When the ‘tools of the fishing trade’ were compass, timepiece, binoculars along with a honed inner sense, help guide vessel and fishermen to safety before the aid of modern navigation equipment. The lost art of:
In this day and age any person can purchase the electronics that will enable them to go wherever they wish. It was not always that easy. Dead reckoning is taking a fix from a known position and then running time and course. The fix can be from an inlet, a buoy or from one known fishing spot to another.
In the pre ‘electronic age,’ a good pair of binoculars was a must. These binoculars were used to see land ranges. Every captain kept a book filled with land ranges, which enabled him to go to his favorite wreck, rock pile or reef. A north and a south range were key for finding and getting precisely on the spot. A middle range was used as a guide only.
The farther inland an antenna or water tower, the better. At times when offshore of a desolate stretch of beach, a break in the hills could land on one of a few dwellings and become an excellent range to use.
For years everyone used a distinctive tree far inland as a key range. One day the tree was cut down for a road project. Captains strove to find something as good to use. The tree was a common range that was used on at least a half dozen prime fishing spots. We later discovered the tree was a 200 year old oak, and was nearly 8 miles inland from the coast.
All the landmarks and ranges mean nothing when it is hazy or when that gray-white menace, fog, comes rolling in. Endless miles of ocean suddenly become small.
Every crew had several plastic jugs at ready to throw over on the captain’s signal. These jugs had varied lengths of line, depending on the depth of water and sometimes were marked once measured. The line was usually tarred or another type of stiff fiber or hemp like line.
Monofilament was not a good choice to use on a marker buoy for two reasons: It tangled easily and the sash weight used to keep the buoy in place was between 5-8 lbs. When retrieving a buoy with that much weight, the pressure exerted by the thin monofilament acted like a razor and could slice open your fingers.
If skippers were having good results on a certain wreck or snag, it was common to leave a buoy near, but never on the spot they were fishing. What they left for a buoy was a stick or a cork. It was something that blended in and could only be seen if you were in close sight of it. The stick or cork was always set on a precise course from a wreck and was usually no more than a quarter mile away from the structure.
As a kid I got bow duty when we got close to the fishing grounds. I was given the nickname ‘eagle’ because I could spot anything long before anyone else. But when it was foggy, my great eyesight was neutralized.
When a skipper’s time and course was up, a buoy was thrown over. Then he would put the boat in a circle and also keep an eye on the depth recorder. The recorder resembled a graph. He would be hoping to see an outline of the wreck or a school of fish. If nothing was seen, he’d then make a drift or two near the buoy. These guys were good, as after two drifts on a fog shrouded sea, they would find their spot.
An area that saw a heavy concentration of boats was the Mud Hole. In the spring of the year, it was the only place to fish. Every boat from Manasquan Inlet, in central New Jersey to Sheepshead Bay, New York, was well represented. The commercial draggers also took up residence there as well, as every vessel went about catching their own fish.
It was a dangerous place to fish. The area is located in the middle of the shipping lanes and also is on a direct route to New York Harbor. The Mud Hole was carved by the last Ice Age. A deep trench was gouged out and fish congregate there in huge numbers throughout the year. The deepest part is over 250’, while the top of the bank is around 110’.
It is an area littered with wrecks, some sunk from the forces of nature, but also a number that went down during World War II. German U-boats sunk more then their share of freighters and tankers in and around the Mud Hole. With the amount of ship traffic that has transited this area for the last century and a half, it is a miracle that there are not more wrecks scattered along this small area off our coast.
When visibility was endless, it was an unbelievable sight. The commercial fleet hailing from Manasquan Inlet in New Jersey and those out of Belford, New Jersey could be seen towing or hauling their nets. This was done repeatedly several times each day up and down the Mud Hole.
When hauling there would always be hundreds of sea gulls and gannets feeding on fish that escaped the nets. The gannets would soar high above, fold their wings, and dive bomb for fish shoveled over the side. Often they looked like artillery shells hitting the water as far as the eye could see.
The party or head boats, some lined shoulder to shoulder with anglers, could be seen drifting or anchored either on the bank or in the deep. It was not uncommon for a dragger to snag the anchor of a party boat. It was not intentional, as the anchor could tear the net, allowing a lot of fish to escape.
When conditions were good, everyone drifted. At times certain depths produced better than others. If the wind and current co-operated, a captain could make one drift for the entire day.
The quarry was whiting and ling. Occasionally cod and pollack were caught when in close proximity to a wreck or snag. Silver hake were much sought after, but were only caught in the deepest parts of the Hole.
At times the boats were close enough that captains and crews could carry on a conversation with one another.
We could see the huge ships altering their course slightly to avoid the fleet that was directly in their path. Make no mistake they often came within spitting distance of some boats. Technically we were in the wrong, but when it was the only place to put a catch together, we did what we had to.
These ships were enormous and you could always count on a sizable wake to shake things up on the boat you were fishing upon. Some of the ship captains were not shy about leaning on the ship’s horn as they closely passed by.
Everyone was on edge whenever it got foggy. When a ship started blowing its horn, it put an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. The tone was a mournful wail and seemed to emanate from several directions.
One shipping line that I never remember seeing when visibility was endless and skies were fair was the Untied Fruit Line. It was ironic and far more than coincidental, but the whole line was painted a gray-white and blended in perfectly with the fog.
The transiting commercial ships all had radar, but most of the party boats did not. All boats showed as white dots on the radar screen. The general rule was the larger the boat, the bigger the target you saw on your radar set.
When a ship’s officer sees a mess of targets, you would think the course would be radically altered, especially to avoid a huge fleet of boats. More times than not, the ships would maintain their course, but greatly diminish their speed. The party boat captains all knew this and did their best to stay clear.
Some of the passengers would be unfazed by the blaring fog horn that was growing louder by the minute. Others would tie their rods to the rail as they too strained their eyes, hoping to get a glimpse of the noise maker. Most times you would see where a ship had passed, but never see the ship.
I felt the outbound ships sounded more sinister. They too leaned hard on the horn, but the sound their propellers made when the ship was light and riding high, went right through me. There was no mistaking the distinctive ‘thumping’ sound of a massive propeller sucking air.
The two hour ride back to the dock in pea soup fog had its moments. The ship traffic was not as heavy, but there were ships to contend with. There were also tug boats and the barges they towed to avoid. The tugs and tows could be encountered anywhere. Unlike the freighters or other large ships, they did not have to stay in designated shipping
A tug towing a barge on a lengthy tow line was just as dangerous as any ship. The worst scenario is when a vessel passes between the tug and tow. There is always a belly in the line and a shallow draft vessel could do it, but vessels with a four foot draft or more would get tangled in the rope. Then the unimaginable could happen when thousands of pounds of steel [the barge] ran you over. I once heard of a couple of charter boats inadvertently passing between tug and tow and escaping unscathed.
Every boat posted lookouts in the bow. We listened for boat motors, fog signals, and constantly gazed into a gray nothingness. After a short time your eyes would play tricks, and you’d swear there was a fleet of big ships bearing down on your position.
The captains ran their time and course back to the inlet. The inlet jetty had a fog horn that could be heard at a distance of a couple of miles. This aided all boatmen, but on a few occasions it was down for repairs. When that occurred things became trickier. It is one thing to be off a bit when searching for a wreck, but not when trying to safely enter an inlet.
Yet, not once did a single captain end up foundering on the beach or miss their mark. It was a skill all the captains from ‘way back when’ worked at and refined. Today with the electronics available it is a lost art.
Captain Jack Bogan - Shamrock second boat when it was new