Copyright ©2005 by H.P. Caldwell, III. Reprinted with permission.

The piston came out of the Cat 343 that was in my last fishing boat. She was a 73-foot dragger, basically a Southern shrimper. But I re-rigged her for so many different fisheries that one of the more complimentary nicknames that I collected over the years, unlike Capt. Skitso, was Capt. Re-rig.

There was a period a few years ago when times were hard, my finances were in the gutter, and there just seemed to be no way for me to dig my way out of that hole. All the fisheries down south were break-even deals at best, and that didn’t count all the wear and tear on the boat, which will eventually catch up with you. You could keep your crew alive in those fisheries with a small regular paycheck, but you were really going backwards.

As a last-ditch effort to find something a little better, I left North Florida in my truck and started driving up the East Coast, stopping in fishing ports along the way. I’d find the commercial docks and start pumping anyone who would talk with me, trying to find someone who was making money. I ended up in a port in North Carolina, and stopped in to chat with a conch processor whom I used to ship my conchs to. (Did I mention that I’d rigged out for a bunch of different fisheries? That one was hard work, but pretty good while it lasted.) The processor also owned a dragger, and said he couldn’t get his captain to bring it back to NC to fish for conchs because he was making too much money fishing for sea scallops up in Chincoteague on the Delmarva Peninsula. Boy, my ears perked right up when I heard that. I pumped him a little more and he told me the name of the fish house where his captain was unloading. That was very important information, for in a lot of fisheries, you had to secure an arrangement with a buyer before you could go fishing.

I gave Chincoteague Seafood a call, and laid so much crap on that guy that I could hardly believe what I was saying was coming out of my mouth. I told him that we were professional fishermen, hard working, sober, used to producing, and knew what we were doing. I guaranteed we would make him a lot of money, and with my fingers, toes, and eyes crossed, awaited his reply. He said sure, come on up, and he would put us to work.

I jumped into the truck and sped back to Florida. I told my crew we were heading up to Virginia for the summer to get rich fishing for sea scallops and for them to get their affairs in order, or get their shit off the boat. (That’s not profanity for profanity’s sake. That’s what you hear when you get fired from a fishing boat. “Get your shit off the boat.”)

My next stop was at the net shop so I could confer with my net maker. He was a very good friend of mine, as he should be. For after all, every time you re-rig, it means a trip to the net shop for new nets. He told me that the locals up there used a type of net called a 90-dog net, and they pulled two of them at a time. They were pretty simple as far as nets go, and he could knock out a couple in no time.

But we didn’t spend a lot of time on that, for we both knew that I was worse than broke, and looking for alternatives. We spent a bit of time talking scallop-catching theory, how hard they were on the bottom, how fast you had to drag to catch them, etc. I had six conch nets in my pile of old used fishing gear, and we decided that we could make them work if I was willing to spend some time tuning them once I got on the fishing grounds, and was also willing to go through the hassle of pulling four of those smaller nets at a time instead of a couple of those bigger 90-dog nets.

I went back to the boat to get my crew so we could start pulling those old nets out of storage, only to find them “getting their shit off the boat.” This wasn’t looking too good. But I did manage to round up a crew. It consisted of a captain-buddy of mine, Rolfe, his girlfriend, Zook, and his young cousin who had fished with him a little. The deal was, my buddy, Rolfe, and Zook were on their way up to New England to find and purchase a small wooden sailboat. They would help me take the boat up to Chincoteague and work the first trip, and then with the money they had earned from that trip, continue on Down East. The cousin would stay with me, and I would pick up a couple of locals to fill the empty berths.

I had the crew and gear problems worked out, temporarily, but was still concerned about having fed that guy at the fish house such a load of crap. So, I decided that the best thing to do was go ahead and blow 30,000 pounds of ice on the boat before we left and then steam directly to the grounds. That way, the first time we hit the dock, it would be with some amount of scallops in the hold. The only small problem that I wasn’t able to work out was the fact that I didn’t know where in the hell the fishing grounds were.

