FEATURE ARTICLES

STORIES FROM THE WHEELHOUSE OF
CAPTAIN JOHN BOGAN – f/v SHAMROCK
- PART II - ‘THE BEST FISHERMEN’ & ‘CAPTAIN SIX’


“THE BEST FISHERMAN”

Some times getting the title just right is harder than the story itself. I probably should add, “In My Opinion,” but this is about someone I knew personally and witnessed him and his fishing prowess in action. I think the only personal trait I had in common with Nelson Hansen was we both got gray or white hair at an early age. Most do not recognize Nelson as a first name. Everyone called him Whitey.

He worked on boats in Sheepshead Bay, N.Y. before coming to the shore. Whitey had an uncanny knack for catching any kind of saltwater fish. Whitey at times made a living selling the fish he caught.

Whitey would rather fish than mate. He was not the most pleasant person or did he ever go to great lengths to make a newcomer feel at home. Even years later after Whitey had stopped drinking his surly disposition was just below the flow of normal conversation.

If you were a fellow boatman, a thing called pride kept you from not asking how he caught so many fish, what rig he had used, and what bait had the best results. The guys only hoped he volunteered some free information. Whitey seldom talked specifically about what he liked best. He would let those around him say what they preferred to use. And on occasion he would say, “Yeah, that works” or give a simple nod.

I spotted Whitey’s van one fall day parked by the inlet in Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey. He had been there for only a few minutes and had four fat flounder in his bucket. There may have been an additional 10 people fishing from the bulkhead. It appeared there was little or no action going on for them. Whitey was fishing two rods and he did take a couple minutes to chat with me. He mentioned that the fish were going to be biting like mad dogs real soon and they would bite for the next hour. I knew nothing about tides or when was the best time to catch fish. The thing is, Whitey knew.

Out of the 10 people fishing that day, the closest to Whitey was about 30’ away. I sat in awe as Whitey began to catch fish seemingly at will. He would take a fish off, bait his hooks, and then cast his line out. Then he would pick the other rod up, twitch the rod tip a couple of times and immediately hook up.

In the entire time I sat there I saw maybe two other fish caught by the 10 anglers. What I did see gave me an inner laugh. They as a group played leap frog and now all were fishing from Whitey’s section of bulkhead. Their move let them catch a few fish, but the fellow closest to Whitey was catching nothing. He tried to emulate everything Whitey did, without getting the desired result. He tried to engage Whitey in conversation. Whitey’s only reply was, “I got another one.”

Whitey knew when the fish were going to bite, and when the action had started to peter out he started to pack his gear to go. It was then he turned to face the fellow nearest and asked, “Do you want to buy this bucket of fish for twenty dollars?” The man paid the money gladly. He also knew when he got home of all the tall tales he was going to tell.

Whitey worked for Capt. Doug Mc Intosh on the Ideal I for a number of years. Capt. Doug specialized in fluke or summer flounder fishing. When good crowds were on board, Whitey could not fish. His job was to cut bait, untangle lines, net fish, and on the way to the dock from the fishing grounds, fillet fish. A mate’s pay was not that good, but if fishing was decent, the tips could be great.

Whitey worked for my dad, but I honestly can’t recall him ever working on dad’s “Shamrock.” A story dad often told should give an insight into how good a fisherman Whitey was. Dad was also engaged in the all day fluke fishing trade. They had been angling offshore of Long Branch and Elberon, New Jersey. The bottom there was rocky, and if you stayed on the edge of the rocks often you caught some bigger fluke known as ‘doormats.’

They had a successful day landing several hefty fish. The heaviest topped the scales at an even 10lbs. The wind had changed directions and had increased. Fishing the rocks now was out of the question as too many rigs would be lost.

It was a long ride home, so the skippers often worked their way back down the beach to break up the ride. The fishing locally was good, but there were few rock patches. Dad’s last stop of the day was off the Monmouth Hotel, offshore of Spring Lake, New Jersey. Whitey asked dad if it would be okay if he dropped a line in. Dad had 15 anglers on board and knew Whitey could handle his mate duties and fish.

Dad told Whitey to keep an eye out as he was going below into the engine room. This was something dad always did when he knew it was the last stop of the day. It was a boat and things could go wrong. A pump could fail; the stuffing box at the shaft [meant to drip] could be allowing too much water in, etc.

The classic exchange between dad and Whitey is something I will never forget. Dad asked, “How did we do on that drift?” Whitey calmly said, “We caught 18 fish Jack.” Dad just had to ask, “How many did you get?” Whitey with a wry smile said, “Eighteen.”

