Huntin’ for Herrin'

Back in the early ’50s I quit going to sea for a spell.  Babe I were married, and we had two girls, Joan and Linda.  I’d take a trip off every three months and stay home a month, but even so, it wasn’t a good situation.   The kids only knew me as someone who showed up every now and then.  Babe had full responsibility for running the family, and that wasn’t fair to her.  So I lobstered with my brother-in-law Kelp Dunham for a season, and after that I went to work in the yard as an electrician.  They were building crash boats for the US Air Force, and there was plenty of work to be had.

Herring seining photo - Monty

Our next door neighbors on the Eggemoggin Road were Mel and Kizzie Billings and family.  Mel also worked at the yard so we travelled back and forth to work together.  Mel and his brother Elmer “Pete” had a business of their own: They were herring seiners.  The two men had a power boat and several dories loaded with twine or netting.  They also owned an airplane they used to spot the fish.  Mel was a licensed pilot, and he kept the plane down to the Lily Pond in Deer Isle, which was large enough for an easy take-off and landing.  Some summer nights after work and supper, I’d go up with Mel to spot fish.  We’d take off from the Lily Pond and cruise on down among the islands between Stonington and Isle au Haut.  I’m guessing that Mel would fly about 1,000 feet up and circle around island coves that he knew were apt to have a school of herring in them.  We’d spot a large, dark, moving blob in, say, Moore’s Harbor on Isle au Haut. To me it was just a big dark blob, but Mel could estimate the number of bushels, and if it was worth it, he’d radio Pete to bring the boats and twine down there so they could shut off the cove.

I’m not a fisherman, but essentially what they would do is run a “stop” twine across the cove entrance so the fish couldn’t get out.  Then they would use a “purse” seine to gather the fish together.  In the meantime they had radioed a sardine boat to come in for the catch.  This boat had a pump that would suck the fish up and discharge them into the cargo hold.  It was also set up to run the fish through a descaler.  The scales were pumped separately to large baskets.  Some years later, when I was an engineer for Travelers Insurance, we insured an outfit in Eastport that bought the scales and, through a chemical process, turned those scales into “mother of pearl.”  Companies like Revlon bought the product and used it to make fingernail polish.  That company also processed chicken feathers, bought from the poultry plants in Belfast.  Again, through a chemical process, they turned the feathers into foam for fire extinguishers.  Talk about using everything!  

Anyway, back to seining. Once Mel had told Pete to come with the boats and twine, we could head home. We’d land on the Lily Pond and motor on over to a haul-up strip at the edge of the woods near the car. The area was always loaded with mosquitoes, so once Mel had the plane secured, he’d gun the engine and the prop wash would haul those mosquitoes out of the woods by the thousands.  After a couple minutes the pathway to the car would be clear of mosquitoes; we’d shut the engine down and head for the car on a cleared-out path.

[Ed. Note:  Thanks also to Monty for sending along a scan of, in his words, "a brochure produced by the Island Chamber of Commerce at least 50 years ago. The men are pictured pulling in a purse seine to load the herring into the dory they are standing in. The ’frosting on the cake' is the older gentleman in the picture. This is Gooden Grant from Isle au Haut. He must have been in his 80s when this pic was taken.”] 

Montelle L. “Monty" Small

June 2014 

Deer Isle-Stonington Historical Society ✦ P O Box 652 ✦ Deer Isle,  ME  04627 ✦ 207-348-6400