Ellis Hodgkins stands in his doorway, huddled against the wind, squinting out to sea with his one good eye. Another fall is ending in Rockport, Mass., his cameo of a town, but in the little harbor at his feet his 36-foot sports fisherman, LuAnn, is still ready to sail, rigged for bluefin tuna. He would like to be on LuAnn every day now, heading to sea, as he did when he was the Boy Wonder of the Bay State fishing fleet.
That is what the Boston Globe called him 13 years ago, when he was 26, before the fishing went bad. And one vision, impressed upon him then, still haunts him; it was the way a giant tuna looked, lunging for a trolled string of mackerel, "like an airplane crashing on my bait." He never got enough of that. But in the mid-'60s the fishery all but ended, and Hodgkins became just another of its failures, except that he had farther to fall than most. In 1961 his clients had caught 182 tuna; in 1962, 81; in 1963, 58; and in 1964, 13. He could see the trend. So with his reputation intact he quit full-time chartering, though he did continue to fish on weekends, for his own pleasure.
He went to work for a Volkswagen dealer in nearby Beverly, selling cars. And he began building a different kind of reputation. His porch, above Rockport's T Wharf and inner harbor, was "the best place in the world to watch ladies from," he would say, and the ladies liked his wisecracking and his easy smile. But some of the matrons of Rockport did not approve of Hodgkins' new life-style. Unfairly, they said he was drunk on the January morning in 1973 when he cracked up his Porsche, breaking nearly every bone in his head, mangling a leg and losing the sight in his right eye. A nurse at the hospital that morning had his picture in her wallet. That helped them put his face together again. But now the depth perception in his good eye is shot, and he was color-blind to start with. He goes to gaff a fish and misses. He limps badly, his balance is bad, and though he never complains, often he is in pain. He has at least a foot of faint scars on his pleasant, handsome face, and his hair is prematurely flecked with gray. He still works for Volkswagen, as general manager now, a less taxing, less exciting job than tuna chartering. But he cannot stop dreaming of how it used to be. Catching big fish, he knows, confers a kind of immortality on a man; selling cars does not. And so, at 39, he waits for the old days to return. He has never ducked a challenge; every day he swims and lifts weights to strengthen his leg. In his little apartment, its ceiling a maze of rods and reels, the VHF receiver and the 23-channel citizen's band radio are left on round the clock. Sometimes he wakens at 4 a.m. to lie in the dark and listen to the captains of draggers 90 miles at sea. He does not want to miss a thing. He says, "If there's great fishing next year I'll be out every day."
It is a very big If.
November 18, 1974
The trouble really began when to most it seemed over—in the late '60s. The fishing had been awful from 1965 to 1969, but suddenly a superrace of bluefin tuna appeared. In the fall of 1970 the 20-year all-tackle record was broken three times in three months, with fish of 985, 1,040 and 1,065 pounds, at Montauk Point, Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. While tuna under 500 pounds were a rarity at every Atlantic tuna port, the giant fish kept coming into the new decade. Ellis Hodgkins brought a 786-pounder into Gloucester, his biggest ever, a tuna that would have gotten him elected mayor in 1960, when his fish averaged about 300 pounds. But no one even blinked now. Record-conscious anglers were thrilled, but scientists were worried. The huge fish were very old, they pointed out, and their breeding days were numbered. Medium-sized fish, of 70 to 270 pounds, with long futures as breeders, had become very scarce. And there was heavy commercial pressure on the small fish, those up to 100 pounds, the hope for the future.
Of all those who raised concerned voices, none had done more tuna research than Frank J. Mather III of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. His tagging programs had been the first to prove an intermingling of European and North American tuna, and he detailed the dramatic decline of the species in recent years in Europe; how once-great fisheries had failed in Germany, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Morocco, Tunisia, Sardinia and Italy. In a paper, The Bluefin Tuna Situation, he wrote, "The Atlantic Bluefin Tuna is in trouble.... Unless some action is taken...the inevitable disappearance of these old fish will leave only a few small spawners, with low fecundity. This will mean the economic extinction of the species."
Then came the season of 1972. Fish buyers from Japan showed up on the East Coast and at Prince Edward Island. They came in September, when the giant tuna were fat from a summer of feeding, and they brought a lot of money. They waited each day for the wholesalers to buy the tuna from the fishermen, and then, the fish cleaned, they stuck probing fingers into the stomach cavities to check the fat content of the belly flank. Ah, they would say, all smiles, and within 24 hours the tuna were being flown to Japan, fresh—not frozen—out of New York.
