“Smells like at least a few of them are dead. Get them outa’ there before they stink up my kitchen.”
“Smells like at least a few of them are dead. Get them outa’ there before they stink up my kitchen.”
The caretaker seldom asked; he ordered, and in this case, he was sending me into the locker room to dig out the offending cadaver crabs in the bushel bag that were creating a stink. I’d learned that you don’t dig in and hope to find the suspect crabs unless you have a notion to be wearing an armful of claws attached to your skin. I went out onto the porch and borrowed one of the big galvanized tubs that were used to ice down beer and soda for clamboils and gatherings and proceeded to dump the crabs into it. It certainly smelled a lot worse than a few dead crabs but after very carefully pouring through the lively crabs I only found less than a half dozen and they were reeking.
I was thinking “one bad apple spoils the basket.” The old man had a nose like a bird dog and Ben even suggested that if his English setter took sick he would get the caretaker to sniff out pheasants for him. Fat Chance! This was back in the day when we did most things for ourselves and when one of the old timers actually bought something it was because they couldn’t make or barter for it.
We were heading out in the morning to a secret boulder field off Sakonnet Point which was an adventure in itself in an overloaded 18-foot flat bottomed boat. And if my memory served me there was just one life jacket on board, the one I put my head on in the bilge because there was no room to seat me. The crabs were a by-catch from the eel potters who had no market for them so they gave them to the caretaker who kept them in a wire holding pen tied up to the pilings on the gas float. Every now and then someone would throw the carcass of a fish they’d filleted to feed the crabs and those putrid racks contributed to the odor. The man who poured the crabs into the bushel bag had no inclination to check them for cadavers so it was up to me to appease thecaretaker and remove the stinkers. Even though there was pretty good tautog fishing in and around the bridges and docks in the spring and fall, those trips to Sakonnet Point were special and anticipated events.
On our last trip during November of the previous year we caught tautog up to the 11-pound monster that Tommy pried off the bottom, several big black sea bass and some mutant scup that ate the crabs with enthusiasm. One year they even had a large shark of some species about eight-feet in length take hold of the fish bag and try to rip-off an easy meal.
Pedro brushed it off with his heavy oar and the thick twine bag was none the worse for wear. Just the other day my friend Danny, who had just returned from an Alaska fishing trip with a pile of Halibut and Salmon fillets, was at my house less than five minutes after I informed himthat I had a live tautog for him. He gutted and be-headed it on my fillet table and took it home to bake and stuff. He knows the value of a fish that was once considered table fare, only fit for poor working-class people.
The caretaker and Tommy Togger were very fussy about their baits and on the outbound trip they would both work over the bait bags and cull the small to medium sized crabs that they impaled whole on their sharp Kirby hooks. Tommy would remove the large claws and leave the legs on for attraction while the caretaker would remove all the appendages and crack the top of the shell to release those thick, orange juices that drive the tog into a frenzy. I don’t know exactly where it came from and I still don’t have a good grasp on what it really means but the old timers were given to assigning the term, “crabs and ice water,” as the reward or punishment for anyone who had run afoul of their regulations or decrees. I’d heard of bread and water as fare for captive pirates but crabs and ice water was what they allocated to Nick, who was supposed to get the clams for a planned boil and after all the arrangements had been made he couldn’t come up with the soft shells. As I recall he was in their doghouse for quite some time. Pete was fond of telling me I would be fed crabs and ice water if I returned from the diner with cold coffee.
