Today we have a guest blogger from Southern Ohio on North Coast Muse. My brother had just returned from a cod fishing excursion when we showed up at Mom and Dad’s house. He showed me this article and I begged him to let me publish it on my blog. I hope you enjoy his adventure story!
One man’s quest for a fish that has significantly impacted the history of Europe and North America.
By Jerry C. Turner
Somewhere in the Ohio Valley Watershed….
So this story begins. I want to record this trip. People are always asking me what I am doing, planning or have done. This should take care of that . This story begins in 2006. I saw an advertisement in the Ohio Outdoors Magazine, a hunting and fish magazine pertaining mainly to Ohio. The advertisement offered one the chance to catch big Cod and other fish off the coast of Massachusetts .
This peaked my interest. I read Mark Kurlansky’s book Cod a few years ago. According to Mr. Kurlansky the days of catching the big Cod were over. Yet , these men stated they could help anyone catch large numbers of big Codfish. I went to “bigfishcharters.com “ on the internet. This was the website on the advertisement. It verified the good news. The liberal publishing media had got it wrong again. Big Cod had not gone the way of the buffalo and passenger pigeon. “Codlandia” still existed.
That was when the big idea for this “Cod safari “ was formed. I started to save both money and vacation time for the trip. At the same time I started to fish again on home waters. This was an adventure in and of itself. I honed old fishing skills that I haven’t used in years. I fished places I have not fished in decades. A lot of the equipment I was retraining to fish with I did not have to purchase. Some equipment I had purchased on impulse years ago and never used. Some other stuff I found and used was purchased by my ancestors. I even found a Zebco model 404 Big Bee spinning reel still in it’s original box with a printed $7.95 price on it and the red plastic ring tied to the line. I did not use this reel – it is still in it’s box yet this old equipment brought back a flood of memories and brought me some comfort during this “Codquest”.
With me on this “Cod Safari” were five other adventure loving gentlemen. At first I planned for this to be a solo trip. The social circle I’m in prefer vacation destinations like Gatlinburg and prefer cruise ships to fishing boats. Which is okay , a persons vacation belongs to them. Fishing for big Codfish where the Pilgrims , Vikings and Rudyard Kipling’s Captain’s Courageous characters fished is not for everyone. Yet, as I was talking about the trip to some guys I rabbit hunt with they wanted in on the action. While I was not directly related to any of the these men, I had hunted with four out of the five men. So there was a bond of understanding and trust between us . In the early days of America before the Revolutionary War groups of men would form hunting groups and venture into the wilderness areas to hunt Deer and Buffalo. These men were know as “long hunters” and they worked together to have a successful hunt. To me, this is similar to this group . Only we came together to have a successful “fish”. Any group of men who drive 2,000 miles from Southwest Ohio to Marshfield, Massachusetts to fish deserve the name “Longfishers”.
“The dream is always in the mind, the realization of it is in the hands.” Louis Lamour….
Thus it begins on August the 8th 2007 at 4:00 a.m. The Longfishers and I came to a charter boat named the Bigfish III . First we met our boat “mate” Courtney a young women less than 5 and a half feet tall but tough as they come. Then we had our first meeting with our Charter Captain Tom Dispersia. He is very capable, seasoned and knows where to find the “Big Cod“. After some minor boat prep time Cpt. Tom fired up the “Big Fish III” and we motored out of Green harbor into the Atlantic Ocean headed for the great “Stellwagen Bank”. Now an oceanic “Bank” is just that. It is an underwater rising of land or mound beneath the surface of the ocean . The Stellwagen Bank is huge and it is a great place to find big Codfish. Similar to the Ohio Valley for Whitetail Deer. Speaking of deer, that was the topic of conversation between the longfishers and Courtney. I guess deer and deer hunting is the common language among rural folk in North America. ( Come to think of it, deer jerky from a deer one the longfishers harvested in the fall was one of our snacks on this trip. ) By the time we have reached our fishing area it was light. It was an overcast morning. The waves were only one to two feet . Less than Lake Erie in fact. After some brief instruction on how to fish from Captain Tom we started to fish for Cod. Our method of fishing was to jig off the bottom with a soft rubber plastic fish which looked similar to a four to six inch creek chub and a hook the size of one you would use for huge Catfish. The weight used on this rig was 15 pounds and was about 12 inches long. Finally the “bottom” that were bouncing this rig on was 180 to 200 ft down (half the length of a football field). If you have not figured it out yet , this made for some very physically demanding fishing. Now my first big Cod catch was not a instant event. The other longfishers had done well. I had caught some Cod that morning but they were all too small. Actually, they were the size of a 2 to 4 lb. bass but that was too small for Cod. Courtney the mate would say “That’s a baby throw him back.”
