THREE A.M. ON A CAPE COD PIER is a fine time and place if you happen to be a snoozing seagull, some kid's forgotten pail of crabs, or selected higher forms of life such as Peter Taylor and Jeremiah Perry of the Harwichport fishing boat Seahound, the kind of people whose skill and fortitude may yet save New England's commercial fishery -- not to mention its fish.
Six a.m., 30 miles southeast of Nantucket Island, is the start of Taylor's and Perry's reward on this August day, for saying goodnight at prime time, waking at a cruel hour, slinking down the stairs, and bouncing through some of the scariest shoal water on the planet. Their trip has ended at dawn, with the sun just risen over a vast ocean wilderness, but the new day is locked in what Taylor calls "black fog." The air is a briny brew, so richly aromatic that a newcomer's nostrils dilate with each breath.
There are many rewards in Taylor's and Perry's days at sea. Limited visibility is of no concern to them. Twenty to 40 fathoms beneath their shoes (120 to 240 feet) are the hills and valleys of the Great South Channel. No person has ever seen them, but now, sitting in his cabin, Seahound moving slowly along, Taylor is studying their ghostly contours on the screen of a sounding machine, and scribbling LORAN (Long Range Navigation) numbers in a notebook. Perry waits alertly at Seahound's stern, holding a 14-foot aluminum pole called a flag. Foam cylinders gird its midsection, for vertical flotation. An aluminum radar receiver is mounted at its upper end. Attached to its lower end are 450 feet of anchor line and a 35-pound anchor. Suddenly, Taylor glances sternward and nods his head. Perry throws the flag overboard and the anchor line goes streaming away, but the anchor remains in the boat; Taylor is searching his screen for the right place to drop it.
Taylor is captain and owner of Seahound, Perry is his mate, and both are hook-and-line fishermen. There are no nets aboard their boat, no trawling gear. Tied to that anchor are 1,500 feet of 88-gauge woven-nylon line, coiled neatly in a tub at the transom. Attached to the line, at five-foot intervals, are 12- to- 15-inch leaders, or gangions, each terminating with a needle-sharp, carbon-steel hook baited with a large oval of squid. There are 300 baited hooks in the tub, and beside it is another tub, with the same contents, and then another tub. The lines from all three tubs have been tied together by Perry with state-of-the-art becket knots, making up a set -- 4,500 feet of line and 900 baited hooks. Seahound is a 40-foot, Down East-style craft, and elsewhere on its capacious deck are a dozen more tubs -- four more sets. There are 22,500 feet of line aboard (4 1/4 miles worth), and 4,500 baited hooks, five sets ready for this day's fishing.
Where the lines of the three tubs join, Perry has clipped five-pound window-sash weights. Together with the anchors, the weights will keep the baits on the bottom -- where the fish are.
Seahound is still moving purposefully along, the flag is bobbing behind the boat, and Taylor remains at his screen. Thirty miles off Nantucket, high above a bottom as mysterious as the moon, he's saying, "I'm looking for spots down there the size of my dining room: rock piles, and changes in bottom terrain, places where fish congregate. I should know where they are; I've been doing this for nearly 30 years, but the fishing isn't what it was. It's our contention that much of the bottom habitat has been ruined by scallopers and trawlers. We believe that unless it's allowed to repair itself we'll never have another good year class of codfish."
The tide runs north and south where Taylor fishes in the Great South Channel, changing direction every six hours. The fish he's after won't bite when it's running hard, so the lines are set on slack tides. "Our fishing is a race against the tide," Taylor is explaining. "We want the lines to go down as straight as possible. Otherwise, they could hang up on rocks." Suddenly -- many things...