So Block Island

The Life of a Block Island Fisherman, From Dusk to Dawn

Just another day on the boat with Jon Grant and some of the freshest catch in Rhode Island

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After a long day hauling lobster gear, Jon Grant stands on the stern of his two sisters’ namesake, the Linda & Laura, selling the day’s catch. He’s been working since dawn, laying out new trawls of traps, moving others to better grounds. Some visitors find him by chance, but seasoned seasonal folks know to be at the Old Harbor dock right when he hauls up the first storage car at 5pm. In a world awash with digital everything, there’s something thankfully real about milling around a fishing pier waiting to pick out your dinner, and it gets no better than from Jon’s boat.

The draw of fishing and lobsters fresh off the boat mirrors what brought Jon to the island back in the late ‘60s. He settled on the island in 1978 when the big bass came in the fall, when daylight was short and nighttime was the best time for surf casting. “There wouldn’t be anybody there,” Jon says, adding, “It was a lot harder to catch stripers back then; not just anybody could put that first bass on the beach.” He remembers walking past the occasional visiting fishermen at dusk as they left the beach, chuckling because he knew good fishing started well after dark.

Late night casting under the bluffs these days might produce a few nice bass, but back in the day guys like Jon and Steve Smith were catching dozens of big bass on a single night and they worked hard for them. Eighteen pounders were the small ones, The 25-35s, well, they went to the mainland packed in boxes of ice. Scattered around the island are several faded black and white pictures of Jon with his wool toke and wet clothes, standing next to 40 and 50 pound stripers tipping the scales at Twin Maples.

He works alone. The daily commute begins with NPR on the radio next to the VHF and the occasional chuckle fishermen get listening to the morning traffic report. The work soundtrack comes from mixed CDs heavy with jazz and the quick pulse of timba or the sound of the Melbourne Ska Orchestra.

Lobstering is all about rhythm, the placement of feet, groundline and gear. Steps are carefully measured and repetitive. Traps come over the rails, bait gets changed, lobsters get banded, traps go back. There’s a necessary order to this rhythm because when things are out of order on deck, people can get hurt. It is a fine and steady cadence but many days are long and when the catching is poor, empty traps can weigh more than full ones.

In a house at the end of an old grassy ox cartway, Jon learned to build his own lobster gear. He bent vinyl covered wire and knit twine for funnels, carefully tying them into trap kitchens and parlors in the same simple and efficient design of late 19th century wooden traps, when hemlock trees were bent to receive curved maple saplings and hinges were leather. This is a state rich in maritime history but only a scant few might remember how to knit a tight funnel from a ball of twine.

Last fall there was some good fishing around the new wind farm. He broke off from the routine to catch a few codfish feeding below clouds of mackerel. It’s been decades since islanders saw bountiful schools of cod in close but the arrival of alternative energy may help their return. Back on the dock, approaching sunset, when he’s filled all the bags with lobsters and stowed away the scale, Jon typically drives straight down Ocean Avenue to New Harbor, skips the stores and a trip to the Post Office, climbs into a skiff and motors out to his 40’ maritime trawler. Swinging on the mooring as shadows encircle the harbor, the island’s buzz is muted. “You can’t hear the mopeds out there. It’s peaceful,” he says.

After fishing around Block Island for decades, dragging heavy stripers from a crashing midnight surf, working sunrise to sunset, Jon knows it’s a good life on the water, being a fisherman. At the end of this typical day, Jon Grant will finally get to sleep, having spent just a few minutes with his feet on dry land. 

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