Suddenly it happened!! It felt as if I had hooked on to a living squirming concrete block. My heavy rod bent in a u-shape and it stayed bent! I started to reel in slowly. Always keeping tension on the rod. The fish fought against me. Although the “fish” on the other end of the line felt like some kid’s 4-H hog. “Gaddus Morhua “ I thought. “I’m not going to lose you”. As I slowly “horsed “ the fish to the surface, I realized I was now part of a long historical/cultural chain. I thought of the Icelandic Viking doing this 1,000 years ago. I thought of the Medieval peasant catching Cod during times of plague and famine. I thought of the Pilgrim catching Cod for a fall harvest feast that would be later known as Thanksgiving. I, like them was now part of this Cod harvest brotherhood.
Finally a long slab of white appeared from the murky depths of the water. Courtney the mate moved out to gaff the fish into the boat. This was a keeper . A 2 ft. plus Codfish with eyes the size of quarters. Later after congratulations I did exactly what the Viking, the Medieval peasant and the Pilgrim would do. I started fishing for another big “Caawwd”.
I caught two other big Codfish and was working on my third. I wanted to be a “Codfish” ace before the trip was complete. Unfortunately the wind picked up to 25 miles per hour and the waves went to 5 to 8 feet. Cpt. Tom informed us that the charter time was complete and it was time to head back to Green Harbor Marina. We agreed to this decision, by this time we were physically spent and fishing on adrenalin, Ohio deer jerky, and bagel/brownie energy. On the return trip to Green Harbor Captain Tom did not spare his diesel fuel. The “Big Fish III” jumped the waves like a deer leaping fences. Tired, happy, and riding the waves I leaned over to another Longfisher and said “This sure beats a trip to Gatlinburg”.
Author’s Note: On 26th May 2010 the longfishers returned to the “Stellwagon Bank”. While the bite was a little light this time, I have 39 pounds of Cod and Pollack fillets in the freezer.
Editor’s Note: Continue on to read another interesting article by Jerry on the history of Cod fishing
“How the Cod may have saved your life….”
by Jerry C. Turner, guest blogger
Who knows how many of our ancestors have survived by eating Codfish.
Gadus Morhua is the Latin name for Cod and is the target fish for this adventure. Countless numbers were probably consumed by our family trees. After all, what is left to eat when all your crops have been destroyed by warfare or have failed due to bad weather conditions? There was a famine in Europe brought on by heavy rain that lasted for 3 years (1315-1316) . This was the start of a time of global cooling known as the “Little Ice Age” when it was cooler than it is today. Or what do you eat when it is the law to eat fish for so many meals a month / week? Well, air-dried Cod has a very long shelf life . No refrigeration needed. Some say air dried Codfish looks like a piece of firewood.
To my new world family tree Codfish was known as Saltfish. The Saltfish were stored in wooden kegs and were sold in old country crossroad stores even into the 1970s. I think I remember my parents eating them once with grits. They kept for a long time in those kegs.
The discovery and exploration of North America is linked to fishing for big Cod. The Basques of Spain and the Vikings of Iceland were charter members of the “slay the Cod” club. As early as 1000 A.D. ( or about the time of the Battle of Hastings) the Basques were marketing Cod to Europe. However , the staple European fish at that time was the Herring (90%). Later in the Medieval Ages the Icelandic Viking Cod catch was controlled by a group known as the Hanseatic League. Now the Hanseatic league was a group of Northern European merchants formed to promote trade and curtail outlaws and pirates. For many years this league was the “good guys”. They traded, improved port facilities and fought “bad guys”. They became successful and expanded the league into many cities including London and Venice. Sadly, over time these good guys became the “bad guys”. They formed a fish cartel and tightly controlled the North Sea Herring and Cod fishing.
