The name of Al Schaffer’s lobster boat, the Leatherneck, harks back to his four years in the Marines, which he served upon graduating East Hampton High School. The lobsterman loves his job. You can tell by the continual smile on his face and the way he gets into the zone when working. He works very fast.My husband was a lobsterman when I met him and I’ve heard many stories about long days of hard work. I wish I could have gone lobstering with my husband and his old crew from West Cove Lobster, out of Noank, Connecticut. Unfortunately, the lobster fishery had a die-off in the late 1990s when we met and the company stopped fishing after three generations on the Long Island Sound.
“He just gave up,” said Mr. Schaffer, who has the utmost respect for his old competitor, George Main, owner of West Cove, the largest lobster operation in the area at the time.
“We’re down to four or five of us left,” Mr. Schaffer said of the remaining lobstermen.
I was lucky enough to go out with him last week and can honestly say, it was the best day of my summer so far. We were joined by Albert Lester, who served in the Coast Guard and spent many years fishing off shore but hadn’t been out in the ocean in 30 years.
We met Mr. Schaffer, who is married to Mr. Lester’s niece, Shelly, a cook at Round Swamp Farm on Three Mile Harbor in East Hampton. Mr. Lester used to supply clams for the market, owned by his sister Carolyn Snyder and Mr. Schaffer used to supply the lobster. Stricter regulations on both fisheries and the way the product is handled became too much to deal with, so, for now, neither can be purchased at the popular shopping destination.
Mr. Lester and I got down to the Inlet Marina in Montauk a few minutes before our meeting time of 10 a.m. The Leatherneck was docked but Mr. Schaffer was nowhere to be found. Fishermen are not the type to be late. At exactly 10 a.m. he pulled into the dock on his other boat, a dragger, the Ms. Alexa, named after his daughter.
“I had to catch bait,” he said. His first catch of the day had already been neatly arranged in separate baskets. Squid, sea bass, fluke, porgies and dabs, a beautiful flat fish I had never seen before. It was light brown with white spots.
“We used to call them ‘windowpanes,’” said Mr. Lester, “They’re so thin, you can see right through them when you hold them up to the sun.”
“You threw them overboard,” said Mr. Schaffer, “Now they’re worth a dollar.” Each basket was lifted onto the dock area, near a large refrigerated building.
“That’s the money-maker, right there,” Mr. Schaffer said, lifting a bushel of fluke.
He weighed the fish, shoveled ice to the bottom of a thick cardboard market box, transferred the fish to the box and then dumped more ice on top before labeling and storing it inside.
“You should see when I have 15 cartons and I got to do it myself,” Mr. Schaffer said. I can’t imagine. The temperature was almost 80 degrees already and muggy. A good day to be going out to sea.
After he processed the fish that was going to market, he docked the Ms. Alexa next to the Leatherneck. Using a hook on a long pole, he brought the lobster boat close and transferred several baskets of bunker and skate to be used as bait in the lobster traps.
“Sometimes, I go lobstering first,” he said, “Some guys laugh but I laugh all the way to the bank.”
“This was Grandma Lester’s favorite fish to fry,” Mr. Lester said of the bunker.
“That’s prime rib to lobster,” said Mr. Schaffer.
The fisherman had been up long before the sunrise but looked fresh as a daisy. Wearing a floppy hat, clean tee-shirt, a pair of brown boat shoes and khakis, he looked like he could be sailing a yacht, not a fishing boat. “Everyone says that my trousers are ‘yachty’” he said, “By the end of the day there’s nothing ‘yachty’ about them.”
Once on the Leatherneck, he exchanges the boat shoes for a pair of “skins.” He keeps a pair of skins, or waders, on each boat. Originally, Mr. Schaffer bought the 37-foot dragger to fish solely for bait but his investment has proven to be a good way to fill in his income with a few market fish.
Mr. Schaffer has been lobstering since 1975. He goes to bed between eight and nine at night and was up at three in the morning, the morning we met him, a day after his 54th birthday. He left the dock for the first time that morning at 4:45 before meeting us promptly at ten.
He was drawn to fishing as a young man, and goes every day except Sunday, when he gets to spend some quality time with his family. This is the first summer he is taking a week off for vacation. He’s taking his 11-year-old son to Alaska, to go fishing for halibut and salmon. During the winter, he likes to take his family on cruises to tropical destinations.
One thing is obvious. Mr. Schaffer loves to be on the water. He usually works alone, blasting music while the boat is on autopilot. He’s been doing it so long, it’s almost like he is on autopilot. Although he keeps a notebook for some details, “the lobster stuff is all in my head,” he said.
He builds all his own equipment, custom designed for one man to use. “That’s what I do when I’m bored in winter,” he said, “I built my first pots out of snow fencing.”
“Everyone said they wouldn’t work.” Of course, “everyone” was wrong.
As we cruise out of Montauk harbor, the winds are southwest at 10 to 15 miles per hour. Our first stop will be 13 miles from the dock, on the east side of Fisher’s Island, in what is called the “triangle zone,” open to New York residents.
To be continued next week…