Summer in St. Jacques has its rituals like most communities. Children seek out shallow pools of warm water in the Barachoix within which to swim, socialize, and cavort in ways childhood naivety and freedom allows. Lawnmowers break out of their winter shelters and drag their owners through fields of grass that a few generations ago never reached such heights. Grazing sheep and an occasional cow or goat worked together to maintain manicured lawns, albeit a little more fragrant than most noses are now accustomed to. Hopscotch patterns appear on the streets in many of the same locations they appeared prior to their paving; then scratched in the gravel with a sturdy stick. Boat owners spend more leisure time on the expansive harbour though the familiar yellow flat-bottomed dories have all disappeared. The sound of a one stroke Acadia engine echoing off the hillsides in early morning is experienced now only in dreams of the oldest citizens.
In recent years another ritual has emerged. Since the moratorium on the cod fishery non-fishing residents have little access to fresh fish until July when the recreational fishery comes around. At one point the limited privilege to venture out onto Fortune Bay in pursuit of cod was called the ‘food fishery’ and for some inexplicable reason that moniker has stuck. Put simply, if a family were to rely on the meagre catches of cod given the severe restrictions enforced by the Canadian government that family would soon die from starvation. That being said, when the opportunity to legally set out upon the Bay arrives, its significance cannot be underestimated. When the southerly winds permit there is little in summer life in St. Jacques more precious or more grounding than to slip away from the wharf and set a course for the fishing grounds.
Historically the best locations for catching cod on a handline lie east of St. Jacques Island. And not just anywhere east of the island. The water is devil-deep out there so knowing the marks is critical to success. ‘Knowing the marks’ is knowing where the shoals are located for it is on these shoals the cod congregate. Marks are triangulated by locations on the shoreline. For example, if you keep Boxey Point open between the two sections of the Island, Eastern Point aligned with ‘the scrape’ on the western side of St. Jacques Harbour and Sandy Point on the Island touching a particular promontory at the entrance to the Harbour you will locate yourself on St. Jacques Shoal where the most shallow area is approximately two hundred feet deep.
Cut your motor, lower the handline with its single hook over the side and then saw away until the line suddenly becomes taut and the excitement begins. It’s not that cod are fierce fighting fish when on the hook. Unlike a salmon if you attempt to play the fish in all likelihood you will lose it. A codfish is more content to swim in the direction it is being pulled. Therefore hauling the line in hand-over-hand, permitting it to gather on the bottom of the boat around ones feet, must be carried out with a consistent pattern else it come off the hook. And when it does come off the hook during its ill-fated journey to the surface it is quite evident for all resistance disappears and a feeling of disappointment travels from the line to one’s heart. Like every form of fishing it is always the biggest ones which get away.
The exhilaration of hauling back two hundred feet of line, salty water splashing against pant legs culminates when the blackish water is broken by the sudden appearance of a whitish flicker about twenty feet down. Within a few seconds the prize is hoisted out of the water, held momentarily to admire, then taken off the hook and stored away out of the sunlight. Each person in the boat may catch five each up to a limit of fifteen per boat per day that the season is open. It isn’t the quantity or even the quality of the catch that resonates with this newly-acquired summer ritual. That has more to do with a line that runs through time rather than the one which runs to the bottom.
As a child I frequently accompanied my grandfather to this shoal and another commonly called the ‘Terfer’ Shoal or in some articulation, the ‘Derfer’ Shoal. Either way you say it, the name derives from “Thoroughfare” Shoal which is located between the Island and the land, a body of water approximately a kilometer wide. Most of the time my task was to ‘keep up’ which meant putting oars in the water, keeping the dory headed into the wind and rowing to maintain your position over the shoal. If one didn’t ‘keep up’ good enough the dory would drift off the shoal into deeper water where fewer cod would be found. There were also those occasions when he handed me the jigger while he broke out his thermos and lunch box for a mid-morning snack usually consisting of home-made bread lathered with butter and molasses accompanied by raisin tea buns. My first taste of strong tea was on St. Jacques Shoal served across the engine house with the smell of fish all around. It was a special day when in the middle of the ‘mug-up’ my jigger line nearly jumped out of my hand as a determined codfish bit firmly on the feathered bait.
