“In the Lobster Fishery,
You Have To Be Adaptable”

by Sandra Dinsmore

Walter Day, Vinalhaven lobsterman, herring seiner. Day said that between his late wife, Lois, and himself, they taught two grandsons. His son learned from his grandfather. Six or seven generations of Day’s mother’s family have lived on Vinalhaven. Richard Stern photo

Walter Day has been fishing lobster since he was ten. His grandfather started him with ten traps. He figures it took him about three to five years from when he began until he felt he could support himself by fishing. “You sort of went with your grandfather when you were probably more of a hindrance than you were a help, and he kind of trained you up for your dad,” Day said. “When your grandfather was done with you, you were really able to help and not be underfoot.” At 16, Day became a father himself. Eventually, Day’s father taught that son how to fish. Day is now 66 and that son is 50. (He also has a 35-year-old son, a Harvard Law School graduate who practices law in Augusta.)

In his late teens or early twenties, Day switched to fishing herring, a night fishery. Fifteen years later, he went back to lobstering, but in memory of his years in the herring fishery, he named his 2005 Calvin Beal 36, “Night Moves” because herring come up from the bottom at night to feed on the surface.

Although the lobster fishery is sometimes called a beginning or beginners fishery because many start as children at eight or ten years old, Day said people start in the herring fishery in their late teens or early twenties. This is partly because it’s a night fishery and also because although kids can haul traps after school. With the herring fishery, Day said he used to go seining sometimes at 2:30 or 3 in the afternoon. “You’d try to figure your time,” he said. “If you were going to Mt. Desert Rock, we’d leave at 3 to be there at dark. If we were going to Monhegan—it’s about 20 miles from Vinalhaven—you could leave probably at 5 o’clock to be there at the edge of dark when the herring come up in the summertime.” He said, “It’s funny; sometimes you can’t see them during the day even with the bottom machines. We don’t know why.”

Asked what grandfathers or uncles or other relatives teach kids, Day said, “I don’t know because every year varies.” And then he said something that seemed to sum up the whole lobster fishery: “In the lobster fishery, you have to be adaptable. Where you move your traps depends on the depth of water and the type of bottom.

“After you’ve gone a long time,” the veteran fisherman said, “there’s places—and I can’t tell you why, and nobody else can—but there are certain places in the ocean that at a specific time of year there are always lobsters in the area. Sometimes,” he said, “we refer to them as ‘sweet spots,’ and we don’t know why they show up there every year consistently, but in some places they do, and in some places they don’t show up consistently. Every year, you go by it for a few hauls, and if it’s not happening, you bring [your traps] aboard the boat and hunt for another area. It’s time to move your lobster traps when either the lobsters stop taking the food from traps or there’s not a lot of legal-size lobsters in what comes up in the traps.”

Asked whom he has taught, Day replied that between his late wife, Lois, and himself, they taught two grandsons. His son learned from his grandfather. As far as teaching lobstering goes, there seems to be a jump in generations.

Although Day’s grandfather taught Day originally and showed him where to drop his traps, when Day started fishing on his own, he said he figured out where to place his traps by experimenting. Although he keeps track of where he’s moved his traps on his computer, he said he also keeps track on paper.

Until September when he bought a quarter acre dock for his family’s use, Day had rented the dock since 1987. Before that, like many of Vinalhaven’s lobstermen, he had used the town parking lot to truck his traps to his boat daily. He said this caused congestion. He called his recent purchase, “kind of like the last place in the harbor to be able to buy.” Day now fishes with his son-in-law and his late wife’s grandson. His son, a nephew, and three other family members also use his dock. Day’s lobster fishing season runs from April until just before Thanksgiving, and of that he said, “At 66, I still feel they pay me for having a good time.”

Vinalhaven has 185 licensed lobster fishermen. The waters around the island are so productive that Vinalhaven is generally referred to as Maine’s lobster pound. Despite this, according to Day, the amount of people fishing the island’s waters for lobster has remained the same as the population.

Although Vinalhaven has only 1200 winter residents, fishing is far from the only way to make a living. Quarrying for black and red granite started in the 1800s and quickly swelled the population to 2500. Vinalhaven became known for making granite horse troughs, and Day said some Vinalhaven horse troughs were shipped as far as California. In addition some of the granite was so fine-grained it was used for the bases of monuments. The island still boasts several handsome granite horse troughs and various other granite objects.

Six or seven generations of Day’s mother’s family—Areys and Webbs—have lived on Vinalhaven. Some of Day’s forebears fished, others farmed. A great-grandfather farmed and was a caretaker. One forebear earned his living stoning up dug wells. Another built skiffs for summer people. Day said of the skiff builder, “He was capable of doing anything, but hardest of all was getting him to go to work.”

Day’s father, who was born in 1933, moved to the island from Monhegan, where his grandfather had been the lighthouse keeper. Day’s paternal grandfather was in the Light-keeping Service prior to World War II, but because the Coast Guard was then taking over the Light-keeping Service, his grandfather switched from that to the Coast Guard. Because the Monhegan public school only went to eighth grade and because Day’s mother was from Vinalhaven, Day said his father came to Vinalhaven for his freshmen year of high school, met Day’s mother at school, and never left.

Living on an island comes with responsibilities. Day has served on the Island Community Medical Center board of directors for 13 years, the Vinalhaven Lobster Co-operative board for a total of at least six years, and the Down East Lobstermen’s Association board for nine or ten years. He has passed these responsibilities on to his family. His eldest son has served two terms as a Vinalhaven selectman and is also on the Lobster Co-op’s board of directors.