Trap day was always an exciting event for us kids living on Pictou Island in the late 1950s and early 60s. This one day in particular usually meant a day absent from school for us boys. This was the first day of lobster season and someone was usually looking for a little extra help. There was always some job to do such as baiting lobster traps with herring. My father would catch and store fresh herring covered with rock salt in a section of our barn in the fall season. This would be his lobster bait come springtime. Preserving the herring in rock salt made them firm and easy to handle. In the spring prior to lobster season, dad would shovel about 100 pounds of these salted herring into each wooden crate that he had.
On trap day, I would place two or three of these fish on what was called the bait string in the wooden lobster traps. This was usually the job that was assigned to me. I recall many times when I would scrap my knuckles on the trap lath or on the loose rock and then get that rock salt in the wound. Let me tell you, that didn’t tickle.
Dad would hitch his trailer onto the back of his tractor in late autumn and he and I would drive along the north shore of Pictou Island in search of rocks that would be used for the loose ballast. Each trap required three to four of these rocks to weight it down so that it would sit on the bottom when first put into the water. These rocks as per my father’s instructions had to be shaped just right so they wouldn’t roll in the trap and break the trap lath. Each one probably weighed about three to four pounds. As I remember, some fishermen fished up to 1,200 lobster traps during those years. My father fished 800 traps. We therefore gathered at least 2,700 rocks. I recall that being a lot of rock picken’.
I would place the loose ballast or crazy rock as it was called into the traps as they were being loaded onto the boat. After about one week when the traps became saturated with water and could sit still on the bottom without the crazy rock, the rock was removed making the trap easier to maneuver.
Each fisherman had his own trap berth on the wharf. This was their place where they would place their traps in preparation to loading onto their boat. I can remember Arnold MacMillan, My father Vincent, Cameron MacDonald, Art Ferguson, Duncan & Albert MacCullum, my brother Vincent and Bergie Davis having their berth on the island’s east wharf. Being a kid at that time, I often thought that it was like a big party for these fishermen when they got together on trap day. A lot of stories were told and tales relived when this group got together on trap day.
In the 1950s, very few lobster boats had cabins and were much smaller then the ones of today. I used to help my fathers load his boat with I believe about 75-100 lobster traps. Some loaded boats would be sitting so low in the water that from a distance all you would see was a stack of traps. I recall putting a load out with my brother one morning in the Slo-Mo-Shun. This was a 30 footer which Dad had built on Pictou Island in 1951. My brother Vincent had stacked the traps real high and I was sitting on top of the load. It was a calm morning but the tide had a swell running at the end of the Pictou Island wharf. The Slo-Mo-Shun started to roll in this swell of waves and I was perched high on top of the load. I could vision myself going for a swim in that icy water. However as usual and considering myself being lucky, I stayed dry. One must be very careful when throwing these lobster traps into the water.
These traps are set in what is called a trawl. There were usually seven to ten traps on my father’s trawls. A trawl is having a long length of rope with a buoy tied to each end. Lobster traps are tied at lengths along this rope. Once the first trap of the trawl is pushed into the water, one must be exceptionally careful that you don’t get tangled with the ropes. If by misfortune the rope becomes tangled around your leg, 75 per cent of the time you will be going overboard. If you are in the 25 per cent lucky range, you will loose only your rubber boot which would be pulled of your foot and sit on the bottom with the traps. I know of two occasions in my fishing career when the hired help was pulled over the stern of the boat and pulled under the water with the sinking traps. They were both saved from drowning by other crew members in the boat but they did have a very cold dip in the icy water.
Lobster fishing is indeed a special way of life. Nothing seems nicer then when you’re on the water and the weather co-operates with clean fresh air, little winds and blue skies. However there are many days when it’s extremely cold, raining hard and blowing a living gale. This is a way of life that lasts only two months out of the year. A fisherman must try to fish every day regardless of the weather.
I was talking to long time friend Arnold MacMillan from Pictou Island prior to writing this story in 1999. At the time of that conversation, Arnold was the oldest active fisherman on the Northumberland Strait. Whether is was wind, rain, snow or ice, Arnold was one of the first fisherman to be on the water in the morning. In his own words he stated to me, ”I would never trade this way of life for anything”. Arnold passed away February 1st 2000.