Thanks to a heavy cardboard box and quick feet I was spared that cruel and unusual punishment. There were stripers to be had then, quite a few if you didn’t mind trolling a Cape Cod or Niantic Bay spinner with fresh dug seaworms, but by and large the vast majority of the members weren’t interested. They preferred the tender flesh of winter flounder and tautog and looked forward to the fantastic spring and fall fishing for both
species. The plain and unadulterated truth was that it was much easier to catch tog and flatfish that it was to catch a striper, however the caretaker didn’t much care for striper fillets and I can
count on one hand the number of bass he cooked on that vintage cast iron range. Just in case you haven’t noticed the winds have turned from the predominantly southerly summer direction into the north and northwest. Unlike one of my favorite days of the year when the sun sets after 8:30 p.m. on June 21, it’s getting darker much earlier with sunset shortly after 7 p.m. Last Saturday it was 43-degrees on Coles River when I left for the Portsmouth Abby Marina dressed in flannel shirt, hooded sweatshirt and a foul weather jacket that remained on until we returned to port. It was cold out there, but the bottom was still paved with black sea bass and a few tog, almost all of the sub-legal variety. Lee Woltman pulled his crab pot and delivered a few quarts of green crabs which we intend to offer to any willing tautog seeking a traditional meal. We will be fishing in both Rhode Island and Mass waters which can pose a bit of a problem unless you strictly adhere to the regulations. If you leave a Mass port, such as Westport Harbor, even if you fish in adjacent Rhode Island waters, you can only catch and keep three tautog over the 16-inch minimum size. If you leave Sakonnet and Newport you may keep three tautog now that the Rhode Island summer closure has expired. Recreational anglers may keep
three tautog of at least 16-inches until Oct. 3 when the bag limit increases to six fish at the same 16-inch minimum size. The law also states that no matter how many persons are fishing from the boat the maximum limit for all will be 10-fish per boat, not six fish per person.
The days of port and starboard net bags full of tautog are a mindset of the past and the resource has responded. With more fishermen releasing females the tautog biomass has been increasing and the regulators now consider it stable. There is one element of the disappearing bait and tackle shops I will share with you but please remember this is to the best of my memory. The very first bait and tackle shop I patronized was Bridge Bait and Tackle on Davol Street in the north end of Fall River. The owner at that time was Johnny Medeiros a wounded WW II veteran who sold that business to Joe Souza who moved to Lindsey Street where he retailed tackle and built custom rods. Bennie’s Hardware was at the end of Brightman Street and was open part time from mid-afternoon until evening. Manuel Benivedes (Bennie) sold sea worms, hooks, sinkers and a few Penn Reels, and if you needed something special he would order it for you from a wholesaler.
Charlie Kirker had a shop on East Main Street and Dallas Cates owned Red Top Tackle that was situated on the state line on Stafford Road. Al Rodge (Stasiowski) either owned or partnered with a friend in the bait and tackle business but my recollection of that shop is very vague. The Bucko Brothers opened a shop on Second Street in the early 50’s and ran it for decades until Stanley died. Previous to that his partner Joe and his son Mike moved on to form Bucko’s Parts and Tackle on Stafford Road which ran for decades and just recently closed. A little-known bait businesses was Jessie the Squid Man, who I wrote about in my book, “Stemming The Tide.” Jessie operated out of his home and garage just over the state line in Tiverton alongside what was then the State Line News and variety store. Tony Camara operated a tackle shop in the Stone Bridge area until the hurricane of 1938 destroyed that area causing him and his wife Mary to open Main Bait on South Main Street, near the Tiverton state line in Fall River in 1939.
After Tony died his wife Mary ran the shop for the next 20-years until John Viveiros bought it on Feb. 12, 1981. Viveiros has run that shop continuously since that date and according to my best recall is the last man standing in the bait and tackle business in the old mill city of Fall River. There is currently a bait shop located under the Sakonnet River Bridge and our friend Keith runs Westport Bait and Tackle on Main Road in Westport. I would ask any fisherman about to make a purchase to consider their options and take heed. I know of many fishermen who buy their tackle from on line sellers, some of which provide a discount and seldom charge any sales tax. Now while that might seem like a bargain, there is a negative side. If this trend keeps up who sells you your bait, or fixes your broken rod tip or reel seat as Main Bait recently did for me? Who gives you advice on where to go based on the latest information from other anglers? Crabs and other live baits are perishable commodities so the next time you are purchasing bait or need tackle patronize your local tackle shop where you can get an up to date tide chart, a fishing license and current copies of the fishing regulations. The future of bait and tackle shops is in your hands.
1. The author caught this fat female tog this spring in upper Narragansett Bay on a traditional two hook, high-low rig baited with green crabs. These hardy fish can survive rough handling although this one was photographed and sent back to repopulate this important resource. The tautog fishery contributes to an almost year-round fishery that is important to anglers and the bait and tackle industry along with those provision sectors it contributes to.