Thursday, March 7, 2019

Dory Fishing in the Ipswich Bay

The inshore fleet 1

Cape Ann fishermen go to sea in vessels of the inshore fleet and the offshore fleet. The categories can be distinguished by duration or by distance, into day trips or extended trips. Dories carried individualists out from coastal nooks and coves into the Ipswich Bay. A good catch meant cash from wholesalers who took fish by horse-drawn wagon, or later by truck, to market in Gloucester. Coastal dories served an indigenous lifestyle rather than a commercial fleet.

Howard Bates brings in a nice-sized cod to Lanes Cove 2
Hand-lining uses the simplest gear and technique, a hook on a baited line. By stringing multiple hooks along a trawl line that is anchored at one end and attached to a buoy at the other, a fisherman can multiply his effort. He can row out in a dory to set, check, or reposition several trawls and leave them temptingly overnight.

Overhauling the trawls in a Folly Cove fish house 1
The trawl lines are carefully coiled in a tub, then baited as the hooks go over the rail.

Elbridge and Frank Woodbury, Lanes Cove c. 1914 2
Alternatively, fish can be pursued with diverse types of nets. It's likely that the gear in this picture will be stationed outside the Cove as a fish trap. A series of floats hold the upper edge of the trap, either at the surface or at a desired depth, according to the targeted species and its habits of movement. Weights hold the bottom down. The system depends on fish swimming through an opening, often cone-shaped or baffled, that limits their escape. They're corralled into a 'parlor' until the net is hauled up by the returning fishermen.

Hauling in a gill net with mackerel
Detail of a Martha Harvey photo, Cape Ann Museum
 Another system still used in the Ipswich Bay suspends gill nets in vertical panels from floats. It depends on experienced placement to entrap fish moving through a particular location. The chosen mesh size allows anticipated prey to swim part way through the net. As it tries to withdraw the fish becomes entangled by its operacula plates that protect the gills. Smaller fish pass right through, larger ones swim around from the barrier.

The neighborhood columns in nineteenth century Cape Ann newspapers reveal that fishermen organized their pursuits around seasonal opportunities. Fall migrations of schooling fish drew the most attention from reporters. There were seasonal peaks of cod, hake, dogfish and whitefish. The richest nineteenth-century dramas centered on brief appearances of herring and mackerel.

Large halibut could still be found occasionally. In May of 1894 Jabez Brown landed two within two days, one weighing 120, the other 100 pounds, caught near the Sandy Bay Breakwater. In July, Chris Anderson of Pigeon Cove caught a 225-pounder on his trawl.

Torching at night for spurling or small herring in Ipswich Bay 1
The circus atmosphere of torchlight fishing attracted a Boston Transcript columnist in 1896 to write a vivid account that was reproduced in the local newspaper. 3

   "The scene at night in the midst of the herring fleet when the fish are running strong is one which is indescribably full of life and color. The brilliant glare of the torches in the different boats lights up the whole surface of the water for some distance, and the boats dash rapidly here and there, following the trend of the fish, the figures of the men in them as they toil at the oars or lift the great masses of fish into the boats looking like demons in the fierce flaring light. For half an hour or so on a good night, the catching goes on, and then, all the boats are filled up, the lights one by one are snuffed out, and the race for the market begins.

   "The men will put eighteen or twenty barrels into one of these little craft [dories], loading it down to the water's edge. If it comes up rough, and the men are not quick enough about throwing the fish overboard, there is a good chance that the dory will fill and sink."

Landing catch with drudge-barrow 4
Dories also figured prominently in catching bait fish and clams to sustain the market fishing. Flat-bottomed and drawing little draft, they could navigate the inlets and the mud flats. 

1. Drawings from "History and Methods of the Fisheries," The Fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States, ed. George Brown Goode of the Smithsonian Institution, 1887.
2. "Pictures from the Past," Lanesville Community Center CD, volume 1.
3. "Torching for Herring," Gloucester Daily Times, Nov 26, 1896.
4. Photographs from the 1890s of Eric Hudson, in An Eye for the Coast: The Maritime and Monhegan, Earle G. Shettleworth, and W. H. Bunting.  

Resources and staff of the Cape Ann Museum contributed greatly to this series of essays. Maritime Curator Erik Ronnberg has given perspective to the various nuggets from photographic archives, newspaper accounts, and specialized publications. Library Director Molly Hardy generously provided images from the Martha Harvey Collection.


  1. Its amazing that such a vast fishing industry was built by catching one fish at a time on a hook.

  2. Wonderful article! Should be read by members of the New England Fisheries Management Council, in hopes that they would manage marine fisheries in a way that would lead to restoration of populations of cod, halibut and other commercially valuable marine species that have been severely depleted since the good old days of plentiful fish in the sea.

  3. Great article. I shared the drawing at