Prey for me

Everything we do has an effort-to-payoff ratio, which I pay close attention to. The lower the E:P ratio – that is, the lower the effort and the higher the payoff – the happier I am. If it’s too high, I’m inclined to quit. Low enough, and I consider doing it professionally.

Sea salt anchors the low end. The effort involved borders on nothing. About once a week during woodstove season, we fetch a pot of water from Sandy Neck. We put the water in a pan on the stove. When all the water’s dried up, we put the salt in a container. A season’s worth of water gives us at least a year’s worth of salt, with leftovers to give to our friends.

But the payoff is more than just salt. It’s the fascination people have with the idea that you can make your own salt. Of all the things we do, this seems to be the one that interests people most.

On the other end of the E:P ratio spectrum is lobstering.

Lobstering is a lot of hard, heavy work. You have to acquire and set up the pots with ropes and buoys painted your designated colors and etched with your permit number. You have to load your boat and take the pots to somewhere lobsters are likely to be, generally a place that’s far from shore and covered by a lot of rough water.

Then you have to wait for weather that’s calm enough for a small boat (ours is a 19-foot Eastern) to safely venture out into Cape Cod Bay. You go out to your spot (ours is about three miles from the Millway marina, where we put in), bait your traps, and drop them in your best approximation of a straight line.

This year, we did our ten pots (the Massachusetts limit) in two shifts. Last year, we did it in one, and we learned our lesson. Five pots fit on our boat easily. Ten fit very uneasily indeed. We did our first load of five on Monday, and went out Tuesday with the second five, picking up our line where we’d left off. And then, once they were all in, the E really began.

The need to haul pots up from the bottom of Cape Cod Bay is what ought to make the effort-to-payoff ratio of lobstering unsatisfactory. It’s hard to pull a fifty-pound trap up through fifty feet of water, hand over hand. It takes me several minutes of serious effort, and I don’t have the upper-body strength the get the pot up on the gunwale without bashing it against the side of the boat – Kevin has to do that part. Checking even five of the pots is a workout for both of us.

But it’s hauling the pots up from the bottom of Cape Cod Bay that keeps me coming back. Bringing a giant cage up from the murky depths in the hopes that there will be a lobster in it, peering over the gunwale to get a glimpse of the contents, is absurdly exciting.

It’s almost as exciting as catching a fish, and together those two activities are the best argument for the compelling power of mystery that I’ve ever encountered.

Mystery does nothing for me.  Except when it involves seafood.

Those of you who follow this space have heard me say that I believe everything is knowable, and I’d like to know as much of it as possible. I’m a hard-edged rationalist, in it for the science and the certainty. Mystery does nothing for me.

Except when it involves seafood.

Trying to coax things to eat out of their home below the water’s surface is an exercise in guesswork. Even the best-informed among us don’t know precisely what’s going on down there. The most experienced fisherman will still pick a lure by trial and error. Cutting-edge oceanographic science can only tell us so much about what fish do and when and why they do it. Lobsters, particularly, are notoriously enigmatic.

But solving the mystery, if only for that one pot on that one day, is only part of the reason catching a lobster is exciting. It’s also, I suspect, because luring edible animals into cages – whether on land or under water – awakens the predatory instinct.

Humans are predators. I know this. But it’s been a long time since, as a species, we’ve had to hunt to survive, and I guess I’d had the idea that millennia of civilization had evolved the predatory instinct out of us, or at least tamped it down. And, even if it didn’t, what would women be doing with a predatory instinct? We’re the gatherers, remember?

But there’s no other explanation for why my heart beats faster and the adrenaline flows when there’s a fish or a lobster on the line. As distasteful as I find the idea of killing, say, a deer, I suspect the same instinct will kick in when I have one in my sight this fall, when hunting season rolls around. I’m catching my own food, and tapping into the brain-stem chemistry that enabled us not just to survive as a species, but to head the food chain.

So much for the veneer of civilization. Next thing you know, I’ll be wearing animal skins and carrying a club.

Our five traps contained lots of crabs (which we also eat, when they’re big enough), a zillion snails (whose edibility I’m unsure of, but will look into), and one lobster that was just under legal size. Do you have any idea how hard it is to throw a lobster back? My brain stem says, “Hey, we caught that fair and square!” and my stomach says “Hey, that would taste really good!” Luckily, the cerebral cortex has veto power, and it says, “Hey, we play by the rules, and we want to maintain a sustainable lobster population. Besides, you can go to jail for taking lobsters illegally.”

But we’ll be back, probably tomorrow, to check again. No matter how much effort it is, the payoff isn’t just lobsters. It’s the ridiculous, disproportionate excitement that comes with tapping into my primal, reptilian self.

When I got back to civilization, I washed the salt water and sea crud off me, and prepared to go to the nice, clean supermarket to buy what I needed for dinner. On the way out the door, though, I checked my teeth and claws. Red.

15 people are having a conversation about “Prey for me

  1. I think some of what you feel when you pull up a lobster pot may be simple anticipation or anxiety. I don’t know what it feels like to catch a fish, still less trap a lobster, but I have had plenty of experience with that heart-stopping moment when you turn on the water after a toilet repair. Will it leak? Will it hold? (In my case usually yes and no.)

    The scientist who started a 24-hour experiment must feel somewhat the same when he comes in the next day to check the result even though—in most cases—he is not going to eat it.

  2. Well I’m all for anticipation, not to mention ordinary curiosity, but I caught my first fish (a little sunfish in a Minnesota lake) when I was 7 and I can still remember the feeling I had when I pulled it into the boat, knowing we’d take it home and clean and eat it. It was definitely one of my life’s peak moments–maybe not quite up there with the birth of my children (and based, I hope, in a different part of my brain) but really amazing.

