Fishing Life, Chebeague
Lobster and stories on Chebeague Island and a fishing boat with Alex Todd and his sons—part of a family heritage of more than ten generations on Casco Bay.
Maybe you heard the wild story last summer. While lobstering off the east end of Chebeague Island about 15 miles northeast of Portland, boat captain Alex Todd hoisted one of his 800 traps to find that he’d caught a rare, almost translucent lobster.
“From the second the trap cleared the water, I could see it,” he recalls. “The lobster’s shell was white with a real slight blue tint.”
Reachable only by boat, Chebeague is the home of this commercial fisherman. He’s familiar with unusual catches, including occasional multicolored lobsters in reds, yellows, and blues. But this hue was a new one for him, and before Todd released the lobster (it was a female and possibly bearing eggs), he got a few photos on his phone to share with the Maine Coast Fisherman’s Association, which posted them on Facebook. The post was a social media hit for a few days—especially after newspapers picked up the story of the rare crustacean.
Such is the life of a lobsterman. At least this one, who is one of the few remaining year- round fishermen living on the island. His family’s fishing legacy goes back more than ten generations on Chebeague. (Like other locals, he pronounces the island’s name with the second syllable sounding more like “big” than “beeg.”)
We first met Todd a couple of summers ago along the Stone Wharf on Chebeague Island. Photographer Peter Frank Edwards and I had been staying at the Chebeague Island Inn on an early summer weekend when we walked down for a closer look at a 42-foot fiberglass boat stacked high with lobster traps. We got to talking with Todd, and he told us that he’d grown up on Chebeague in the 1970s and 1980s, “when the island was more of a fishing community. It shaped you.”
Half, Half, Half
To catch up with Alex Todd again, I call him one day in the fall. He answers the phone in the wheelhouse, and between bits of conversation I can hear creaks and whooshes of the boat and wind. Sometimes the call drops for a few seconds. This time of year, he tells me, he’s pulling his lobster traps down near Biddeford. To get there, he and a sternman were up and out by 4 a.m. and will return around 7 p.m.
It’s November, and each day has its season- specific tasks. Soon a friend will help him to haul in his son’s lobster boat to store in the yard at his house for the winter. “I’ve got the trailer, and he’s got the truck,” he explains.
A fishing life was never in doubt for Todd. His father, Daniel Todd, worked on a sardine boat for a cannery in Yarmouth, and Alex was driving his own car by the age of 9 or 10 on island roads. “When I was 12, my brother and I would have to move my father’s 80-foot groundfish dragger when the ferry needed to come in. The steering was a piece of crap, and sometimes we had to fix it, fast, before it blew on the rocks.”
One year in the early 1990s Alex Todd followed his father and worked on a cod- fishing boat in Alaska—his dad has traveled widely to fish in Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico and throughout New England. When back in Maine, the younger Todd married and captained his own boats. And today, Alex Todd is the brawny captain with a tattoo of marine rope around one bicep. His fishing boat, the Jacob and Joshua, is named for his sons, Jake, 19, who’s studying chemistry and physics at the University of New England, and Josh, 16, who’s a high school student in Freeport. Both boys fish, too, whenever school is out. It’s part of who they all are, Alex Todd explains.
While Jake has a smaller boat of his own to use in lobster season, Alex Todd’s boat stays in the water year-round as he fishes for scallops in winter and lobster in the warmer months. Before the shrimping season was halted in recent years, he did some shrimping, too. And when there’s been groundfish to be caught, he’s fished for cod, haddock, pollock, and hake. He also fishes for pogy fish (also known as menhaden) and sells the oily fish as lobster bait.
The scalloping was good last year, he says. He’s on the state’s Scallop Advisory Council, a panel that makes recommendations about the fishery. And he tells me of another odd catch he had once with the scallop dragger. Years ago, he says, the dredge brought up an old, undetonated cannonball. Todd wanted to keep it to display in the yard at home, but he needed to make sure it would never explode. While his sternman watched from a distance, he carefully “pulled the wadding out.” He says he wasn’t fearful because he figured the contents would be rotted or wet, but he found the powder alarmingly intact, “and drier than a buckwheat fart.”