But we had to get gone, so we blew the ice into the hold, topped off her tanks with 6800 gallons of diesel fuel, and packed three or four hundred dollars worth of groceries into the galley. The nets were just piled up on the back deck, but we had four days of steaming ahead of us, and Rolfe and I were both pretty good net repairmen. Zook had worked in the net shop for years, so the nets would be rigged and in good shape to go to work by the time we got there. We’d let the cousin watch the wheel while we worked on the back deck.

The weather was great, and a little while after we rounded Cape Hatteras, the nets were ready to fish, with a couple of spares in the hold. About the time we crossed the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay inshore of us, Rolfe was on wheel watch. He was flipping through the channels of the marine VHF radio when he heard a captain that he knew.

I do my share of listening on the radio, but not a whole lot of talking. Not so with Rolfe. He’s a regular jabber-mouth, and must know half the captains on the East Coast.

Remember those nicknames I was talking about? Rolfe collected more than most. One that he got tagged with because of his talking all the time was Chicken Lips. That eventually got shortened to just Lips. There are some unwritten radio protocols among commercial fishermen, and they work like this: with a bunch of captains who work together a lot, the captain prefix is optional. So instead of the more formal, “Come in, Captain Rolfe,” the initial call to start a conversation would be something like, “Come on, Lips,” or, “Hey Lips,” or maybe just, “Lips.”

It’s also interesting how these nicknames morph from one to another. Rolfe’s last name is Fleming, and he’s one of the cheapest guys I’ve ever known, especially when it comes to clothes. The only ones he’s ever paid for came from the Good Will. He’s so cheap that they started calling him Flemowitz. That evolved into Nit Witz, then Half Witz, and finally settled into just Witz. Lips and Witz stuck, and became interchangeable.

All this took place over a number of years as we all started approaching the esteemed rating of Old Timers, and at the same time younger guys started coming into the business. The older captains are given a certain degree of respect and it’s just not acceptable for a younger captain to use the familiar, and I always got tickled hearing one of those younger guys calling Rolfe on the radio: “Come in, Cap’n Lips.”

Anyway, Rolfe ran across this guy on the radio that he knew and he was fishing for scallops as well, and on the way to the fishing grounds. He gave Rolfe the “numbers” or location of an area where we could start fishing. He said they had pretty much fished the place out, but there were no “hangs” or obstructions to tear our nets and it would be a good place to mess around and get our nets tuned up the way we wanted. Once we got that right, we would catch up with him and a couple of his fishing partners and help them hunt for more productive bottom.

We ended up someplace off New Jersey, just a little south of Hudson Canyon, which is the under water extension of the Hudson River. In addition to the six big nets, I also had a much smaller variety that we call a try net. It has it’s own smaller winch, and its purpose is to take a bottom sample to see what’s down there before you set the big rigs. I decided that we ought to make a pull with that little net first, since none of us had ever seen a sea scallop before.

I had fished for calico scallops a couple of times down off Florida, and had even had Rolf run the boat for me in that fishery for a while. Calicos look like bay scallops, or the Shell Oil logo, and we were all expecting sea scallops to just be a bigger variety of the same thing. So we dropped the try net to the bottom, pulled it for fifteen minutes, and wound it back up.

The little bag at the end of the net had about a half-bushel of bottom junk in it, dead clamshells and a few crabs, but nothing that looked like scallops. We pulled it over the rail, untied the purse string, and dumped the catch onto the deck.

No scallops, but about half the contents were these strange-looking shellfish that were orange in color, shaped like little flying saucers, and about four inches in diameter. You know how big the meat in a sea scallop is if you’ve ever ordered them in a restaurant, maybe 1 ½ inches in diameter, or even bigger. That’s about how much we knew about it too. But judging by the meat to shell size ratio of calico scallops, we were looking for something that was eight or ten inches in diameter.

We all stood there scratching our heads, and I said, “Y’all don’t suppose there’s a scallop inside those things, do you?” It didn’t seem possible. The shells were so thin that you could hold them in one hand and break them into little pieces by punching them with the other. “Let’s open one up and see what’s there.”

I couldn’t believe my eyes when we got the first one opened. That thing had a big old meat inside that was four times the size of what we were expecting. “I’ll be damned. These must be sea scallops. Let’s get the big rigs overboard.”

