Chasing the cod

Reprinted from Decks Awash, Volume 15, Number 6
November – December 1986
Photograph from MUN Digital Archives

(Click on photos to enlarge)

Hodge’s Cove

The scenery at Hodge’s Cove is beautiful. Rolling hills, picturesque coves, and tranquil Southwest Arm. It’s what tourists might picture as a perfect fishing area. Trouble is, there are few fish. Not that this has stopped

people from settling at Hodge’s Cove for even now new houses are being built. In one house Keith and Ellen Lambert and their three children are having a late breakfast. Keith and Ellen both have fishing licences and have spent half the night towing their 19-ft. boat from Cripple Cove on the southern tip of the Avalon Peninsula where they were fishing.

“The only thing we do here is caplin,” explains Ellen, 31. “There’s no cod here so we have to go someplace else.”

“I usually start fishing in mid-May from Merasheen Island in Placentia Bay. I’ve got a cabin there,” explains Keith, 33. “This year there was no collector boat, so we went to St. Brides on the Cape Shore for two weeks. But there were no fish. It’s never failed there before. So we left and went over to Portugal Cove South to fish for three weeks until the fish went outside Cape Race.”

Keith and Ellen Lambert, 1986

All summer long, Ellen and Keith lead a nomadic existence returning to Hodge’s Cove just for the caplin season.

“Once the caplin start, the plants don’t want to see any cod,” explains Keith.

The five-week season is the big cash catch in the Southwest Arm although, overall, the Lamberts make more on cod.

“The quota opened the 1st of June but there was no caplin landed. In fact, we only had 10 days this year,” says Ellen.

“We got 34 cents a pound but you had to handpick it,” explains Keith. “There was a lot of red feed around (the caplin eat it) and although the plant would allow you 5 per cent red feed, if you had more than 20 per cent the plant wouldn’t take it. I suppose, all together, we lost about half of our catch and there wasn’t a time you went to the plant that you didn’t lose something.”

In Cripple Cove where the Lamberts finished the season, they were nearly finished themselves. Leaving their boat moored, they had gone to St. John’s only to discover, on their return, that heavy seas had turned over their boat.

“She was bottom up, circling about the cove beating up against the rocks. We lost our sounder, our battery, our lines, and the housing off the engine—about $1200 worth,” adds Keith. It could have been worse. Their $3300 fiberglass boat is a bit scratched but otherwise all right and the $2600, 40-h.p. motor still runs. The accident capped a difficult year for the Lamberts, one marked by a scarcity of fish and competition from larger boats.

“We had trouble from the draggers,” says Ellen. “They come right into the cove dragging, tight to the beaches. They’re not allowed inside six miles but at nighttime there’s nobody there to stop them.”

“Whatever fish the draggers don’t catch they fool up,” adds Keith. “They turn all the rocks over on the bottom and all the starfish and worms get shaken off and the fish eat them. After that, the fish aren’t hungry so they won’t take our bait.”  

“Flies” made from orange rope work better for the Lamberts than traditional bait of herring and caplin.

The Lamberts use “flies” for bait which they make themselves from orange-colored rope because they find the flies work better than traditional bait like herring and caplin. But even once the fish is caught, it’s not quite the end of the Lamberts’ problems. They are expected to gut their fish but get only the same price as ungutted fish from larger vessels.  

“The draggers were selling to the plant, gut in, for 27 cents a pound. We had to gut it for 27 cents. Same fish. Some strange,” says Keith.  

Problems aside, the Lamberts like being their own boss.   

“I’ve been fishing five years and I enjoy it,” says Ellen. “Going on the road the way we do is the only way we can make a fair dollar. I’m surprised more people don’t do it. The first few weeks in a new place is hard. People are afraid to talk to you and you don’t know who they are, but they seem to accept you. Of course, being a woman fisherman is a bit difficult. I’ve been a lot of places where it’s been a while before they discovered I’m a woman.  

“I stayed in one day when we were at Petty Harbour and the plant owner said to Keith, ‘Where’s your buddy today?’  

‘What buddy?’ asks Keith.  

‘Your buddy,’ says the man.  

‘That ain’t me buddy, that’s me wife.’  

“Actually, I seem to find the men accept me more than the women. Although there was one old guy said, ‘I don’t mind the part about her being a woman, but when it comes to being out there and she’s hauling in lines with fingernail polish and earrings on—that’s what gets to me!’ I when you’re working for yourself.  

“You don’t mind hard work when you are working for yourself. It’s a lot better than working in fish plants, standing in one place eight hours a day cutting fish until everyone looks alike. And if I didn’t go with Keith, he’d have to pay somebody else to go with him and loose a percentage of his income. This way I take that percentage and it stays in the one house.”  

Ellen and Keith admit fishing has its good and bad moments.  

“The best part of the job is going out in the morning and finding a lot of fish,” says Keith.  

“The worst part? I’m not sure,” says Ellen, “but in all the time I’ve been fishing, in all the places we’ve been to, I’ve never met another woman doing what I’m doing!”

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Transcribed by Wanda Garrett, March 2019

These transcriptions may contain human errors. As always, confirm these as you would any other source material.