The DIY Days Of Lobster Gear

text by Kaitlin Webber for The Working Waterfront

Island kid Richard LeMoine Jr. standing in front of wooden lobster traps, 1954. Courtesy of the Christal Applin Collection.

Island kid Richard LeMoine Jr. standing in front of wooden lobster traps, 1954.
Courtesy of the Christal Applin Collection.

A warning: this column contains some “back in my day” nostalgia. I’ll be borrowing it from others since my own material only covers cassette tapes, sending your film to get developed and that time when people thought Beanie Babies were a good financial investment.

Once upon a time, Swan’s Islands’ lobstermen made the majority of their equipment by hand. Fishing involved not only knowing where to go to find your catch but also being able to build good gear to bring it in. The favored designs, techniques and materials evolved over the years.

There were hand-carved buoys, wooden lobster traps (also known as “pots”), hand-knitted bait pockets and toggles made from beer bottles. Materials depended on what was available on the island. They chopped branches for the traps and gathered stones from the beaches to weigh them down. I imagine in a small place like this you knew where to go for beer bottles.

The equipment that resulted was really neat looking. Each builder had a unique style. Some fishermen were meticulous in crafting their gear, taking careful measurements to assure symmetry. I’m sure some had a philosophy similar to what mine probably would have been: good enough for the bottom of the ocean.

Of course, this handmade fishing gear has by no means disappeared from the modern economy. If you’ve ever driven around coastal Maine in the summertime you will see just how excited people are about it. Route 1 wouldn’t be the same without its “lobsters-on-everything” decorating scheme.

If you were on a road trip and woke from a nap in the backseat, you’d know right away you were in Maine (even if the license plates on passing cars suggested otherwise). The roads are lined with antique stores, flea markets and miscellaneous piles of buoys.

Now, let me just say that I am a big fan of useless things that look nice. I don’t just mean people, but rather the glorious world of “stuff.” You can pick up some fishing gear and instantly make your front yard, bathroom, garden or vehicle interior (go nuts!) look way more exciting. Who knows—you might even catch a lobster!

Unlike the decorating world, the fishing world has moved from wooden to metal lobster traps. Put one of those babies next to your begonias in an inland town and your neighbors will think you’re dealing with a serious raccoon invasion.

Wire traps have many advantages over their stylish predecessors. For one thing, they require much less repair. Wire traps generally stay good shape over a minimum of five years and can be patched up for ten or more years. They’re more durable and can hold up to rough seas that would dash wooden traps on shore. Wooden traps also have to be taken up periodically to avoid waterlogging; a heavier trap is harder to haul.

Donnie Carlson has been in the trap building business on Swan’s Island since 1984. He described the gradual shift to metal traps around the 1980s:

“I think that for some reason the wire trap seems to fish better. I remember when I was fishing with my father that that seemed to be the thing that really changed people over. I don’t know whether there was smell to the wooden traps that wasn’t to the wire—I don’t know what it was—but they did seem to fish better.”

Donnie builds traps to the specifications of each customer. “Everybody has their different styles, shall we say,” he laughed.

People request whatever features they think will fish better. Some haul from different sides, some have extra vents, and some favor different heights and widths.

“There are fishermen that believe color makes a difference,” Donnie said. “Black and green were the original colors and through the years they come up with different colors. It went from green and black to red for a while, then it went to yellow, then white, and I’ve seen purples and grays and blues.”

Donnie comes from a family of fishermen and grew up helping build wooden traps.

“I was a sternman with my father for a while before we had wire traps. I can remember as a kid going into the woods and cutting off tree limbs and bending them, making parts of the trap there. He would go up in the tree and cut them down and my job was to trim off the ends and gather them up.

“I can remember when he would build the bottom of the trap they would put cement into it for ballast. I would help him with that. We’d have all the bottoms kind of spread out on the lawn out back here and he would be mixing cement and I’d be taking a can full and dumping it in. We’d put the initials in eventually, and the numbers.

“It was quite an operation,” Donnie remembered. “The shop next to me was where they all used to work. My grandfather and my father and my brother were all in the business and I would help.”

A lot of women’s work also went into the fishing business. Carolyn Martin is proof of that. She remembered the days when her mother helped build traps:

“She worked right alongside my father,” Carolyn said. “She’d go in the woods and help him get stuff and bring it out and saw it up, and she’d be in helping right along.

“I remember one night they stayed up all night because somebody wanted 35 traps the next day. It took ’em all day to get the stuff together and saw it out, so they stayed up all night but they had the 35 traps the next day. Fifty cents a trap,” she laughed. “That was ridiculous.”

The materials were available if you were willing to put in the work. I asked Carolyn where they went to get branches for the traps.

“You could go anywhere on the island, they didn’t care,” she said. “Long as you didn’t cut the tree itself, they didn’t care.”

Carolyn explained the process:

“Well, my father and Mertic Morrison ran a mill where they cut the logs. They cut the bottom parts and the laths. And then you had to go get spruce boughs a certain length—I can’t remember how many feet now—and you had to steam them and bend them over to make the round trap.

“You’d take one end in the trap and take the other foot and hold that down and start, you know, bending from right there. You keep bending just a little bit so as not to break ’em. And then we had a pole .We just slid that on over and started lathing them up. I’ve built a good many traps. And it was fun.”

The hands-on work created some fond memories:

“One time my father got up a spruce tree,” Carolyn told me. “It was a real tall one and had some beautiful boughs in it. He got up there and something tapped him on the shoulder. And he says, ‘Augh!’ I said, ‘What’s wrong?’ He says, ‘Bring me up a rope.’ I said, ‘Uh-oh, what has he done?’

“There was an arctic owl dead on the branch in perfect condition. So he lowered it down to the ground and had it stuffed. But that had knocked over a bit and hit him on the shoulder and scared him—he almost fell out of the tree!”

I asked Carolyn, now in her mid-70s, about shimmying up trees to cut branches.

“Oh, I didn’t mind,” she laughed. “But today you wouldn’t get me doing it!”

The changes in fishing gear over just a few generations are pretty remarkable. There was a certain degree of camaraderie and fun in the old way—families pitched in. Even the extra repair time needed with wooden buoys meant there were more people around on the wharves, chatting and working.

But so it goes. You’d get more family bonding time traveling by horse and buggy, but people aren’t tossing out their car keys. Though a carriage would look great in my living room…

Kaitlin Webber is an Island Fellow on Swan’s Island through AmeriCorps and the Island Institute, where she works with the island’s historical society.