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They Still Come to Fish

But they weren't here as
early as historians think!

Stripper fishing Rod Philbrick gunned the 115-horse Johnson and his Mckeecraft roared straight toward the center of the Sarah Long Bridge again. He cut the throttle just yards from the Maine side of the Piscataqua shouting - "Cast! Cast!"

Bobby Burke and I cast, or rather Bob cast magnificently toward the pillar of the bridge while I let my dangling pollack drop into a swirling black eddy inches from the back of the boat. The little sucker was toast. Pierced through the lip like some teenage cashier from a convenience store, it struggled against the turbulent current and disappeared. It only took seconds, then - bang - my line jerked and the pole bent.

"Let him set before you reel," Bobby cautioned, looking over his shoulder, one foot on the back transom. This was our third strike in as many fast sprints toward the bridge, my turn to pull in a striper like the two in the cooler. Dragged by the famous current, we were halfway to the Route 95 overpass before my fish joined the others. Rod twisted the #5 bait hook from the gasping striper, measured and stored it, then pulled another pollack from the boat's live well. That was the limit, a fish per man. From here on out it was catch and release.
Stripper fishing
We live in a fisherman's paradise. It was after all, the stunning schools of cod and haddock that drew the early European fishermen. They in turn were able to guide the explorers who followed. We are all here, you might say, because of fish. Every history of the Piscataqua region makes this fact clear. We wear our economic genesis like a badge because it separates us from the Massachusetts Puritans and their religious quest. "They Came to Fish" is the title of Ray Brighton's endlessly quoted local history. Early settlers made a living cutting tall trees and bartering with the Natives for fur. Yet, Ray did not write "They Came to Chop" or "They Came to Trap." The tall mast trees are long gone and so, mostly, are the furry animals. Only the commercial fishing industry survives as our link to the past.

Rod and Bob, of course, are avocational fishermen, the kind of people who buy boats and gear just for fishing, read about fish in books and watch shows about fish on TV. Sport fishing today boasts more active enthusiasts than any other recreation. Rod, who is a novelist, even wrote a detective thriller about fishing in the Florida Keys. Researching that book, he says, hooked him on the sport, although the Philbrick family has been fishing these parts since the 1600s. Bob is a tourist and this was his first fling at New Hampshire fishing. He baited his first hook at a little place called Mountain Pond in Connecticut, but for the last two decades he's been fishing back and forth between Cape Cod and Florida. If you fill the sink with water, Bob will fish in it.

I'm no sportsman, and prefer my fish floating next to diced potatoes in hot milky chowder. The idea, however, of pulling a free dinner from the Piscataqua within sight of my house had definite appeal. Not too many years ago this fishing spree would not have been possible. Commercial fishing pretty much cleaned out the stripers before strict regulations coaxed back the North Atlantic species.

I found the striper rules baffling. After the season opens in June, Rod explained, we could each catch and keep one striper "in the slot" per day. Only fish from 21 to 26 inches may be taken, or a fish over 40 inches. That's if you are on the Maine side of the imaginary line that runs up the center of the Piscataqua. New Hampshire rules are different. A fish taken from Granite State waters must be 32 inches or more - today anyway. Tomorrow that may change. My fish, my first striper, was 25 inches and spoke with a distinct Maine accent. Rod and Bob have both landed 52-inchers on better days. That talk let to tales of bluefish, which Bob said pull like a filing cabinet and bite like piranha. That led to talk of tuna the size of Volkswagens. That led to another beer.

Stripper fishing What impressed me was how precisely Rod knew where to be at the right moment of the tide. He should; he catches and releases 400 to 500 stripers a year in these waters before migrating to his winter home in Florida where he has two boats and goes out twice daily in search of reef fish -- grouper, yellow tail, and sometimes tarpon. This being a history column, I couldn't help thinking how many other rods, and reels, and hooks and nets have pulled striped bass like ours from these waters.