We pulled the rigs, two nets to the side, out to the end of the 55′ outriggers. I went into the wheelhouse and brought her up to about half speed, and Rolfe lowered the nets to the bottom. When he had the winch dogged off, he shouted, and I brought her up to towing speed. I checked the electronics and saw that we were making almost three knots across the bottom, which was right on the money.

But about five minutes later, I noticed that our ground speed was starting to deteriorate rapidly. Something wasn’t right. No way we could have caught that many scallops that quick. “Let’s get ’em up,” I hollered back into the galley, and Rolfe ran out the door, headed for the winch. I gave him a few seconds, pulled the throttle back to near idle, and ran back to man one side of the winch as we brought the nets up.

We were working in about 35 fathoms (a couple hundred feet), so had a good amount of cable out, and it took a little while before we lifted the nets off the bottom. But when they did come off the bottom, the winch started laboring and the cable started snapping on the drums of the winch, both indicators that we had caught a lot of something. By the time we got the doors, or the front of the nets, to the end of the outriggers, we could see the bags hanging straight down and trailing a cloud of mud and sand. We had managed to get ourselves into the real estate business – big time. It wasn’t an emergency, just a pain in the butt. I went back to the wheelhouse and brought the throttle up to full power. We were going to drag that mess around for as long as it took to wash all that dirt out of the nets. Or some of it, anyway.

When the cloud cleared up and any more washing would be a waste of time, I brought her back to a high idle. I ran to the back deck and took my station at the main winch. We brought the bags to the side of the boat, lifted them over the rail with the winch, and dumped the last couple of tons of sea bottom onto the deck. Then came the pain in the butt part. We had to shovel all that dirt overboard, picking the scallops out as we went. But we did have some scallops, quite a few actually, for the time we drug.

Now it was time to start tuning. We brought the nets aboard and made some serious adjustments to make them fish lighter. We obviously didn’t have to dig these things out of the mud the way you do conchs. We put everything back overboard and tried it again. Better, but still digging too hard. We decked the rigs about four times, and finally had ’em the way we wanted. We were out of the real estate business, and settled down to make a 45-minute drag.

Our ground speed looked good throughout the whole drag, and we hauled the rigs back on schedule. Great googly-moogly! This place was supposed to be fished out. We had a pile of scallops on the back deck that we could hardly see over. I’d pulled the nets too long. Twenty minutes would have been just right. We were going to have to stop dragging for a while so we could clean the deck up.

We had to cull through the entire pile, only keeping those scallops that were 3 ¼ inches across or bigger. I don’t remember how many legal-sized bushels we caught on that first tow, at $25 a bushel, but probably 30 or 40. Whatever it was, we were in the meat!

Since it had taken us four days to get to the grounds, we had lost a good bit of our ice during the passage. We fished until we ran out, and had 450 bushels in the hold when we were done. (Turned out to be an $11,000 trip. And a short one, too.) I started figuring the steaming time to the dock, 18 hours, and looking at the calendar, and realized that we would get there on a Sunday morning. Then we would have to lay around the dock for a day until we could get unloaded. I decided we deserved a little celebration, and set a course for Atlantic City.

Soon after we cleared the inlet, I spied some commercial docks south of the cut, and tied up outside of another boat about the size of mine. No one was around the dock, but while rounding the point that lead to the docks, we had noticed a bar that had a big outside deck that was full of Saturday afternoon patrons. We were already showered and cleaned up, so we changed into some clothes for “going up the street,” as fishermen call it, and walked up the pier to join the crowd.

We shared a table with a couple of single girls and enjoyed their company as we copped a little afternoon buzz. By the time I started noticing how low the sun was getting, we had all become pretty good friends, and it was going to be hard to leave. But I wanted to clear the inlet before we ran out of light, so I told my crew that I was going to go get the boat and I would stick the bow up to the edge of the deck to pick them up on the way out. Actually, it was a pretty good little buzz that we had going by then. But I’d been running up and down the coast and driving that boat in and out of docks and parking and unparking it with inches to spare for a pretty good spell. Plus, there was no wind or current to deal with, and I was confident that I could handle it.

