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June 1, 2005

Getting an edge - Young lobstermen compete, strive and thrive in the fishery

by Sandra Dinsmore

The 2004 graduates of the Marine Technology program at Deer Isle-Stonington High School have been fishing full time for the past season, and the students from the class that will graduate this month fished all last summer and weekends till the end of the season. They are now putting their traps overboard for the 2005 season.

They began fishing with relatives from the time they were old enough to bait pockets, they've worked hard for a year, and by now, these successful young businessmen all own late model pick-up trucks and their own boats. In most cases the boats are not their first.

Dinner table conversation at the houses of several of these young lobstermen who have fishermen fathers can run from serious and respectful to downright funny.

Ever since Matthew Shepard started fishing full time in summer, he and his father, lobsterman Mike Shepard, have made a game over who gets to sit in the big, comfortable chair when they come in from fishing. And since Matt's been fishing full time all year, the playful competition has taken on new meaning.

Suzy Shepard, Mike's wife and Matthew and Patrick's mother, said, "Whoever gets the most poundage gets the big chair. It's funny. They won't tell each other the poundage, so then they go scrounging around the desk for each other's daily slips. One of them says, 'You got X pounds, but I got X more, so get out of my chair.'"

Suzy said Matt so wanted to beat his father's poundage that he kept his traps overboard till after January of this year, just so he could start out X number of pounds ahead of his father, then teased him about it all winter.

"People would pay to watch this ping-pong match go back and forth at my table," she said of their dinner conversations. "I could sell tickets."

Mike and Matt's seats face the water, she said, and Mike will say, "It's going to blow tomorrow. You ought to stay home." (He's not going to go out. He wants Matthew to stay home and keep him company.)

Matthew replies, "I don't think it's going to blow that hard; I'm going out."

Mike says, "Well, I think you should wait for a better day."

Matt says, "Well, that will mess me all up." (He hauls in a certain order. He wants the set-over to be a certain number of days.)

That's the kind of back-and-forth. But behind all the banter, a lot of respect flows in either direction.

Respect is the name of the game in the Weed house, according to Linda Weed, wife of lobsterman Gerald Weed and mother of Ben.

"Ben is very much follower of what his father does," she said. "They talk very candidly about locations. Ben listens very intently to what his father says to him and they compare the tally at the end of the day. Other than that, Ben is very much what I would consider a learner. He follows his father's advice and suggestions."

Ben has quite the sense of humor, but his mother says, "He's very serious around his dad. Jerry definitely brings out the more mature side to him, the more serious side."

Most fishermen are very private about what they do to get an edge and are very jealous of the success of other fishermen. It can be nasty. But because there are so few students from the classes of 2004 and 2005 and because they've grown up together and worked together for the common good, they're a tight bunch. Any competition is just good-natured rivalry, mostly about which area, the Eastern Bay or the Western Bay, produces better landings.

The Shepard and the Weed families vacationed together last year. The Weeds fish in the Eastern Bay and the Shepards, in the Western Bay. Linda Weed said, "Our dinner-table conversation was very ping-pongish in regard to - all this back-and-forth about which bay was better.

"There's a tremendous amount of respect between, I think, [father and son], but especially from Ben to Jerry," she continued. "I would say his father is the best teacher Ben ever had. I'm relatively sure Ben would say the same thing. Certainly, Tom Duym was a Marine Trades teacher and Dennis Saindon was a shop teacher at Deer Isle-Stonington High School.

Like Suzy Shepard, Shari Ciomei has three fishermen at her dinner table: husband, Butch; older son Seth, 20, and younger son Lance, a senior at Deer Isle-Stonington High School.

She said her husband always took the boys in the boat with they were younger, and they learned a lot from him, but like Matt Shepard, Seth and Lance put their traps where they want to. "Although they're independent about where they put their traps," she said, "they take their father's advice on other aspects of the fishing industry."

On a rainy Sunday in early May, Matthew Shepard, Ben Weed and Richard Robinson, from the class of 2004, and Scott Blackmore and Lance Ciomei, from the class of 2005, met in Ben Weed's workshop in Deer Isle to compare notes on what kind of gear and bait they use.

Matt Shepard, 19, who started fishing at age seven, drives a 2003 Dodge Ram. At age 19, he's on his third boat. His parents bought him and his brother their first boat, a 21-foot Privateer outboard. He bought his own 20-foot Mitchell Cove powerboat at age 16, and now fishes from a 29-foot Osmond Beal.

He uses yellow vinyl-covered oversize four-foot traps and wraps rag rope around the edge that could damage the boat. He said, "I figure if it saves a scratch on the side of my boat, it's worth it."

He hangs his bait off the cleat of the trap's first bridge, right in front of the "kitchen." Depending on the time of year, he'll use mackerel, pollock heads, brim, hake heads, haddock racks, and cowhide, but mostly he uses herring.

Ben Weed, 19, started fishing as a fifth grader. He drives a 2004 Chevy extended cab truck, and is on his third boat. His first was a 12-foot skiff. He graduated to a 22-foot outboard, and now works out of a 30-foot SouthShore with his 53 year-old sternman, Bobby Barter.

He fishes both 42-inch and 4-foot yellow vinyl-covered wire traps with 9-inch pockets, which he hangs "kind of in the middle between the kitchen and parlor." He uses herring for bait, which he mixes with hard bait at certain times of the year and said of the types of bait, traps, and method of placing the bait, "It's all a guessing game."

Richard Robinson, 19, drives a 2001 Dodge Ram and also has a 1992 F-350 Ford. He started fishing at ten. He works in the back of Matt Shepard's boat during the week while Matt's younger brother Patrick, an eleventh-grader, attends school. On weekends, Patrick takes over as his brother's sternman and Richard fishes from his own boat using 4-foot purple vinyl-coated wire traps, He doesn't wrap his traps. He hangs his bait from the bridge and uses herring, cowhide and redfish for bait. He has had two boats: he started with a 14-foot outboard and now has a 34-foot Arno Day.

Lance Ciomei, 18, drives a 2002 Chevy heavy duty 2500 pickup. He started fishing with his father at five or six. His fishes white vinyl-covered 54 inch-long "oversize four-footers" wrapped with orange-and-green poly rope to keep the trap from chafing the boat. He said, "I just want to try them. I have five to try. They're brand new." He uses 12-inch bait pockets filled with some hard bait mixed in with the herring. Lance is on his second boat, a 32-foot Mitchell Cove, a step up from his first, a 22-foot Webbers Cove. His sternman is 18 year-old Mac Hardy.

Scott Blackmore, 18, who's been fishing since he was ten, drives a 2005 Chevy Colorado crew cab. He fishes oversize 3-foot white vinyl-covered traps. He wraps the edge that might scratch the boat and hangs his bait right in the middle of the bridge. He uses mostly herring till September. He said, "It gets mixed with hard bait once the wind starts to pick up." He's had two boats: a 16-foot outboard, and for the last three years, an 18-foot outboard. Scott, who has a sister working in the back of the boat, said, "I don't want to set out while I'm in school. It's a lot of work, so I'll wait till after graduation."

There has been jealousy of the success of these hard-working young men. But nobody gave them those trucks and boats. They earned them through their intelligence, diligence, and hard work.

click to enlargeLance Ciomei
Lance Ciomei Sandra Dinsmore

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