“Every day’s different. Every sunrise is different. You’re working outside.”
James “Marty” Martin, crewman on the Lady Anna II, responding to the question, “What do you like best about commercial fishing?”
At the end of Part 1 it was 5:30 am on Tuesday, March 29. The Lady Anna II was about five miles due south of Kingsville in 35 feet of 35-degree Fahrenheit Lake Erie water.
Captain Mike Mummery had just slowed the Lady Anna II to a crawl. Curtis Mummery and James “Marty” Martin were standing-by in the port bow door, searching – in the white-lightning glare of Lady Anna II’s LED masthead light – for the flagged marker buoy that marked one end of a 640-yard-long (yes, that’s more than a one-third mile) “strap” of gill net. The first “pull” of the day was about to start.
Before I describe that first pull, just a bit about gill nets and how they’re used. Like a lot of things, at first glance it may seem simple. And that may be the commonly held perception of a Lake Erie commercial gill netting operation such as the Lady Anna II. But it is anything but simple.
About the net itself. Each strap of gill net is made up four boxes. Each box contains five, 32-yard-long panels of net. These five panels are tied together to form one 160-yard-long section of net. When these four sections are tied together, they become the 640-yard-long strap is pulled from the water.
Running along the top of the net is the cork line; it keeps the top of the net floating. Running along the bottom of the net is the lead (as in the heavy metal) line. It keeps the bottom of the net down in the water. At each end of the 640-yard-long strap of gill net is a 30-pound net anchor that is, in turn, connected to a marker buoy. And in between each of the four, 160-yard-long sections of net that make up the 640-yard-long strap, there are also 30-pound net anchors.
So each 640-yard-long strap is held in place – against waves and current – by a total of five net anchors. Five anchors that must be hauled up on deck or heaved over the side, when nets are, organized, pulled and set.
There’s enough complication and room for things to go wrong in the nets themselves. And Captain Mummery must still figure out where the fish are swimming in the water column. The vertical position of the nets in the water is adjusted using a gill netting method called “canning.” Canning involves tying floats (that is, “cans”) to the cork line of the net. The length of line connecting the cans to the cork line determines the depth below the lake’s surface at which the cork line (and top of the net) net will sit.
Fathoms are the language of canning: a fathom is six feet. If Captain Mummery wants the cork line of the net 18 feet below the surface, he calls for “threes” – that is, three fathoms.
The net that “Marty” and Curtis are about to pull was set, in about 35 feet of water, on March 26. Captain Mummery had estimated that he could catch the most pickerel by suspending the net in 18 to 28 feet of water, so he had called for “threees.” So for this strap of net, the lead line was hanging seven feet above the bottom of the lake.
Back to the Lady Anna II. Capt Mummery has just spotted the marker buoy and eases back on the throttles. Left hand on the forward and reverse throttles, right hand on the steering wheel and net puller controller, he slides the port bow of the Lady Anna II up to the buoy. In the icy-green glow of water, the buoy – like it’s suspended in mid-air – bobs into view and, in what seems like a split-second, Curtis snags it from the water, hauls the 30-pound anchor net aboard, unties both from the net, and stows them.
Even before the buoy and anchor are stowed, “Marty” is guiding – hand over hand, as fast as he can move his hands – the cork line of the net through the net puller, untying each 32-yard-long panel of net from the other and, as neatly as possible, folding those pickerel-packed panels into an empty tray.
For the next 20 minutes, the whir of motion that is “Marty’s” hands stops – very briefly and only four times, for maybe two seconds – when Curtis comes forward and, once again, unties and stows the net anchor and anchor rope at the end of each 160-yard-long section of net.
As soon as a tray is filled, Craig Adamson or Josh Mummery, hooks the tray with a large stainless steel box hook and drags it back to the starboard midship “picking” station. All this motion and work happens with almost nothing said between “Marty” and Curtis.
Except for the low purr of the Lady Anna II’s diesel engine and the background drone of rock and roll music, all is quiet – the main deck of the Lady Anna II could be the main floor of any small factory.
But it isn’t. This factory floor never stops moving. At the center of all this work and all the pickerel-packed nets being hauled aboard, Captain Mummery stands silent and mostly unseen in the electronic glow of the wheelhouse playing a tricky round of three-dimensional chess on Lake Erie’s predawn darkness. Left hand in constant motion on the black and red throttles, right hand on the wheel and net puller controller – gently backing and filling the Lady Anna II, keeping the Lady Anna II in just the right spot so as not to twist the net or get it tangled-up in the shaft and propeller. Keeping just enough tension on the net to run it through the net puller without breaking it. All very precise, nerve-wracking-hard work. A lot can go wrong – really quick – if things aren’t done just right.
The first pull started at about 5:30 am At about 5:50 am, “Marty” pulls the net puller back over the gunwale and closes the port bow sliding doors. That’s the end of the first “pull.” In those 20 minutes, “Marty” and Curtis have – almost as quick as the eye can see – untied 20 sections of net from each other, hauled aboard more than one-third of a mile of gill net and five 30-pound anchor nets and – most importantly – more than 2,000 pounds of pickerel.
From the minute the net was first hauled aboard, it was clear that Captain Mummery had called it right in setting the cans at “threees.” Five minutes into the first pull, I walked up the short flight of two steps into the tight confines of the wheelhouse and said something like: “You’re catching a lot of fish.”
Eyes always fixed forward, staring over the glow of 25 feet of white-painted bow, Captain Mummery replied, “The whole lake is full of pickerel; pickerel have gone bonsai since 2015.”
By his response, and the smiles on the faces of the crew and their speed of step, it was clear that captain and crew knew this was a good haul. That the 50 per cent of the value of the fish that was their share of the catch, would make this a good pay day.
For the next 35 minutes, “Marty” and Curtis join Craig and Josh at the picking station. Four grown men, staring down the throats of pickerel, a few white perch and silver bass, and just one yellow perch; extracting fish from the nets. Using a small, wooden-handled pick, they clear the almost invisible monofilament mesh from the teeth of the fish, guide the net around the gills and then, with the net clear of any snags on the fish, gently squeeze and pull the fish head -first out of the net. Each fish. One by one.
While “Marty,” Curtis, Craig and Josh pick fish, the Lady Anna II keeps moving. In the wheelhouse, Captain Mummery guides the boat almost due south, at a speed of about nine knots, across the glassy-calm, predawn blackness of Lake Erie.
At about 6:25 am, “Marty” and Curtis head back to the port stern hatch and push open the sliding doors onto a curtain of pitch-blackness.
We are now about 10 miles due south of Kingsville. “Marty” and Curtis are about to “set” nets.
More from aboard the Lady Anna II in Part 3 of this story.