In 1942 WWII was upon us in full force. The old adage that “an army moves on its stomach” proved to be true. Russian soldiers were in need of food, and Barter’s cannery got a contract to supply canned fish to them. The fish were mostly hake with some cod and haddock mixed in.
Lobstermen removed their cabins or spray hoods from the boats and just boxed in the engine and a place to stand at the helm; the remaining space was for fish only. Every lobsterman from Stonington, Isle au Haut, and Swans Island was “trawlin'" and nobody was lobstering. Boats would come in loaded with fish, with only inches of freeboard. At the factory, Gene Chatto was on the hoister. Ray Gross was the boss in the cutting room, and Carl Burgess was the factory Superintendent. I was on the gutting table for awhile, along with Punk Gray and several others. When the boats came in, mostly fully loaded, the fish were offloaded, weighed, and sluiced down to the cutting tables. It doesn’t take long to rip and gut a fish, and there were folks putting the fish on flaking trays, and from there into the retorts for cooking. Once they came out, the fish were dumped onto the tables where the women stuffed a handful or two into a can that went onto a moving track to the sealing machine. The result was a nice can of fish to a Russian soldier. I swear that this operation went so fast that the fish was still warm when the soldier opened the can (just kidding)!
Of course somebody had to bait those 1,000-hook trawls, and that would include me and several other kids who did it down at Joe Gott’s wharf on West Main Street for Earl Gross. He was normally a lobsterman but like all the rest, he was now a full-time trawler for hake. Earl was my second cousin but that didn’t mean I got more pay; you got paid $1 a tub for baiting 1,000 hooks with herring.
If you laid each baited hook just right into that tub of trawl, it would come out untangled, as the tub was held just right back at the stern. However, if you were careless and one hook got caught under another hook, then there was a general foulup and you could expect to hear from Earl the next day if it was your tub of trawl. Lillian Billings baited trawls along with us boys. Several years younger than I was, she was fast but, more important, she was accurate. Earl knew when he was setting out a tub of trawl that Lillian had baited, it went out smooth as silk.
Work was done at night so the tubs of trawl (about ten tubs with 1,000 hooks per tub) would be ready to set on the boats around daylight. It took them at least an hour to get to the fishing grounds, east of Isle au Haut. They would set an anchor buoy at one end and tie on one end of the trawl line, each of which had 1,000 short lines with baited hooks spaced every couple of feet apart. When they got to the end, they would just tie on another tub until all ten tubs were set out. Then they’d set an anchor buoy and go back to the beginning and start hauling in the hake that they hoped had responded to the bait.
Well, that was long ago, and I’m sure some Russian soldiers were pleased with a can of fresh fish. I also know that Earl Gross was pleased, as usual, with Lillian’s baited trawl and probably disgusted with mine. I was always jealous of Lillian!
[Ed. Note: See Northeast Fisheries Science Center website for current information on hake off the New England coastline.]