People may think it is just another fisherman stretching the truth. Dad even told me not to write that part of the story, but I had already made my mind up to do it.

When I purchased the second Shamrock, a 75’ steel vessel from my dad, I too fished for fluke. We ran two trips a day. The first trip departed at 8a.m. and returned by 12:30. The second trip left at 2 and returned at 6:30.

In the summer months about 25% of our business was tourists. The remainder was regulars. Some of these regulars were adept at consistently catching fish. On many tough days when the fish were finicky these pros could make a captain look good.

Whitey often stopped by the dock in the morning to see what the fishing was like the previous day. He had mellowed a lot over the years. The mates and I would tell him how many fish the sharpies or pros caught. He knew many of our regulars as some had fished aboard the Ideal I at one time or another.

We all heaped praise on a young fellow from Trenton, New Jersey by the name of George. George always caught his share of fish. In the back of my mind I was trying to get Whitey on the boat the same day George was there. I guess my subliminal message worked because Whitey and George went head to head on two afternoon trips.

It was as if two unbeaten heavyweights were in the ring together. The knockout punch and wild haymaker were never thrown. I called it a draw, although I felt Whitey in his prime would have caught far more than George.

Whitey worked filleting fish at the Co-op dock fish market in Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey. He also did the same thing for a fellow in Neptune, New Jersey. Something he said to all us dock rats was, “There’s always a dollar to be made around the waterfront.” He was right.

Whitey loved playing poker. When the boat did not sail during the winter months, many an hour was wiled away in some marathon sessions.

A regret I have is I never asked Whitey about his days working in Sheepshead Bay, N.Y. I once asked him, “Whitey, what was the longest span of time you went that you did not fish?” A thin smile formed on his face, as his eyes and leather like skin glistened He said the words fast and true as if it were yesterday, “Five days and on the sixth day I cut a hole in the ice.” I asked, “What did you catch?” He looked me square in the eyes and said, “Not a thing, but I was fishing.”

Whitey was truly the best I have ever seen. And he was also one of the only persons I met that fished to live.

 

“CAPTAIN SIX”

Most fishermen like to think they are a bit cagier than the next guy. Few tell thetruth. There is usually only a smidgen of truth in all they say when talking on the radio.It is an ongoing game of chess, although few know how to play the actual game. In thisgame there are no rules.

My cousin, Dave Bogan Sr., pinned the name ‘Captain Six’ on me years back. Itwas one of those times when I told a bold face lie and got caught.

Several of the party boats fished throughout the winter. On the boat I operated,our heat came from a pot belly stove. We used kindling and once the wood caught, a peacoal was then added, giving a long lasting heat.

The quarry was codfish. The cod made their ritual push each winter to the coastalwaters off the New Jersey coast. There was not a man among us that believed thepopulation of cod could ever be decimated. We knew that 60 miles to our south, offCape May, New Jersey, the cod had not shown up the last three years.

The sand eels, which the cod gorged on and the numerous clam beds were enoughto warrant good catches we reasoned. Manasquan Inlet boasted a fair amount of vesselsthat dredged for hard clams. These boats towed anywhere from 3 to 12 miles offshore.Some ventured even farther south and towed their dredges off of Barnegat Light, NewJersey. There was less pressure down that way, and some cited a cleaner catch. Borden’sand Doxsee each were well represented. Borden’s even had a factory specifically builtfor the clam industry located in Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey.

The clam boats often put a flag buoy over the side to mark an area that wasproducing a fair amount of bushels each tow. These buoys were bamboo sticks with ahunk of rag attached. A cork or several corks allowed the buoy to stay straight up. Ahunk of rope was attached and for weight, to keep the buoy in place, a rock or piece ofchain was added.

Cod are voracious feeders, and are also curious. After the clam boats madeseveral tows in an area, cod were attracted to a free meal. The party boats would stayclear of where the clam boats were working. And often we’d drift in the area and getsome decent action.

When we were not drifting over clam beds or fishing a wreck, we fished hillsor lumps offshore. These hills could rise to within 50’ of the surface from depths of 75-80.’ The hills attracted the bait fish and in turn, the cod would show up in huge numbers.

Well, one cold blustery day, I had tried a couple of hills with little success. Idecided to take an extra 4 mile ride to a hill known as the South East Lump. A fewboats had tried it earlier in the day and caught little. I was going though the motions asmost areas had been tried several times already. The fish finder showed very little bait.Because of a stiff breeze from the west, I knew the drift would be too fast to hold thebottom. I decided to anchor.

