Joseph Dow's History of Hampton: Hampton Fisheries

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Hampton Fisheries

The first inhabitants of Hampton, unlike those who, at an earlier period, had settled on the banks of the Piscataqua, were farmers rather than fishermen; yet it should not be inferred from this fact, that the fishing interest was wholly neglected. We have not, indeed, any data for determining how early this business was commenced, nor to what extent it was prosecuted; but considering the facilities for carrying it on from the river and the beach, and the great value to the inhabitants, of the food that might thus be procured, towards furnishing them with the means of subsistence, especially before th land had been sufficiently cultivated to produce an abundant harvest, we cannot doubt that this employment received some attention almost as soon as the settlement began. It is not certain, however, that any of the early inhabitants were fishermen by trade. It is far more likely that then, as in later times, the same men that cultivated the soil and made that their principal business, sometimes also plied the oar and the line, not for amusement, but for a livelihood. Whether the fishing was at first carried on from the North Beach, as now, or by way of the river, is not certain. An act of the town, at an early date, seems to indicate the latter. This was a vote, passed January 17, 1656, appropriating Sargent's Island to the use of the fishermen, for the purpose of building stages and other necessaries for curing fish. Connected with the grant was the condition that, if the island should be deserted by fishermen, it should revert to the town's disposal. Sargeant's Island, now private property, was very favorably situated for the curing of fish, brought up the river in boats and landed near the spot where the stages were probably built. How long it was used for this purpose is unknown. The place was inhabited for many years by a branch of the Shaw family. Caleb Shaw, of the third generation, mariner, master of the sloop Mayflower, drowned in 1715, may have lived here. Certainly, it was for about twenty years the home of his son, Ebenezer, whose business was coasting and fishing; and here, his ten children were born.

Since the coming in of the present century, the Hampton fisheries have been somewhat widely known. Capt. Randolph P. DeLancey, a practical fisherman and wholesale fish merchant, gives the following information:

After 1836, and perhaps earlier, the shore fishery was long carried on by an average of about forty men, who made it a business the year round, using, for the most part, wherries in winter and whale boats in summer and fall. The Hampton whale-boats have been honorably mentioned in the United States Government Reports, where we read: "They will beat up Boston Bay in a winter nor'wester, when a ship cannot." The whale boat is nineteen feet long on the keel, seven feet wide and three feet deep; sharp at both ends, built of half-inch white pine boards, nailed together on the edge, forming a "lap streak," on timbers of inch square oak, steamed and bent into place six inches apart, with a lining or ceiling of half-inch pine; making a very strong, yet flexible boat, carrying two "fore and aft" sails each containing from fifteen to twenty-five yards of heaviest cotton drilling. In such a boat two, three, or even four men would start out, just before sunset, carrying a porgy-net, in which, after anchoring on the fishing ground, they soon caught all the bait needed for the night. Then the men by turns fished and slept -- the hake beginning to bite soon after dark, and the large cod, of from thirty to sixty pounds' weight, about midnight, the best fishing being from that time till daybreak. About sunrise the boats went ashore, loaded with from one to two thousand pounds of hake, cod and haddock, and occasionally a halibut.

Wherries, as formerly built, were sixteen feet long, five feet wide and two feet deep, similar to the whale-boats in shape, and of the same build, but intended for rowing, though having a sail for use when the wind was fair. This winter boat was managed by two men, who aimed to reach the fishing ground as soon as it was light enough in the morning to see the landmarks, among which was a clump of tall, dead pines on Breakfast hill, in Rye, purchased for the purpose by the Hampton fishermen. They rarely risked frightening the fish by throwing out the anchor, but one man took the oars, to "hold up." that is, to keep the boat from drifting away from the fishing-ground, while the other managed the hand lines, turning from one to the other as fast as he could haul and take off the fish and rebait the hook. Both lines and fish would freeze as soon as taken out of the water. Sometimes the wind would come on to "blow off nor'west," so that on the return they were forced to row and bail and pound off the all-encasing ice for hours, before reaching shore; then land their fare, wash out and house the boat and dress the fish, while, perchance, the Canada or Vermont six-horse teams stood waiting to be loaded. If no purchasers were at hand, the fish were split and salted in a pile running the length of the fish-house, on one side. One thousand, two or even three thousand pounds of fish were thus disposed of, before the tired, hungry, chilled men were ready for their long walk home, at the end of the day's winter cod-fishing.

But the manner of fishing has greatly changed; center-board wherries, depending more on sails than oars for motion are used; and the hand-lines have given place to trawls -- long lines, with hooks placed six feet apart on the whole length. These are carried in tubs, holding a half mile of line each. The hooks are on two-foot snoods, and are baited with clams for cod and haddock, in winter, and with herring and porgies in summer, for all kinds of fish. Clams for bait are latterly obtained almost exclusively from Newburyport, the Hampton flats being much exhausted, and barely sufficient for home consumption. Each boat usually carries four trawls, which are set by tying one end to an anchor, with a buoy-line throwing it over as the boat sails or is rowed along, and anchoring the last end like the first. When possible, they are set in the afternoon and hauled at daylight, the next morning; the catch being from nothing (in rare cases), up to three thousand pounds, an average being perhaps five hundred pounds.

The winter of 1880-'81 was the best in recent years, when the greatest total catch for any one day was thirty thousand pounds, and the three months' fishing amounted, in the aggregate, to eight thousand dollars.

But the fisheries have greatly declined. Pirate seiners drove off the porgies, by catching great numbers for oil; then the hake, that feed on them, disappeared; and, similarly, the haddock and other fish grew scarce, and the daily catch went down to one or two hundred pounds. In the summers of 1889 and 1890, the porgies came again in limited numbers, and during the latter year hake began to return.

The mackerel fishery has been injured by sheer wantonness. A vessel threw her seine a half mile from the fish-houses. Two hundred barrels of mackerel were taken on board, five barrels of numbers one and two saved, and all the rest thrown overboard -- to frighten the fish and poison the ground. A hundred fifty other vessels were doing a like thing every day, for three months. The next summer the mackerel did not come. Fore the last two years seining has been unlawful till June first, and they have begun to return.

Lobster fishing has held its own better than the sea-fishery, but even that is not as good as formerly, and the fishermen say emphatically that, unless all seining for mackerel and bait-fish, within three miles of land, is stopped, there will soon be no fish of any kind off our shores.

The eel fishery is carried on only in August, September and October, while the eels are passing from the sea to winter quarters in the ponds and heads of streams. A dam is made across a ditch or small creek in the marsh, near the upland, by driving boards or planks into the bed of the stream, with one or more openings, about a foot square, near the bottom, where the traps are set, with the entrance facing down stream. An eel-pot or trap is made of a barrel with one head, by boring it full of half-inch holes, to let the water and small eels have free passage, and fitting a tunnel of board or wicker-work into the open end, the small end of the tunnel being about an inch across, within the barrel. A door is cut on the side or head, for taking out the eels. The barrel is then weighted enough to sink it, and the trap set, by placing the tunnel close against the opening in the dam. It needs no bait, and is looked after each morning. A trap has been known to catch a half barrel of eels in one night -- a peck is probably a fair average.

Fresh-water fishing, let us hope, is in the future. On the 1st of May, 1890, Messrs. R. P. DeLancey and H. M. Lane placed ten thousand trout fry in our brooks. They did so well, that, in April, 1891, Mr. DeLancey placed five thousand more. If protective laws are respected, a new delicacy will soon be added to our tables.

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