A Family Tradition

A weir fishing crew masters the complex system of hanging nets and lines, but they must also dodge wind, seals and recreational boaters in this physically taxing line of work to haul in their catch.

By Debra Lawless | Photography by Shareen Davis

Weir-Fishing_Shareen-Davis_0005A commercial weir fishing crew of three men and one woman gathers at 5:30 a.m. on the Stage Harbor trap dock in Chatham from late March through September, rain or shine, seven days a week.

“It’s become a tradition,” says Russell Kingman, 50, of Chatham. “The crew and the captain show up no matter what. It’s too tricky to have everyone decide if we can’t go out.”

The wind is key. Maybe it’s blowing from the northwest, but it’s going to shift to the southwest. Even if it’s raining, when the wind is right, the crew will head out.

It’s glorious to be up and about early on a balmy summer morning. But in late March, it’s pitch black and often raw when the crew meets. Sometimes an early clammer is on the dock, or a conch fisherman, and sometimes the crew is alone. For the next seven weeks, its task is erecting the four weirs.

Weir is an Old English word meaning barrier, damn, fence or enclosure. Weir fishing is practiced by stringing nets between poles, and then trapping the fish that swim into those nets. Finally, the catch is hauled up. This is a simple concept, but weir or trap fishing is anything but simple in practice as fishermen dodge the wind, seals, recreational boaters and everything else that chugs along to interfere with the weir and the catch.

Weir fishing has been practiced in America for millennia. In 1913, men digging Boston’s Back Bay subway discovered the 65,000 stakes of ancient weirs now called the Boylston Street Weir. Archaeologists say that between 3,700 and 4,700 years ago, native peoples captured tomcod, flounder, eels and herring in an ancient bay.

The previous afternoon, the crew loaded 30 45-foot long hickory poles into the boat. Some of these poles, made from whole trees stripped of branches and bark, are as old as Capt. Ernie Eldredge, who is 63. Over the winter, the hickory poles are stacked on Hardings Beach as they have been for generations. Men used to carry the poles on their shoulders to the boats, but nowadays derricks and hoists make life a little easier.

This morning the crew just has to load its own gear — bag lunches, big jugs of water, maybe some juice, and warm clothing, including a change of gloves — onto either the Morgan E., named after Ernie’s elder daughter, or the Lester F. Eldredge, named after Ernie’s father, known as “Bony.” Both of the boats, which are about 28-feet long, are open, without cabins, and in March it’s going to be frigid out on Nantucket Sound.

During the 40-minute ride through the inky darkness to one of the trap grants on the west side of Monomoy, Kingman and his partner, Shannon Eldredge, Ernie’s daughter, sip from mugs of hot coffee and share a bagel. Before leaving home, Ernie cooks himself big egg breakfasts, but Kingman says he’s not ready to eat much at 4:30 a.m. when he gets up. Sometimes Kingman and Shannon go to bed as early as 7:30 p.m. if they can’t stay awake until 9 p.m. Ernie’s brother John, 69, is the fourth member of the crew.

Ernie and John own Chatham Fisheries, which they inherited from Bony, who began weir fishing when he returned from World War II. Ernie and his wife, Shareen Davis, also own the Monomoy Trap Company, which they bought from Chatham weir fisherman Francis B. Jones in 1988. Francis went to work full-time at his family’s weir in 1947, the morning after he graduated from high school. But he quit the tough, labor-intensive work by the time he reached his 70s.

The joke among weir fishermen is that you need a size 2 hat and a size 44 shirt. And while there is no doubt that brawn plays a crucial role in this physically taxing type of fishing, brains also play a part.

To construct the weir, “you have to be an engineering genius, which my father is,” Shannon says. “You accumulate knowledge that no person with a Ph.D. could have.”

