The Art of Weir
From the air, the weir looks like a heart. A fragile, bony heart; not the kind of structure that could withstand tides, currents, a breeze. A line of hickory posts and netting—the leader—ties it to shore like the tail on a balloon, lest it float out to sea.
In April, May, and June, when the weir is set up, when the hickory posts are pounded into the seabed, the fish hit the leader like a dam. While the water passes through they swim out, instinctually, away from the shore. They swim toward deeper waters, along the curtain of nets that runs perpendicular to the beach. Where the tail ends they swim into a spade of netting—the heart—and from there, into the bowl. It’s easier to swim in than swim out.
The fishermen check the nets every morning: whatever the tide, whatever the weather, whatever the seas.
The day I go out it’s flat calm: bright sun, warm air, no breeze. Ernie and John Eldredge have been working since 4:30 at first light, but they swing back to the docks around 10:00. It is mid May and the parking lot at Stage Harbor is still empty; on the wooden planks it’s just me, Ernie’s wife Shareen, their daughter Shannon, her boyfriend Russell and another weir fisherman, Steve. Ernie pulls the trap boat in, and his brother John trails behind in the skiff.
They’ve found nothing all morning: no mackerel, no scup, no squid. Still, we’re going to check one more weir, mostly for Shannon. She used to work the nets with her dad when she was in college, and this Sunday morning she has time. She wants to get back in.
We motor out through the two sand bars that look like crab-claws, pinching the harbor in and head northeast along the shore, up toward Cockle Cove. This is the area where the migratory fish—small species like herring, fluke, pogies, squid, mackerel, butterfish, crabs, scup and black sea bass—typically run.
I chat with Ernie as he drives. His family’s been on the Cape since the mid-1600s, fishing, farming, living off the land and the sea. His father bought Chatham Fisheries in the late 1940s with another fellow, Fred Powell. They’d worked for the previous owner, an old timer named George Kroll, and eventually, when he signed off, they bought in. Use of the weirs is granted not just by purchase, but by application—first to the town’s Natural Resource Department, then to the state and finally back to the Board of Selectmen for the final say. Historically, families have passed the businesses down through generations, and it works much the same these days.
Ernie was fishing by the time he was five, he says. He used to go on the boat any time he could, and the day he graduated high school he stepped on for good. In 1973 when their father passed, he and John inherited the weirs and the boats. Ernie literally walked into his father’s fishing boots, Shareen likes to say.
Ernie stops talking as the trap boat arrives at the weir, and John peels off in the skiff. He circles the posts that hold up the netting, tugging a rope on each one as he motors by—he is loosening the bowl. Then in a series of ducks and dodges, he jumps on board and Ernie steers the trap boat in. We enter the same way the fish did: through a notch in the side, the one place where the net is slightly dipped. Shannon yells to me to crouch low as we glide under a web of neck-level ropes; everyone else seems to know instinctively exactly how far to duck, and when.
We hook a sharp right and drive to the far side of the net. Ernie cuts the motor and everybody crowds the port side of the boat. Shareen is snapping pictures—she makes part of her living as a commercial photographer—and Shannon and Russell are in their Grundens (waders), getting wet. Along with Ernie, John and Steve, they grab the net, and start slowly pulling themselves across the weir. As they go they examine each inch of net, pulling out crabs and horseshoe shells, slowly cornering the fish.
In a few minutes we’re on the other side. Shannon spots a lone mackerel and then Ernie yells “Butterfish!” We’ve herded a few thousand pounds into the corner of the net.
Things move fast then: everyone grabs a dip net, and Ernie cordons off a square of deck to set up a pen. The fish are thick in the water, jumping and flapping with such a ruckus that the surface foams up. With every scoop of a dip net another batch of fish comes on board— 10, maybe 15 quarter-pound butterfish. There are scales everywhere as the fish in the pens flap around: on my camera, in my eyelashes, glittering on Ernie’s beard and Shannon’s skin. The noise is intense: like applause after a speech—heavy, grand.
All said and done we got 2,500 pounds. This is big these days—it used to be routine, but in recent years, the catch has gone down. Shannon remembers her father fishing into the fall, catching bluefish, Spanish mackerel and bonito all through the hot summer months. Keeping the nets set up simply isn’t worth it anymore.
Some people blame over-fishing or climate change, but Ernie thinks it’s the seals. He says the herd has grown so large between the Vineyard and Nantucket and Monomoy—where the fish come up from the south—that it patrols the entrance to the sound. They create a wall—a hungry wall—that no fish will swim by. It’s an old complaint; there was a bounty on seals in Massachusetts from 1888 to 1962. Hunters got as much as $5 a seal in exchange for the animals’ nose and skin.
The seals huff and bray as we re-tie the weir. There are eight, maybe ten within fifty feet of us, circling in. Both sides think someone’s taking their fish.
But Ernie’s still moving ahead. Chatham Fisheries just partnered with Chatham Seafood Enterprises, a fish buyer, and a local fish market, George’s Place, to launch the Cape’s first Community Supported Fishery (CSF) program. It’s a direct distribution model—members pay up front for a share of the harvest, and in return they deliver a regular catch. This spring is the first season; everyone will see how it goes.
We motor back to the docks, everyone standing literally knee-deep in butterfish. It’s hard to believe how many we’ve caught—by hand, without a trawler, with hardly any engine power, simply using ingenuity and nets. It makes me wonder why fishermen abandoned the practice at all—in Truro alone in the late 1800s, there were twelve large weirs set up each spring along the shore. These days it’s just the Eldredge’s company in Chatham, and one more.
I had my first taste of butterfish that night when we got home. Floured and pan-fried, it was crispy, flaky, rich. It tasted like hard work and Cape waters and practice, like a long, straight lead and a few hundred years of hickory posts pounded down, deep into the sea.