razzed good-naturedly once it’s clear he’s not hurt
It’s the same with the family. When I was out with the trapping crew for the first time a couple of years ago, Corey was telling me why she chose to follow her father and older brother into the business.
“It’s such a unique fishery and so unique to Rhode Island,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”
“You’re not qualified to,” quipped her younger brother Miles.
“I’m an English major,” she said with a smile. Corey graduated with a degree in English from St. Michael’s College in Vermont. She always thought that trap fishing would play a role in her life — she toyed with the idea of teaching full time and fishing in the summer. Things just worked out differently.
“Once I started, it was hard to imagine doing anything else,” she said recently. “Nothing’s been as rewarding.”
Your pulse quickens when the trap is hauled and the net is shortened. The boats have worked in tight to the steamer, the net rises, and the fish swim in ever-smaller circles until they can swim no longer. They slap the surface, tossing spray in every direction.
Luke scoops the fish out of the trap with a bull net, essentially a large dip net at the end of a 16-foot aluminum pole that holds about 400 pounds of fish per scoop.
“Going up,” Luke sings out as Alan wraps a line around a winch located behind the pilothouse to lift the net. Luke pulls a trigger on the pole, the bottom of the net opens, and fish fall to the deck.
“Keep bailing,” Alan intones.
On my last trip out, the catch was a mix of scup, sea robins and black sea bass. By late morning, the catch was iced, boxed and headed for a truck. This has been a pretty good year.
“Fish-wise, yes,” Alan says. “Price, not so much.”
But Alan Wheeler remains the stoic philosopher of the traps.
“We’re just farmers. We feed a lot of people,” he says. “If we help the world go ’round, maybe it’s not such a bad place.”