To this day the act of lowering a line over the side brings to mind those experiences and also provokes thoughts of those generations of men and women who toiled from before dawn to dusk repeatedly hauling one-fish-at-a-time over the gunnels in a subsistence way of life.
Days before John Cabot purportedly lowered baskets over the side of his vessel to haul up cod in abundance Indigenous peoples knew of their value as did the Basque fishermen who hailed from across the Atlantic. In the wake of Cabot, Northern Europeans set their sights on this valuable commodity which led to sporadic settlement patterns, particularly along the south coast and Fortune Bay. We know that when Captain James Cook charted Fortune Bay in 1765 there were families living in St. Jacques. After that the population ebbed and flowed until the early 1800’s when the community took on fervent growth. This was when codfish became a bigger commercial commodity led by merchants and buyers from other countries. Still, fishermen toiled to haul these fish into their small boats and process their catch onshore.
For my grandfather and generations before him their sole method of catching fish was a line with a single weighted hook at the end threaded through a piece of herring, a capelin or whatever ‘bait fish’ was in season to attract the cod as the line was pulled up and let down within a few feet of the ocean bottom. He also used a lead jigger with opposing hooks embedded in it known to us as a ‘stunner’. These were the staple tools for many open-boat fishermen. Every fishing stage held a two-sided mould shaped like a small fish into which molten lead was poured to set the hooks. Once cooled the mould was opened, the rough edged filed and readied for use. As a child it was magical to observe the process. Once poured the anticipation in waiting for cooling before seeing the final form was an exciting event in days of a child; perhaps my first exposure to the manufacturing process.
Some of these fishermen also used nets, trawls and seines at various times of the year. Prior to mechanical assisted hauling these too were hauled over the ‘gunnels’ to harvest their catch. Whatever means they used required attendance upon the sea in open boats which for generations were propelled by either rowing or sailing.
Standing, feet braced, and sawing back and forth on the line brings on muscle memories, cultural memories and familial memories of men in early mornings their faces, weathered by sun and salt, gazing at the horizon or friends in another dory not far away. The act demands resonance with these people who populated our town and cemetery. It calls forth their stalwart determination to succeed, their stubbornness against the odds of unforgiving seas and the physical challenges they must have faced as they plied their chosen trade through all seasons. One can imagine wary and weary eyes monitoring the accumulation of fish in their dories, assessing the winds, the tides and the time required to reach shore for all factors came to bear with nothing more than human strength to propel them homeward.
Though not something to be dwelling on when out in the middle of Fortune Bay in an open boat, those who slipped below the waves never to be heard from again also come to mind. Dories loaded too low in the water were constantly in danger of being swamped when a single mistake or a rogue wave came over the side. Moving about in a dory in heavy seas wearing cumbersome oilskins walking on wet slick surfaces often proffered the same outcome. Then there is the fog, the wall of greyness which silently creeps in over the bay and eliminates visual referents. Prior to the late nineteen twenties there was no foghorn on St. Jacques Island to guide them safely back to harbour. A compass and experience then became the tools for survival and sometimes they weren’t enough.
It would be foolhardy to suggest the experience now of hand lining for cod has significant resemblance to that of forbearers. Vessel construction has changed, seaworthiness has improved, navigation equipment such a GPS is the norm, cell phones keep us in touch, opportunities to catch cod are limited by governments, and catch limits are imposed per person, per boat, per day. Those of us not full-time fishermen of St. Jacques engage in the practice recreationally thereby availing of reasonable hours to fish. Our experiences are not driven by economic necessity thus there is no necessity to brave adverse conditions to fish.
Yet, the experience holds a transfixing power, an echo across time. There are feelings beyond words which enter one’s mind and body on such occasions. Are they spiritual; are they sentiment; are they poetic? Are they all of these? I just know they are; and for a few weeks each summer I can feel the ocean rolling beneath my feet, smell the pungency of my ocean, lick salt spray from my lips, reflect and feel as one with my surroundings as I saw the line back and forth across the gunwale.