Now here is something you may not know – all Cartels are destined to be broken by some means or somebody (yes, including OPEC). In this case the Cartel breakers were two English Bristol Merchants John Jay and Thomas Croft. The Hanseatic League in 1475 (twelve years before the Columbus Discovery) stopped the Bristol Merchants from purchasing Cod from Iceland. In response to this Jay and Croft managed to outfit one ship in 1480 to look for a island named HY-BRASIL where there was great Cod fishing. Nothing is recorded about the success of this voyage. However, after this ship returned another two ships were sent out. Listed on the outgoing cargo inventory was a large amount of salt. This was odd as salt was an import item to the port of Bristol. Salt was not mined in the Bristol area. Despite no recorded success of these voyages dried and salted Cod was sold in Bristol in mass quantities. In fact so much Cod was marketed in Bristol that in 1490 when the Hanseatic League wanted to lift the Codfish embargo against Bristol, Jay and Croft ignored the offer. Someone was catching “Big Cod “ somewhere.
The explorer John Cabot, a peer of Christopher Columbus passed thru the secret Cod fishing ground. John Cabot’s voyage of exploration was bankrolled by King Henry the Seventh. The official reason was spices and a quick way to Asia. Yet Henry the Seventh was one sharp King and he may have been legitimizing a tax. It seemed the Bristol merchants had cried for tax relief due to poor trading some of which they blamed on the Hanseatic League’s Cod embargo. The King was sympathetic to the Bristol Merchants plight and lifted the tax. Yet Henry also smelled a rat. On a royal visit to cheer up the low spirits of the impoverished Bristol merchants, King Henry noticed the expensive dresses of the wives of the merchants of Bristol. Due to the War of the Roses, Henry the Seventh spent most of his life in France and he had the fashion sense to know the cost of the latest dresses. Upon his return to London he reinstated the tax. While John Cabot was not successful in finding a quick route to the spices and silks of Asia, Cabot did report to King Henry a sea so full of Codfish that there would be no reason to import Cod from Iceland.
The location of the secret Cod fishing spot was known once and for all when French explorer Jacques Cartier in 1532 sailed to Canada. While he was claiming Canada and the St Lawrence River for France he was being watched by what he estimated was 1,000 Basque fishing vessels fishing for Cod.
Someone that cashed in from the massive number of Cod off the coast of New England was Captain John Smith. In 1614 (years after Jamestown and Pocohantas) , Smith was hired to find that ever elusive passage to China and the Spice Islands. While he was off in a Pinnace (a small sailboat) taking soundings and mapping rivers he kept the sailors on the mother ship occupied with Cod, Haddock and Pollack fishing. Later it would be recorded by the Pilgrims that John sold 60,000 Cod caught on this voyage. One other item of historical note – John Smith applied for the military advisor position to the Pilgrims. For reasons not given they passed on his resume and hired an individual named Miles Standish. This later turned out to be the correct decision. For on John Smith’s last exploration voyage fish were not the only thing in the cargo hold brought back for sale. Twenty-seven Native Americans were sold into slavery when Smith’s ship reached the port of Malaga in Spain. There is credible evidence that one of the Native American’s may have had the name of “Squanto”. This Squanto would later become the local survival expert to starving Pilgrims in the New World. His first day with the Pilgrims he gathered enough freshwater eels to feed the whole colony of Virginia. Due to death by disease the Plymouth colony was now down to 52 members from it’s original 102. Squanto’s skills were badly needed. Later Squanto would teach the Pilgrims what plants to eat and most importantly how to grow Indian corn using fish (including Cod waste ) as fertilizer. One can honestly say that Squanto devoted his life to the Pilgrims survival. Would he have done so if Captain John Smith, one of his enslavers, was one the Pilgrim leaders? Maybe or maybe not.
Now if I sound like the History Channel, good!! The History Channel rocks!!! It also means you are not bored.