  3. Dad and Mom — I can’t help but be a little concerned about a post when the only people who comment are my parents.

    Dad — Certainly there’s anticipation. But the excitement level is all out proportion with the catch. I may have to try and get you out fishing just so you can see for yourself the difference between catching a fish and fixing a toilet.

    Mom — I’m glad to know I still rate higher than a sunfish. Now, would you have a word with Dad?

  4. I sold my lobster business and boat after 41 years of full time and part time lobstering. It got to be way too hard for me to earn a decent living. Lobstering for fun is out of the question.

    While attending high school in the 1950’s I could earn more in a ten week summer vacation than my father earned working full time all year. Those were the real good old days. A kid with cash!

    I retired and built a house in Mashpee. I now spend all my time fishing and gardening and occasionally making a video about model railroading.

    I love your blog and read it religiously. I’ve been thinking of getting bees and enjoy reading about your bee adventures. Thanks.

  5. You said when you got back to civilization you washed off the sea crud…didn’t you mean the googas ??? You gotta learn the lingo if you are going looking for bugs woman… := )

  6. Dave – I can see how lobstering isn’t any fun after doing it for a living for 41 years. I think you’ve earned the right to stay home and work on model railroads! As for bees, you should sign up for bee school with the Barnstable County Beekeepers. They do it over the winter, so you’ll be prepared to start next spring. OK, so it’s only been two weeks for us, but we think it’s great.

    Gram – Pardon me! Of course I meant the googas! (What are googas?)

  7. Can you affix or somehow work some sort of winch onto your boat so that you’d only have to turn a crank to get the lobster pot up? Kind of like pulling up an anchor on a bigger boat? You know what I mean…I bet Kevin could figure something out- I have great faith in his problem-solving brain. I mean that way you could crank the lobster pot up with one hand and hold your martini (three olives) with the other, which I think would be a perfect trade off for E and P.

    If you could manage to look like Katherine Hepburn while doing it, so much the better.

  8. Paula — As happens frighteningly often, we’re thinking along the same lines. Kevin is working on a design for a davit or a gin pole type thing (not that I’m completely clear on the difference) that would make the work easier. As for the martinis, we have a little cooler that would be perfect. As for Katherine Hepburn, not a chance.

  9. In the 80’s and 90’s I was a commercial fisherwoman on the St. John’s River in Florida trapping eels. I would run 100 – 150 pots at depths of 30 -65 feet (no winches or electric cranks). The excitement of pulling every pot, especially when it was heavy, was palpable. Then, to raise a pot full of black/gold writhinig eels was pure satisfaction. On good days, dinner might also appear in the traps: catfish, an occasional flounder, shrimp and blue crab (yum!). I made my own pots, caught and cut my own bait and rode the boom and bust of the season. This was by far, one of my favorite jobs. At that time, cell phones were not an appendage and the solitude of being out on the river was priceless.

  10. Rick — I daresy you might just be able to pull it off.

    Jill — Will you come visit? Any woman who can pull 150 eel pots, and still get excited about it, is welcome at our dinner table any day. We also find suprises in our pots This past trip, three of them had a small sea bass in them, which we turned into bait for the next round. If we ever end up with an eel, I’m going to call on you for instructions.

    • My suggestion for tasty eel would be a good Japanese restaurant. I tried boiling them and the results were not palatable. My eel pots were 12 -14″ round diameter and approximately 3′ long. They were not the behemoths that lobster pots are. I’ll come to your dinner table when lobster is being served – not eel! ; ) I am wondering if you are able to fish soft shell crab?

      • Kevin and I always get eel when we do sushi (there are actually a couple of good spots on Cape Cod for it), but now I’m going to think of doing it at home as a challenge. As for soft-shell crab, I’ve never gotten any. I don’t know if that’s a viable crop around here — but if it is, I’ll find out.

  11. Sonia Feldman says:

    Good morning,

    I just read your article in the Food Section of the Wash. Post regarding your egg ‘taste test’. I found it interesting that no one noticed a taste difference, but I feel so strongly that any article written about home grown versus factory farmed eggs (or meat or milk) should also address the multitude of reasons to buy eggs from small producers (and more to the point, to NOT support the factory farmers). It is interesting that there were no discernible differences in taste, but that might lead the reader to think ‘then why pay more for organic, free-range’? without the public realizing how terribly abused factory farmed chickens are, how many health problems factory-farm workers have as a result of the huge volume of animals they have to handle, how often the chickens are given antibiotics and hormones, how they are bred to be so huge that their legs can’t even support them and to produce more eggs than they are meant to. We also are not told how much more nutritious it is for us to eat eggs from chickens that have been grass-fed (even if we can’t taste a difference). I could go on with the environmental benefits of locally produced eggs. I know your article was merely meant to be about taste, but I think these are such important considerations, that even if the taste is the same we need to encourage people to steer clear of the mass-produced eggs (as well as meats and milk). I hope you don’t mind my feedback. I envy you on the cape, it’s a beautiful place to live.

  12. Sonia — What to leave out is always the hardest problem! I feel strongly about eating animal products only from well-treated livestock, and I think that’s an important story (I even wrote about it on the op-ed page of the Washington Post a couple years back: ), but factory farms are getting a lot of ink these days, and we decided to focus pretty narrowly on the part of the egg story that we thought was new. And, for the record, constructive feedback is ALWAYS welcome.

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