The situation couldn’t have been better. I eased the bow up against the dock about ten feet from our table, and left it in gear, idling against the dock. Rolfe came aboard first, turned to help Zook aboard, and then the cousin scrambled over the rail. I thought that was it, when another head popped up. One of our new friends was coming aboard.

“Hey. What the hell are you doing?”

“I want to go to Chincoteague with you guys.”

“No way. You can’t do that.”

“Oh, come on. I’ve never been to Chincoteague.”

Damn! They must have been sitting there drinking for a while before we showed up. “Ahh. I’m sorry. My insurance won’t allow anyone but crew aboard.”

She bought it. I shifted into reverse and started backing away from the dock before she changed her mind.

We pulled into the dock in Chincoteague early the next afternoon and asked around for the location of Chincoteague Seafood. And I’ll be damned. It was nothing but a bar-restaurant on the waterfront. So that’s where we tied up. We walked around the little town for a while and asked which bar the fishermen hung out in. “The Waterman’s Lounge.”

“Where’s that located?”

“Oh, it’s part of the Chincoteague Inn.”

“And where’s that?” And they proceeded to give us directions to the bar-restaurant where we were tied up. We’d walked past the barroom door ten feet after we got off the boat. And that set the stage for the whole summer.

Monday morning we pulled the hatch cover off the fish hold and started getting ready to unload. I was pulling the nets out of the way when this youngish looking guy came over the rail and asked, “Who’s the captain?” I mean, he didn’t ask permission to come aboard, say good morning, or anything.

“I am,” I replied, and before I could get another word in, he pulled this black leather wallet-looking thing out of his pocket and flipped it open, flashing this big glitzy badge at me.

“National Marine Fisheries. I want to look in you fish hold.”

Great day in the morning. I was pretty used to the state guys poking around, but this guy was a Fed, and he was all COP. “Get me a basket and open up all your bins. I’m going to check your scallops for size.”

And that’s what he did. And I went to treating him like he was my rich Uncle Ralph’s favorite kid. I don’ remember how many scallops he measured, but I do recall that you were allowed 5% undersize. But when he was finished, every single one he measured was legal or way legal. First time in his career he’d ever seen that. When we were culling them, we were so new at it that we measured every single one that was questionable, and if they were even close we left them behind.

But on top of that, what we didn’t know was that while you were handling the scallops, the very edge of the shell where it’s just been formed will crack off like a big fingernail clipping, about an eighth of an inch thick. The scallop cops assume that much has chipped off before they see ’em, so instead of measuring at 3 ¼ inch, they measure at 3 1/8 inch. No wonder ours were so big. They were the prettiest scallops that had ever come across the dock in Chincoteague.

Of course, once I found that out, I just kept my mouth shut. I still remember his name. Kevin. “Hey, Kevin, you’re welcome aboard my vessel any time. You want a cup of coffee before you hit the road?” And then we humped scallops out of the hold for the next five or six hours.

I didn’t see Kevin again until about a month after that, when we had gotten pretty good at it and were bringing our trips in at somewhere between 3 ½ or 4% under size. Any less that that, and you’ve left some money on the grounds. Kevin was snooping around the dock, and I called out to him, “Hi, Kevin. We aren’t going to start unloading for another couple of hours, but do you want to check our scallops now? We don’t mind opening her up.”

“Naw. I’m not worried about you guys. I’m looking for so and so.” And we never saw him again for the rest of the season.

Rolfe and Zook picked up their checks with big smiles on their faces and headed north to find their dreamboat. I started working some local talent, but couldn’t find anybody who really wanted to work. a bunch of one-trippers. I finally called Richard, another buddy of mine back home and one of the best fishing captains I’ve ever known, and asked him to find me some crew. He called back the next day and said that he wasn’t having much luck, but as much money as I was bringing to the dock, I should pick him up at the airport the next day and he would run my back deck for me.

Man, we went to war, then. He’s one of those can-do guys who get it done, no matter what it takes. By the end of the season, we had the reputation of being the saltiest crew, and hardest-working, best-producing boat they’d even seen in that port.