Todd has plenty more stories. He once caught a decades-old bowling ball near Cushing. And he remembers the heyday of shrimp fishing before the shrimp population dropped sharply in the Gulf of Maine. (The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission reviews conditions each year, and last fall it put a moratorium on shrimp fishing through 2018—the fifth straight year.) To be able to fish all year, Todd has to continually change what he’s fishing for. “I stay diverse,” he says. Besides, when you ask a fisherman how it’s going, he says, “Half the time he’ll tell you it’s up. Half the time he’ll say it’s down. And half the time it’s a lie.”
Some days, Todd goes back and forth from the island to the mainland a few times, and on this sunny November Thursday, he swings by to pick us up at the ferry dock at Cousins Island. A couple of friends of his who had been waiting for the ferry hop aboard the Jacob and Joshua, too, and Todd takes us all on the 1.7-mile jaunt across Casco Bay to the Stone Wharf on Chebeague. Waves splash across the windshield, and I can see that the yellow- painted Chebeague Island Inn on the hill is closed for the season. Todd keeps a truck parked near the dock, and we all ride together around the 4.5- by 1.5-mile island— passing the town library and center, Slow Bell Cafe, and Doughty’s Island Market, the only grocer. This time of year the island is home to about 400 residents, compared to 1,500 or so when the visitors and “summer natives” arrive. As he follows the North Road and the South Road and makes a loop of Chebeague, Todd says, “I imagine I’ll always live here.”
Todd points out special places and family houses, and we stop at Bennetts Cove, a curved beach across from the house where a great-uncle of his, Sanford Doughty (1919–2013), lived throughout his life. Todd says he wished he had talked more with his uncle about his own fishing experiences and what he remembers of the generation before him. Doughty’s father and Alex Todd’s grandfather would fish from a large sailing vessel (65 or 70 feet long, with a kicker motor) and sail down to New York City to unload catches directly to Fulton Fish Market. His great-uncle “saw so much change in fishing,” Todd says. “And he was wicked community oriented, too.”
Todd shows us the pond where Doughty established an ice rink and warming hut on his property for island children to use in wintertime. And when we get to Todd’s own house he points out a dory stored in the yard that once belonged to this fisherman uncle. The boat is at the edge of the woods, along with lobster traps, coils of rope, and some of
Todd’s yellow and black lobster buoys. Inside he has more family history and heirlooms, including a number of original paintings of island landscapes, fishing scenes, people, and boats by his mother, Louise Rich Todd (1930–2014), who grew up on the island, too. And he unfolds a fragile, yellowing newspaper article from the 1960s about his great-grandfather, Ernest E. Ross, who was a fisherman on Chebeague in the early and mid-twentieth century. Back through the generations of both of his parents, Todd’s fishing lineage is deep.
By afternoon, it’s time to cut back across the bay and pick up Todd’s sons at the wharf on Littlejohn Island. With the school day over, they’ll be pulling up some nearby lobster traps before sunset. The tide is lower now, and from the boat we look upward at the stone wall of the wharf as Josh Todd jumps down to the deck, followed by a friend, Lexi Ketch, who’s also a high school junior in Freeport.
Ketch watches intently as Josh starts to pierce the bait fish to set the traps. “I’ve never seen him work before,” she says.
Alex motors toward their buoys, and he and Josh start hauling traps and measuring each lobster’s body length to make sure it’s keeping size. The work is rhythmic. Josh pulls rubber bands over the claws and resets each trap. Before long, Alex gets a call that Jake has made it to Littlejohn from his day of college classes in Biddeford and is ready to join them. We return to the wharf, and once aboard, Jake pulls on a pair of orange rubber fishing overalls to join his father and brother. After tending to a few more lobster traps, they’re soon headed over to check on Jake’s boat, High Maintenance, that’s moored on the backside of Chebeague.
