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Dory Fisherman in Siasconset.  Photograph Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association.

One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Bluefish! Heave-and-Haul Fishing on Nantucket

Drail and Line.  Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association.
Dory Fisherman.  Photograph Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association.

This summer’s fishing seems to be very good in comparison to the last few summers.  Going to the beach for a swim after work, we find that we are not alone on the beach and that there are more fishermen than in past summers crowding along the south shore.
I often wonder if they are aware of the rich history of fishing here on the island − both by boat and from shore – and what was being used in the nineteenth century to fish from the beaches.  Heave-and-haul was the norm back then and well into the twentieth century. 
The heave-and-haul method of fishing uses a line and a drail and was used primarily for bluefishing off the beach. Drails were made of lead with a hook at one end and a hole at the other; at about six inches long, they could weigh close to a pound. The surface of the drail was scratched so that it shone, helping to attract the fish. One end of a tarred cord was tied through the hole on the drail; the other end was tied to a stake driven into the ground away from the water’s edge to keep the line from going out with the drail and being lost. 

Years ago I spoke to islander Bill Grieder who told me that before they began, the fisherman cleaned off the beach to prevent the line from catching on debris and becoming tangled.  The fisherman would then take up the line three or four feet back from the drail and twirl it overhead like a lasso, slowly allowing it to lengthen as it rotated. As it twirled, the fisherman would look for a likely spot in the water and heave it straight out as far as he could.  Then, quickly, he would pull the line in hand over hand, the object being to get the drail off the bottom and up in the water to attract the fish.  As the line was pulled in, it would be laid on the beach in random lengths, not coiled, so it wouldn’t snarl and was ready for the next heave.  Fishermen wore leather finger stalls to prevent their fingers from being irritated by the coarse tarred line.

Mr. Grieder’s father was the lighthouse keeper at Great Point Lighthouse from 1934 to 1937. He was once given some chrome-plated drails, which didn’t have to be scraped to make them shine. He told me it may have been one of these drails that he used when he heaved and hauled in a 42-pound bass that was 58 inches long.

When I spoke to fisherman and artisan Albert Ottison about eight years ago, he recalled spending childhood summers with his family on Muskeget.  He told me he made his first attempt at heave-and-haul with a kite string, catching two or three bluefish. He sold them and then bought thicker line with the proceeds.

These two men are now gone but when I see men out surfcasting, I often think of them especially when the bluefish are being brought in.  Heave-and-haul was practiced mainly in the summer months when the bluefish were running.  While fishing with rod and reel eventually became the norm, a few intrepid Nantucketers still did it the old way.  If you know of anyone still practicing heave-and-haul, please let me know!

The Nation of Nantucket
The “Nation of Nantucket” was coined by Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1847.  It was used by Edward Byers as the title of his 1987 publication on Nantucket society and politics from 1660 – 1820.  Both men spoke of the isolation and uniqueness of Nantucket and that such a title was fitting for our tiny spit of land far out at sea.  I, too, feel that it is appropriate – on many levels.  I use it as the title of this column because here I intend to regale you with all sorts of stories about Nantucketers, island life, island institutions, and the history (good and bad) of a small island that had an enormous influence on the world.  My focus will be mainly on Nantucket women, of course, but I will add some other things of interest to me – and I hope you – as well.  Stay tuned and to read my blog for the Maria Mitchell Association go to “Maria Mitchell’s Attic” at:

Jascin N. Leonardo Finger has served as curator of the Mitchell House at the Nantucket Maria Mitchell Association since 1999.  She holds a Master’s in History.  Her passions are her family, all things Nantucket, good food, weaving, and photographing historic architecture.  The island has been a part of her life since she was introduced to it at age 1½ by her parents.  She lives year-round on the island with her husband, a naval architect, and their Siberian Husky who takes them on long walks from one glorious end of the island to the other.