The sushi shops were waiting for toro, the fat flesh of the bluefin tuna, a delicacy in Japan. They serve it as sashimi (raw fish) or as sushi (raw fish with rice). The buyers paid very well for the toro. Through much of the fall of 1973 the price of cleaned fish at Gloucester ranged from 85¢-per pound to $1.50 as the season ended and the fish became scarce. And since a dressed-out tuna loses only about 20% of its weight, at $1 a pound an 800-pound fish was worth $640. Tuna fishing was becoming the Yankee equivalent of the Gold Rush. Said Charlie Curcuru, of Producers Fish Co., "There's no such thing as a sportsman anymore. A sportsman donates his fish to charity. Now they're the hardest bargainers of all."
Word got out fast, and soon the Massachusetts tuna grounds were aswarm with everything short of bathtubs. Out-boards were bobbing around 15 miles from land. Suddenly everyone and his brother wanted to be a tuna fisherman, and almost everyone caught tuna, giant tuna. Ellis Hodgkins, still recuperating from his accident, brought in two one October evening, one of 580, the other of more than 600 pounds, and got 85¢ per pound. And at the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries they were busy reviewing the status of the species.
On Aug. 1 of this year the state imposed a group of regulations on the fishery. Each vessel would be limited to two fish per day, or to a season's catch roughly equivalent to 80% of its 1973 catch. Purse seining was limited to September and October, and to the one boat that had already been active. There would be a seasonal limit of 225 tons from Cape Cod north, and of 1,200 tons in the offshore waters south of the Cape, primarily an area of small fish under 100 pounds. As drastic as the law seemed to fishermen, it was less so than this year's regulations in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where only rod-and-reel fishing is permitted, and a total of only 800 tuna may be caught before the season is closed. Still, it was a controversial move for Massachusetts. The strictly commercial men—the harpooners, seiners and handliners—insisted that there were more tuna than ever, of all sizes, but that the rod-and-reel men could not catch them because the heavy traffic overhead had made the fish smarter, or scarier, or because they had gone deeper, or just plain elsewhere.
Said Herb Randall of Newburyport, 28 years a tuna fisherman, first with rod and reel but more recently a harpooner, "I only spent half my life at sea, and there's Frank Mather sitting in his office, drinking cocktails and reading letters from fishermen in Sicily. Sure Europe's tuna are in tough shape, but why pick on us? We've got a healthy fishery."
And in Rockport, Ellis Hodgkins, listening to his crackling radio at 4 a.m., could not decide whom to believe. "I feel a fellow like Frank Mather knows a hell of a lot more than I do," he said, "but who really knows? There may be 75 boats in one spot not catching a thing, and maybe there's fish 10 miles away, but everyone goes to the same spots, year after year."
Everyone had been fishing in Ellis Hodgkins' front yard for a long time. There had been no better fishing anywhere for really big fish—the last of the big breeders, as Frank Mather calls them—than at Stellwagen Bank and Jeffrey's Ledge, and in Ipswich Bay, where Hodgkins earned his first headline. He was a 98-pound 14-year-old then, with a 14-foot outboard with a five-horse Evinrude. One August afternoon, he bought a 15¢ mackerel and a handline, and while the Coast Guard searched for him he was 10 miles at sea, in mountainous swells, hauling in a 700-pound tuna. At the time Ipswich Bay was one of the world's first great tuna areas, and Ellis Hodgkins grew up with the new fishery.
The bay and the bank and the ledge lie off Cape Ann, a rocky peninsula 30 miles northeast of Boston, extending six miles to sea. The city of Gloucester is on the Cape, and at its eastern tip, six miles away, is Hodgkins' Rockport, where his LuAnn is the only boat rigged for tuna. That explains why no tuna fisherman, not one, is as close to the best tuna fishing left in the U.S. as he, in his little aerie above Rockport Harbor. From his front door Stellwagen is 14 miles south, Jeffrey's 18 miles east and Ipswich three miles north. He is an hour closer to Jeffrey's than all the millionaires docked at Gloucester's Cape Ann Marina, which has fuel available and plenty of mooring space. Rockport has neither, so Hodgkins gases up in Gloucester, and squeezes his LuAnn into Rockport Harbor, a very small pond, where he is a very big fish.
Hodgkins lives above The Candle Shop, at the corner of T Wharf and Mount Pleasant Street. The view is pure Rockport—the sheltered inner harbor beneath, ringed with granite and rock-weed, and bobbing with lobster boats. At its outer edge is Motif No. 1, an old red lobster shack that is supposedly the most painted object in the U.S. Below Hodgkins' porch railing is a sign, advertising his tuna charters, which he has been meaning to remove for several years.