We came by everything but the salty part honestly. But a good bit of it was because of those conch nets. We spent the whole season working one five-mile square piece of fish-out bottom. Those four little conch nets, once we got them tuned up and fishing sharp, would catch twice what a pair of those 90-dog nets could. But we spent the time to keep them fishing that way. At the end of every 7-day trip, two nets would come off the boat and out into the big gravel parking lot down the street, and we would bust ’em completely apart and put ’em back together again, repairing all the weak spots before they failed and getting all the adjustments perfect.

It’s a chore that just can’t be done properly on the deck. And getting them up on the hill is a big hassle. They are so heavy that it takes four men and a boy to lift them. Everything must be done using the boat’s winch and my old fishing truck. But that’s what must be done if you want to keep your nets sharp, and the captain that’s too lazy to pull them off the boat will not be a producer.

But the salty part. we cheated on that a little bit. Well, we only cheated by omission. There was a little sou-easter starting to kick up, all rainy and nasty out, and that kind of wind makes the inlet in Chincoteague pretty dangerous. There’s no water in it to start with, and even when it was calm, if I didn’t hit it just right, we’d scrub the bottom a little bit coming across the bar. But by this time, I had been in and out enough times that I had it pretty well figured out.

All the other boats in the port were tied up and not going anywhere. One of the problems was, you couldn’t get to the inlet by car to see what it looked like because Chincoteague Island is the second barrier island from the ocean, and there’s no bridge to Assateague Island, which guards the inlet. But I had a pilot’s license, and told Richard we should go rent an airplane and fly over the inlet for a little peek.

Well, it didn’t look that bad to me, and Richard agreed, so we decided to go for it. We were already iced and fueled up, and all we had to do was throw the lines off. Although it looked a little knarley, running the inlet was pretty much routine and we settled down for the 18-hour steam to the grounds.

Sometime in the middle of the night, Richard woke me up so that I could follow him on wheel watch. “You better listen to the marine weather, Cap,” he told me. “There’s a tropical low heading right up the coast.”

We listened to the weather together, and it sounded like it was heading northwest, right for Chincoteague, but we were steaming northeast to the grounds. I told him, “Let’s keep going for a while and see what it’s going to do. We’ve still got time to get out if its way if we have to.” And that’s what we did. It stayed on course and so did we, and by the time we got to the grounds it was running way inshore of us, and we went to work as usual with 5 ½ days to meet our self-imposed quota of 650 bushels. It got pretty bumpy for a couple of days, but nothing we couldn’t work in. When the time ran out, we had our quota on ice and started steaming back to port.

As it turned out, that low ran right over Chincoteague and kicked their butts. When we pulled up to the dock it looked exactly the same as when we had left. Rain, wind, just pretty much snotty, and every boat was exactly where we had left it. When the dock watchers saw us heading in, they were all sure that we had been anchored up behind some sand bar inside Delaware Bay, hunkered down and waiting for the weather to get good enough to sneak back home. But then they noticed that we were having a little trouble getting across the sandbar right across from the dock because we were riding so low in the water. And then another $16,000+ worth of scallops started coming off the boat and they couldn’t believe it. They thought we had worked through the same weather that they had experienced that week at the dock. But we were truthful. “Aw. it wasn’t that bad,” we said, like we worked through that kind of weather all the time.

Our reputation was in the bag. I learned a lot that season, and the following year when it was time to go scalloping up north, I knew what they looked like and how to catch them. And I had local deckhands standing in line for a berth. That second year I had no worries dealing with the local talent. I showed up with a crack crew from home.

I had spent that previous winter partner fishing with a buddy named Charlie, and convinced him that he should tag along with me this time, and we could continue partner fishing, looking out for each other. He was stubborn, though, and was sure his calico scallop nets would do just fine on the sea scallops. I just said, “OK, be that way.”

Cap’n Charlie’s boat was a little smaller than mine at 68 feet, but he had a lot more horse power with a big old V-12 Cat. He was supposed to out-fish me because he could pull more webbing than I could with my older, in-line 6. But those calico nets damn near put him in the poor house. Trip after trip, I was whipping him like a redheaded stepchild. It was horrible. (But I kept smiling.) He finally called the net shop back home and told them to build him six nets just like mine, and we were pretty close for the rest of the season. Except for one trip, that is. The trip I pulled that piston out of that Cat.

