Six years ago Carl Simmons lost his wife, Glenys, after 54 years of marriage. Five years ago, his shop burned down, taking his owner-built lobster boat and all his tools with it.
That might be enough to stop any man in his tracks, or at least kick him into retirement. Not Simmons. He’s still fishing from his hometown of Friendship. After the fire, which may have started from a battery charger, local fishermen set out a pair of tall boots. Townspeople stuffed them full of money.
So this summer he is hauling 300 traps, sometimes helped by daughter Lucille as sternman. He stays close to shore, he said, rather than heading “downriver,” his term for out to sea.
He dreams of rebuilding his burned wooden boat, the LORI-ANN-ELLY – named for three grandchildren – but in the meantime he bought another wooden lobster boat, the CONFUSED, named for the way he says he feels nowadays. He turned 84 on June 17, and nobody who knows this able carpenter-fisherman-boatbuilder would call him confused.
It’s a tradition to help out a fellow fisherman down on his luck, and Simmons is well liked around town. He still takes on carpentry jobs and still visits his wharf and cottage on Friendship Long Island, where he started lobstering from a dory at age 12 with his first license. He still has that license, a number he used to brand into wooden buoys.
With his visor cap and one good eye, Simmons today is lean and fit, despite triple bypass surgery and five eye operations. His father fished all his life, and his grandfather tended a lobster pound back in the days when lobsters were kept alive locally until ready to be shipped by sea aboard lobster smacks. Nowadays lobsters are trucked away as soon as they are landed at the dock.
“Lobsters were 12 cents a pound when I started, and clams were 45 cents a bushel. You could dig a hod of clams in 20 minutes.” Retail prices were about $7 per pound for lobster, and $2.70 per pound for clams, as of mid-June.
From rowing an open boat, he graduated to a skiff with outboard motor, a converted Model A car engine and finally diesel power, but he still prefers a wooden boat.
“I started out rowing,” Simmons remembers, “when my father gave me a dory and a few old traps. You went out in the woods and cut your own trap stock. We even made our own pot buoys. Cut them out of a tree.”
He recalled lobstermen thinking oak lath would be “sour” and keep lobsters away. But it was a myth, and oak traps lasted longer than spruce ones. Today’s wire traps last even longer but even expensive metal traps deteriorate. “Instead of bugs eating them up, they rust out.”
Lobstermen have plenty of timesaving and convenient devices, from pot-haulers to Global Positioning Systems. He remembers using a sounding line to check the depth. Simmons said fishermen today go 35 miles offshore, protected by heated cabins with microwave ovens for their dinners.
“The whole thing has changed. All you do now is push a button and go anyplace in the world,” Simmons said. “It’s hard to imagine in the next 80 years what the world is going to be like…. Each thing that came along made it easier but it also put more traps in the water.”
Today there are “traps right everywhere,” he said. He also wondered how a young fisherman could make ends meet with offshore boats costing $250,000, and then there’s the $30,000 pickup truck. And there’s diesel fuel at nearly $5 per gallon, and big engines don’t push a big boat very far on a gallon.
As a boy, Simmons remembers when finfish were plentiful, and racks of fish were spread along shore to dry. “They were some good, too,” he said, and today he eats a lot more fish than red meat. Friendship is still a “lobster town,” and he doesn’t expect that to change.
The old school and post office were still standing, but no longer used. He attended the Village School on the mainland through eighth grade. Today the old island store is a house and part of the Simmons property, including a rebuilt wharf that dates back to Carl’s great grandfather.
Simmons remembers when Friendship Long Island was open, with hay and blueberry fields. Now trees are 40 feet tall. But those trees are nothing compared to a board he measured in an old farmhouse he rebuilt. It was four feet wide.
Simmons served in the U.S. Army in the Pacific during World War II. Other than that, his travels have all been local. Live anywhere else? “Friendship is good enough for me,” he said. “I stuck my nose into about everything. Never made much money but I kept a-going.”