Local Native Americans certainly fished the river and the ocean with great skill, for at least 10,000 years, maybe twice that long, before white fishermen "discovered" the rich sea harvest here. Most historians note proudly that this area was a popular fishing ground 100 years or more before the arrival of fisherman John Smith and fisherman David Thompson at the founding of New Hampshire in the early 1600s. Most historians, new evidence tells us, are wrong. We know there were Basques fishing in Nova Scotia as early as 1550 AD. So the theory has long been that they - and other early Europeans -- must have fished down our way too, probably living on the Isles of Shoals.

Dr. Faith Harrington, a Portsmouth anthropologist says it's all a big fish story. I called to ask her more. The earliest documented reports of Europeans fishing these waters, she says, are from around 1607 when starving Jamestown settlers came up this way from Virginia looking for food. I've always been told there was an advanced commercial fishing village operating decades earlier, with great drying racks for "dunned" fish that fetched a high price in Europe. Other fishermen salted their fish, building saltworks along the shore, then sailing home with their abundant catch - sometime dried, sometimes salted "wet fish". in the hold of the ship. All this, it seems, came after 1600, not in the 1500s.

"They probably weren't fishing here that early. There really isn't any good archeological or archival data that would support this theory, " Faith told me. Her decade of research that debunks current theories is being edited for publication.

Early fisherman I've always read that there is no proof that Europeans fished here in the 1500s because they didn't want to broadcast the location of their lucrative New World fishing grounds. Faith calls this the "conspiracy of silence" theory. It's good horse sense, but not good science. She spent years doing archeological digs, including some of the only ones ever conducted on the Isles of Shoals. No evidence of occupation from the 1500s showed up here as in Nova Scotia where the whaling industry was in full swing then.

Then Faith dug deeper. Fishermen still leave a trail, she says, when they build or secure ships, buy supplies, sell their goods. While these records are abundant for journeys to this region in the early 1600s, her careful research uncovered none of the obligatory paperwork back in Europe. Her upcoming book on the "First Fishing Stations of New England" can't help but set off a few ripples, if not a full blown wake, in the small pond of local maritime history.

But what of our contemporary fishermen? Rod's engine blew two weeks ago. That messed up his striper catch-and-release statistics for the season. He has since borrowed an old lobster boat from a friend and gets out about twice a day between bouts with his latest novel.

Bob, the man with the "Born to fish, forced to work" bumper sticker is back in Florida hunting for the elusive "snook". He's gone sour, he says, on fishing the historic Piscataqua, and it takes a bit of cajoling to find out why. Turns out that the day after our adventure, Bob took his pole and wandered to the river and tried a little fishing from a rock outcropping down by Atlantic Heights in Portsmouth. It was a glorious day and, using only a deep-diving snook lure, bagged his daily striper in short order. Two fishermen in a junky old 17-footer stopped by to admire his skill.

"You got one!" a man in an LL Bean shirt called out!
"One in the slot!" Bob called back.
"Aha," said the LL Bean-man. "How big is she."
"25 inches!" Bob shouted down to the boat that was banging hard aginst the rocks on the shore of the Mighty Piscataqua.
"Aha," said the LL Bean-man. "Where you from?"
"Florida!" Bob called back, digging out his filleting knife.
"Aha. Well, good fishin'" the boater said, twisting the steering arm of his little outboard.

If you haven't guessed the ending by now, the two guys were undercover fishermen. By the time Bob got to the top of the hill, he was busted by a man in a green suit with a gun and a radio. The damages came to $120 and the no-nonsense NH Fish & Game officers confiscated the fillets too. Bob had caught himself a legal Maine fish, but on the wrong side of the river.

Bob considered telling the fishcop that, technically, he had cast his lure all the way into Maine waters. The officer seemed a little nervous, he says, and the gun was giving Bob a similar feeling. He lives to fish, Bob says, but he's not crazy. Even a fisherman has to tell the truth once in a while.

Don't miss Dennis Robinson's new column "Seacoast Rambles" every other week in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.

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