Weir-Fishing_Shareen-Davis_0013Shannon, 31, knows whereof she speaks. A 2001 graduate of Chatham High School, after college she went on to a Ph.D. program at the College of William & Mary. After earning her master’s degree in Early American History in 2008, she “wanted to come back fishing. I realized the academic path wasn’t a good fit for me,” she says. “I need to be outside, on the water. I need to do something more productive. Being a food producer means a lot to me.”

On this dark late March morning, the crew finally arrives at a location off Monomoy. The grant license specifies longitude and latitude points, and this spot will be at the center of the 400-by-2,400-foot weir. While Ernie found the spot using GPS coordinates, he has also confirmed it according to a triangle of landmarks such as a church steeple, a lighthouse, and water towers. A few years ago, Shannon and Ernie alone set up the traps, and that was when Shannon finally mastered the hanging of the complex system of nets and lines. This morning, as the sun rises over the horizon, the crew will erect hickory poles in the 15-to-28-foot waters off Monomoy. And this is one place where brawn comes in: The poles are rammed in by hand.

Weir fishing began in Chatham about 150 years ago, with herring and mackerel being the main catch. Through 1910, 25 percent of all fresh fish on Cape Cod was caught in weirs. While weir fishing had its heyday in the 1920s, during the Depression the price of fish hit rock bottom. While “weir fishing was universally present on Cape Cod up to the 1970s,” according to Shannon, by the 1990s weirs were “endangered.” In fact, although Kurt Martin of Orleans also still fishes in weirs, in the summer of 2013 the Eldredges worked the only weirs on all of Cape Cod.

In a given season, the family works four weirs—two off Chatham at Hardings Beach and Monomoy, one off Dennis at Kill Pond Bar, and one off Harwich. Each weir has between 110 and 130 poles around which up to a mile and one-quarter of weighted netting is stretched. From the air, a weir resembles the head of a cartoon bunny. Schools of fish are nudged into the weir by the long leader, or fence, enter through the heart (the bunny’s ears), and end up trapped in the bowl (the face), atop a huge net. The fishermen then harvest the fish by constricting the net and scooping the fish into the boat with dip nets. The tools used today are pretty much the same as the tools used in the 19th century. Another fact about weir fishing: It’s eco-sensitive in that there is no bycatch (fish caught unintentionally).

By the end of April the weirs are established, and the fish are running. The crew that meets at the trap dock now heads out for eight-to-12 hour days on the open dory. “You have to be very prepared to be there for a long time,” Shannon says. The high summer brings a new challenge: protecting yourself from the unrelenting sun reflecting off the water.

The crew hauls the traps every day. In the spring, the main catch is squid. In the summer, it’s bluefish and Spanish mackerel. Scup, mackerel, black sea bass, butterfish, pogies, herring, bonito and false albacore used to be common, but are now rare.

Working out there at the trap “you have a sense you’re careening back in time,” Kingman says. “I’m overwhelmed by the feeling of connecting to the sea.”
A day of summer fishing might end at 2 p.m. and on a spectacular trip, the crew will be standing thigh-high in fish. On the return trip, Ernie phones to negotiate prices with various buyers. Back at the trap dock, the crew packs the fish in boxes with ice to keep it fresh for market. By the time Russell and Shannon get home, they’re dog-tired and might eat an easy dinner of leftover roasted chicken.

The month of September will be devoted to taking down the weirs, storing the poles on the beach, and drying and mending the nets in the South Chatham Twine Field.

Last summer was one of the worst seasons the Eldredges have ever experienced at the weir. Many factors were in play—overfishing, climate change, and the enormous seal population that likes to nibble fish in the traps. Does the ancient practice of weir fishing have a future?
“The future is lost without young people entering into it,” Shannon says.

Yet despite this sad prediction, Shannon sees rays of hope. In the off-season, she advocates for fishing through the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance and was elected the group’s presiding chair in 2012. She believes two of the answers lie in building markets for fish, such as scup, and making the food chain shorter through community-supported fisheries.

“People might think we’re foolish,” she says. “But I think weir fishing lives in me. I love it because it’s part of my basic existence. Part of my soul.”