Charlie and I would stagger our trips so that we didn’t come to the dock at the same time. It took a whole day to unload, and then another couple of days for the shuckers to cut all those scallops. Charlie had already been working for two or three days by the time I arrived on the grounds. With the first 42 bushels on ice, I had just set the gear overboard for the second drag when the engine started making a funny noise and I started losing power. I knew immediately that I had just dropped a valve and my trip was over before I had started. That left me with two options. Try to minimize the damage by shutting the engine down and then cutting the cables and leaving the rigs on the bottom, or try to get the rigs aboard before it died completely.

I thought about leaving the rigs on the bottom in 35 fathoms, their value, and all those big 100-foot steel slabs that weren’t pulling nets but rather two or three-ton dredges for scallops. If one of them caught my rigs and moved them, they would be gone forever. I decided to try to get them aboard. We got the nets to the end of the outriggers with the engine wheezing and making that particular sound that a cylinder with no valves makes. Then we started bringing the nets from the outriggers to the deck. The first pair came aboard, and when the next two started coming in, all hell broke loose in the engine room. I knew that bad cylinder had just spit something into the turbo, and that was all she wrote. We spent the next eight hours with a come along and some creative rigging, bringing those last two nets in an inch at a time.

I called Charlie on the radio when we had everything secure, and he said he’d haul his rigs back and start towing us to the dock. We were probably looking at a 24-hour ride, which would have put us at the dock late Friday afternoon. I told him there was no sense for us to be there before Monday morning, and it would be better for us to just drop our anchor and hang out for a couple of days and he could just about finish his trip that way. We still had a 20 kw genset running, 110 vac and 32 vdc pumps available if we needed them, and all the comforts of home. We agreed that would be the plan, and we dropped the hook. I got dinner started with a pork roast going in the oven and we all kicked back, making the best of a little time off without getting waylaid by the Waterman’s Lounge.

We had a great dinner, the crew got the galley cleaned up, and I called Charlie on the radio and told him we were going to turn in. We picked a quiet channel on the radio to stand by on with one of each of our multiple VHF’s, and I said I’d call him in the morning when I woke up. I climbed into my bunk, read for a while, and then shut out the light, letting the six to eight-foot seas rock me to sleep.

I don’t know how long that lasted, but sometime in the middle of the night I was awakened by a tremendous crash that damned near knocked me out of the bunk. The place was all lit up, but it was still the middle of the night, and I hadn’t left any deck lights burning. I pulled the curtain back from the window at the head of my bunk, and was staring at the bow of Charlie’s boat. He’d just rammed me, and was running wide open in reverse, backing away from me.

I ran down into the engine room, turned all my 6 kw worth of deck lights on, and checked the bilge to see if she was making any water. Still tight. Back up on deck to assess the situation. I don’t know how we ever got out of that one as easy as we did. Charlie had fallen asleep at the wheel and ran into me broadside while he was dragging. He hadn’t hit me amidships, but rather bow to bow at right angles. Maybe just a little in front of me, because I ended up with a big blue stripe on my anchor line from his bottom paint. But how our outriggers never got tangled up, I’ll never know. He backed away from me clean as a whistle. His boat was fiberglass, and mine was wooden. If we’d ever gotten tangled up in those sea conditions, he’d have put me on the bottom. But neither one of us got more than a scratch out of it. Charlie backed up between his towing cables, made a turn to get by me, and pulled off a ways before stopping to pick his rigs up. They even came up without being tangled. Another thing I’ll never understand.

But he’s suffered for it for years. I’ve never let him forget it. Talk about kicking a man when he’s down.

He fished for another day and a half or so, pulled me back to the dock, and we started tearing the engine down. There was no major damage to the head other than needing new valve guides and valves and it went out to a shop to be rebuilt. The turbocharger was history and got replaced. But that piston: it was a work of art. When the valve stem sheared, the valve turned upside down and got jammed into the top of the piston as if someone had done it on purpose.

The Piston

The Piston

And we went back to killing scallops.