The crew often had two or three plastic jugs with enough line to reach the bottomat ready. A heavy sash weight held the buoy in place. I instructed the crew to tie twohooks on the buoy main line, and also to put a fresh clam on each hook. In total wethrew 3 buoys and had six baited hooks fishing for us. The buoys were thrown overbefore we dropped the anchor. If they were too close to the boat, the customer’s lineswould get fouled in the buoys.

The cod prefer a still line. It is one reason the set line boats fared so well. Theirgear sat motionless on the bottom for hours. If a customer was constantly lifting their rodand repeatedly let the sinker bounce on the bottom, they caught little. With the coldtemperatures, many less than hardy anglers tied their rods to the rail, and retreated to awarm cabin. When a fish hooked itself, the angler merely left the cabin and reeled thefish in.

I had anchored the boat over a section of hill where I had decent luck in the past. It basically was a crap shoot. And if the fish finder was any indication, it was amove to kill some time.

The wind had been blowing a steady twenty knots from the west, and on no cue,turned to the northwest and diminished. The temperature was still in the low thirties,but it felt warmer. It was not unusual to have salt water freeze on the boat. It wascommon to catch a fish, put it on deck, and in a half hour it would be as stiff as a board.Ice formed on the guides of the rods and although the thought of gloves was enticing, fewhard core fishermen wore them. When you needed to tie a knot or do most menial tasks,gloves in all honesty were useless.

There were many of the paying fares who purchased slickers or foul weather gear.The pants and tops deflected the wind well. Guys wore work boots, some, Red Ball,Black Diamond or a fleece lined boot. If you put an extra pair of socks on, figuring yourfeet would be better protected, you were in for a long day. Once your feet sweat, you aredone.

The marine radio was abuzz with chatter. The excessive noise meant only onething; captains were looking for information without coming out and asking. The shellgame of not saying what you were really doing was the norm. If you were having a goodbite and said so, the entire fleet, along with every boat on the water would make their bestspeed to your location. Then the 50 fish your paying customers might have caught werethen divided among 10 or more boats.

After the wind dropped and turned to the northwest, the sand eels took upresidence beneath the boat in great numbers. The fish finder now showed a solid line ofbait. The cod were right behind them and a dreadfully slow pick turned into a feedingfrenzy.

The fish were all what we called ‘green cod.’ It meant they were fish that had justmoved in and in no way were residents. We knew they were traveling fish and wereextremely lively. Many fish seemed to be cut from the same mold. They weighedbetween 18 and 25 pounds.

Some of my fares had been using two hook rigs and because of snapped lines andthe sheer size of the fish, they went to one hook.

To this day I don’t know if it was my reply to a simple question my cousin askedor if my absence on the radio is what did me in. The name of my boat was the“Shamrock,” but everyone called me’ Shammy.’ All the skippers knew my dad well andsomeone from Sheepshead Bay, New York began calling him Shammy years before andthe name stuck.

I had been out helping the mates gaff fish and untangle lines and had not beennear the radio in over an hour. I could see the fleet moving around and guessed theirefforts had not been rewarded. Personal feelings could not enter my thoughts. Dave wasmy cousin and a good guy, but there was no way I could call him on the radio and say,“Hey Dave, we are killing them, get over here.”

I will never forget Dave calling on the radio and asking, “Hey, Shammy, how areyou doing?” For all I knew he could have been calling me for that entire hour I was ondeck. I tried to calm down and took a deep breath and said, “Not much Dave, I think wecaught a half dozen.” Some captains had a so-called secret code with others in their fleet.If and when they mentioned a ‘half dozen,’ it meant they were killing the fish. Dave andI had no code, no secret password, nothing.

Dave was smart and he most likely had seen me anchored in one spot for morethan two hours, while the whole fleet, including him were trying all the tricks they knew.After about a half hour I saw a familiar vessel heading directly at my vessel. The blackhull of the “Paramount,” along with the profile was unmistakable. As luck would have it,the mates gaffed four fish when Dave passed by my stern. He anchored off my port [left]side. His anglers did not catch a single fish until we pulled anchor.

It was bad enough that he saw the four fish when he passed, but what followedwas worse. I now had to pick up those three baited buoys. A good haul from the buoyswould have been three cod. From the six hooks we got five nice fish. The sixth hookhad broken off, and I guess it was our sixth fish. The last buoy was the closest to whereDave had anchored and he and his customers got a good eyeful of the two 25lb fish.

Dave said nothing. There were other boats calling him and he gave no reply. Iassumed he would never talk to me again after that. The next morning though, hestopped by my dock, and with a huge smile said, “Six, huh?” From that day on he callsme Capt. Six. No one else ever called me that, so I guess it is/was the way Dave playedthe game.

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