On a recent Saturday morning Hodgkins was wakened at 7 a.m. by a loud knock on the side of his open bedroom doorway, three feet from his nose. "Hey," said one of two large, unshaven men, "what time the fishing boats go out?"
Hodgkins sent the men down the wharf, to where the head boats were loading. Then he got up. It was a beautiful morning, and he was going tuna fishing.
He left his front door half open and on it he placed a large homemade GONE FISHING sign, one of a pile that includes AT WORK, SUSAN CALL ME AT JANET'S, AT CAPE ANN MARINA LOUNGE and SLEEPING COME IN. He walked 25 feet to the edge of T Wharf, boarded LuAnn, maneuvered through the packed inner harbor and past Motif No. 1. Outside the breakwater he headed south toward Stellwagen Bank.
His mate was a 25-year-old friend, Wayne Hale of Boston's Hale Fish Co., who says that Hodgkins is the most generous man in the world. Hale was 18 when Hodgkins, who hardly knew him, heard he liked fishing. "Go take my boat," Hodgkins said, "the keys are in it."
Twelve miles out they passed the area where in late October of 1962 Hodgkins caught five tuna, from 200 to 400 pounds, in one day—single-handed. He was still the Boy Wonder then. He was dating an American Airlines stewardess at the time, and she ran the boat. He had to fight the fish until they tired, jam the rod into its holder and then jump out of the fighting chair to do the gaffing. He believes the feat has never been equaled.
This day, he and Hale finally reached the northern edge of Stellwagen, another Hodgkins landmark. In July of 1959 he was running at 10 knots when a 50-foot finback whale came up under his bow, lifting his 38-foot boat four feet in the air. He told a reporter, "It was the most harrowing experience of my life."
The LuAnn was not the first boat to arrive at Stellwagen; 75 others could be seen. It looked like the rowboat pond in Central Park on July 4, which was fitting, because at least 25 of the boats were from the New York area, up for the summer, owned by wealthy men. Among the old-time New England fishermen there had been occasional mild resentment of these visitors, of the crowded conditions they had helped to create. All the boats, both rod and reel and commercial handline, were chumming with cut fish, dangling their baits 20 to 150 feet down, waiting. But Hodgkins, who is color-blind, cannot see the blue and silver flashes of tuna in deep water very well. Anyway, he prefers to troll. So he sat on his flying bridge, looking backward, outside the crush of boats, waiting for a tuna to crash on one of four skipping strings of squid. And he listened to the radio constantly. Others were busy watching the sonar, marking an occasional tuna, deep beneath the boats. But nobody was catching anything, and the airwaves were full of comedians. "I'm mockin' plenty," said a Gloucester man, mimicking a New York accent.
"I'm maakin too," replied one of the New Yorkers in a Bostonian accent.
"Guess what?" came a voice from another boat.
"I just had a roast beef sandwich."
"How many fish you got on board?" someone asked.
"Three," came the reply. "The skipper, the mate and me."
Some commercial handliners were fishing as many as a dozen lines. The ocean was white in places with chunks of chum, and the chances of a fish hitting any one chunk, with a hook in it, were slim. But five tuna were caught on Stellwagen that day, each more than 800 pounds. They were brought to Gloucester and sold for $1 per pound. Fish of that size are so impressive that it was difficult for anyone, seeing them, to imagine the fishery was in trouble.
That evening Ellis Hodgkins' phone rang and the caller said, "Hey, I'm calling from the booth on T Wharf, about the tuna charters." Hodgkins stepped out onto the porch with the phone and said, "Well, here I am. Why don't you hang up and talk to me?" Then he told the caller about the 75 boats on Stellwagen, and the five fish. The caller said no thanks; Hodgkins knew that he would. He has been discouraging callers for 10 years. He wants his customers to have a much better chance than five in 75. He had eight paying customers this year. They had insisted on going out, but none of them caught a tuna, and there were no repeaters.
For Hodgkins a charter would have meant $200, his current rate, up from the $150 that he had charged the previous three years. Tuna fishing is an expensive proposition. In the last decade the price of fuel has doubled. The day's fishing on Stellwagen had cost him $100. Ninety gallons of fuel had been used. Hodgkins said to a friend, "How many days can you go out without catching a fish to sell, when you're paying $100 to do it? And besides, I'd like to see the tuna preserved."
He seemed to be contradicting himself. The fishing he loves is so expensive now that he would have to be consistently successful to afford it. But that success would contribute to its ruination, and that he seeks to avoid. Ellis Hodgkins' problem seemed to be that of all men. There was nothing he could think of to do to solve it.