The Fishing Heritage of Belfast Bay
by Tom Seymour
Belfast ca. 1900.
Fishing along and on Belfast Bay was a family affair from the earliest days. As late as the 1950s to the 1970s Belfast people depended on the fish they caught in Belfast Bay. Various species chased bait fish up into the bay where anglers helped themselves. These delighted anglers will be a big hit at home. The curious sheep, apparently in tow, may be marveling at the flounder, mackerel and cod or wondering what they are. Photo courtesy of Belfast Historical Society
All coastal Maine towns share a common heritage. Every one of them once depended upon fishing to some degree or other. Besides those who caught fish commercially and merchants who bought and sold fish, residents of such towns routinely incorporated locally-obtained seafood into their diets. One such town, Belfast, has only recently yielded to the inevitable and no longer hosts fishing-based industry. But the rich fishing heritage of this seafaring town remains alive and well in the memories of many of its residents.
As late as the 1950s and into the ‘60s and ‘70s, Belfast people depended upon fish they took from the bay, harbor and river. Two mainstays were flounder and mackerel. Of the two, flounder were the most cherished catch. The late James Mollison, a Scot who followed his father from Scotland to work in Waldo County granite quarries, lived only a few miles inland from the Passagassawaukeag River. On his days off, young Jim would walk down to the Upper Bridge (only stone embankments and a few wooden piers remain) and catch a basketful of flounder for his family. Jim told this writer that flounders were plentiful and always willing to bite. This was just prior to World War II.
Other people, mostly those living in town rather than out in the country, like Mollison, frequented the town’s Steamboat Wharf. Today Steamboat Wharf is long gone and now the city prohibits fishing from its public landing and private owners keep anglers off of floats and wharves. But 50 years ago and more, it was an accepted practice for people to fish for and catch flounder from such places. The late Emily Fogg often took her young son, Tim, flounder fishing at the Steamboat Wharf. Times were tough and the young, single mother depended upon this bounty from the sea.
Mike Brown, newspaper editor and syndicated columnist, wrote of his youthful summer pastime of flounder fishing from the Steamboat Wharf. Mike sold his flounder at Dutch Brothers Market for a nickel apiece. Mike also mentioned how local old-timers would hang out on the wharf, entertaining themselves by whittling, telling yarns and chewing on dried codfish.
Atlantic mackerel were another staple. Unlike flounder, mackerel lent themselves to numerous methods of preservation, particularly drying and salting. As far back as 1831, an advertiser in The Republican Journal offered “barrels and half barrels of No. 1 & 2 mackerel,” as well as bulk salt in various forms.
Indeed, fish markets were familiar sights in Belfast and other coastal Maine towns. And these places did a brisk business, since the great bulk of the public relished fish and other forms of seafood. Fresh mackerel were eagerly anticipated and when the first tentative runs of summer hit the upper bay and ventured into Belfast Harbor, residents were quick to take advantage of the boon. Everyone fished for mackerel.
A favorite fishing spot, the Veteran’s Memorial Bridge was discontinued when the “new” bridge was built across the Passagassawaukeag River in 1963. From that point on, the old bridge became a footbridge and in summer, people flocked to it. The old footbridge was recently torn down and a new one put up in its place. While Belfast allows people to fish from it, it sits far too high off the water to make fishing an enjoyable experience. But it remains the one public place open to fishing from shore.
Getting back to the old bridge, mackerel were the most abundant species taken there, but herring, smelt, tomcod and striped bass also figured into the picture. Anyone wishing to get a spot on the old bridge on a Saturday in summer when mackerel were running needed to get there early.
This was family recreation and family groups, young and old, elbowed for space on the old bridge. The author’s grandparents were regulars there, and Grandmother White, even at an advanced age, caught as many mackerel as Grandpa, a man who prided himself as a great fisherman.
Striped bass were thick along Maine’s coast in years past. In fact, workers on the new, Route 1 Bridge, mentioned earlier, would bring their fishing tackle to work for the purpose of fishing for stripers during their lunch break.