All of these guys started fishing early. Jake says he was helping his father on lobster days by the time he was eight or nine years old, and then he and Josh put their money together to buy a 31-foot, 1969 Webco lobster boat when Jake was in seventh grade. Now 19, he’s earned his own commercial license and is up to fishing 500 traps in summertime.
“Everyone has their own way of fishing and ways to branch out,” says Jake, who is joining this newest generation of commercial fishing around Freeport and Chebeague. “I like that it’s a community. Along with Josh, I’ve had my friend Edward and my girlfriend, Chloe, go out with me as sternman. And my friend Henry has his own boat and goes up to Swans Island.”
Josh Todd, meanwhile, works on both his father’s boat and on High Maintenance, depending on the season and the timing of his breaks from school. “I remember shoveling shrimp on my dad’s boat when I was in third or fourth grade, and we’d go lobstering on summer days all through my childhood,” he says. “This is all I’ve ever done, and what I want to do when I get out of school.”
He says he gets an adrenaline rush every time they set the seine or get a big set of pogy fish or a trap full of lobsters. One day last fall, he caught a 300-pound tuna, dressed out. “Fishing is family tradition. We see our uncle and grandfather every day in the summer. We live next to each other and fish in the same waters.”
And it’s definitely an advantage to fish with his dad, he says, because of his dad’s decades of experience. “He knows where lobsters historically are going to be at certain times of the year. He can put us in the right spot.”
Passing along this know-how and fishing heritage to his sons is important to Alex Todd. And before we all part, he’s got one more story of a rare catch. (He’s caught on that I like these tales.) Todd says it’s a fisherman’s joke that, if you pull up a boot in the dragger, there may still be a foot inside. Well, one time he did haul in a boot, and he and the sternman were laughing until he reached in to find remnants of a sock “and what might have been little toe bones in there.”
I can’t tell if he’s just joking with me. But as the sun sinks closer to setting, and I watch Todd’s sons ably jump off the boats and back onto shore at Littlejohn, I think, that’s the way it is with Maine fishing. These young guys will soon have plenty of their own wild stories, too.
Thankful for fishermen like the Todds, we want to make something special with these Maine lobsters. We open the thick, classic cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Paris-trained Julia Child, and after checking what we have in the fridge and pantry, we come up with a loose riff on one of her multistep recipes—a France-meets-Maine lobster Thermidor.
Like Child’s, the cooked lobsters are split in half lengthwise, and we use plenty of butter, lemon juice, and vermouth. Peter Frank has been experimenting with variations on this recipe for a while. Here’s how we made it, this time:
1. Boil two lobsters for 15 minutes in seawater or lightly salted tap water. Remove from water to cool.
2. Melt a chunk of butter in a skillet over medium heat and saute a generous handful of quartered mushrooms. Add the juice of 1⁄4 lemon, a generous pinch of chopped parsley, and a splash of white wine. Cover and cook until the mushrooms sweat, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from the pan and set aside.
3. In the skillet over medium heat, make a roux with 4 tablespoons of butter (half a stick) and about 3 tablespoons of flour, stirring with a wooden spoon. Add 1⁄2 cup white wine and 1⁄2 cup heavy cream. Add salt, pepper, and cayenne to taste. Add a dash of Pernod or pastis. Set aside.
4. Cut the cooked lobsters in half lengthwise with your biggest, sharpest knife and discard the sand sack (from head). Remove the meat, tomalley (green stuff), and roe (if you’re lucky enough to have a female with roe). Reserve the shells with intact claws attached.
5. Stir the tomalley and roe into the cream sauce.
6. Chop the lobster meat into 1⁄4-inch chunks and sauté in butter, adding a splash of Cognac. Add to the cream sauce and stir together.
7. Arrange the four lobster shell halves (with claws attached) in a baking dish and fill with the mushrooms and lobster in cream sauce; sprinkle with vermouth, parsley, and grated Parmesan cheese. Broil in the oven until browned and bubbly.
Now the best part: serve hot with crusty bread. Crack the claws and dip into the sauce. Sip dry white wine. Enjoy!