One reason that striped bass and other fish flocked to Belfast was that they had a continuing source of food. An oil slick, courtesy of the town’s sardine cannery, attracted schools of baitfish and these, in turn, drew stripers, bass and other fish.
Locals learned to take advantage of this permanent chum line and made it a practice to fish near it, something guaranteed to produce results. Tying a skiff or even a canoe to the pilings of the sardine factory was a ticket to unparalleled saltwater fishing.
The fish canning factory, owned by Stinson Seafood, has closed its doors forever. But during the course of its many years of operation, generations of coastal Maine residents made their bread-and-butter by working for what most called, “The Sardine.”
A specially-fitted boat plied Penobscot Bay waters for herring, the fodder for the sardine factory. Also, many small-time operators set out weirs at key points. One such weir existed just west of Patterson Point, at the mouth of Belfast Harbor. Similar weirs stood near harbor entrances up and down the coast, evidence of the value of Maine’s herring fishery.
Not all the herring taken in weirs were canned, either. Some people enjoyed eating herring and they were roasted, fried, smoked and even pickled. And while the weirs no longer stand, herring continue to come into the harbor, albeit in limited numbers. Today, few if any people bother with herring.
Today, all clam flats in or near Belfast remain closed. Since a clam flat is presumed guilty (polluted) until proven innocent (not polluted), and the State of Maine has only limited staff and even more limited funding to devote to testing clam flats for potential opening, the idea of going clamming in this area seems terribly remote.
But this was not always so. Once, clams represented yet another slice of the pie, a pie that consisted of homegrown garden vegetables, wild game and self-gathered seafood. And in addition to individuals harvesting clams for their own use, Belfast clams once drew the attention of a local cannery. An 1892 entry in The Republican Journal said, “…Mr. J. J. Lawton, of the Belfast Canning Factory, sent a sample case of canned clams to Chicago. Saturday, he received an order for twelve cases, which were shipped on the Boston boat. Each case contained four dozen cans, marked ‘Fresh Belfast Clams, from the Belfast Canning Factory.’ ”
Clam “boils,” as opposed to clambakes, were and remain, popular activities. Local folks earned reputations for hosting the best clam boils. Back in 1892, Mr. J. G. Damon of Beaver Street, Belfast, ran a blacksmith shop and regularly turned his forge and bellows to good use in boiling huge pots of clams. One of Damon’s clam boils was so well received that it made newspaper headlines.
Lobstering continues unabated in Belfast and other coastal towns. At least in Belfast, however, the age of the full-time lobsterman has mostly come to an end. A few boats still sit at moorings in Belfast Harbor. And local pounds and small businessmen continue to sell lobsters.
Besides flounder, mackerel, striped bass and herring, already mentioned, Belfast had historical runs of both shad and bluefish. Also, cod were no strangers to the upper reaches of Penobscot Bay and recreational anglers took them in good numbers. Further out in the bay, cod provided the basis for a thriving industry. Coastal fish dealers, those in Belfast included, sold cod on ice and dried, salt cod.
The rare codfish would sometimes make its way far upstream on the Passagassawaukeag River. Williamson’s, The History Of Belfast, Maine, gives an early 19th century account of this. Of more recent vintage, Roland Seekins, Sr., once found a large cod trapped in a tidal pool at low tide, between City Point and Head of Tide. This was in the mid-20th century.
Finally, alewives, today mostly used as lobster bait, represented a popular recreational fishery in Belfast. These were dipped with long-handled nets, taken home and cleaned and then salted and smoked. This was a regular springtime ritual and most every store in town offered smoked alewives when the run was on and smokehouses were operating.
As a rule, smoked alewives were strung on a long stick, 10 fish to the stick. If memory serves me correctly, it cost one dollar per rack, or stick. Frames, with any number of fish-filled racks were displayed in front of stores.
The aroma of these smoked alewives filled the town and no one objected. In fact, such was just a sign of the seasons, in a time when people lived their lives closer to the sea.
Thanks to The Fisherman’s Voice and Tom Seymour
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