Some people say that the only other thing a lobster fisherman does besides fish is drink. This image of the hard-drinking, hardworking, hardheaded fisherman is traditional, and it might even be true. At any rate, it’s true often enough that one has to wonder whether or not it is the fisherman who is attracted to drink, or the drunkard who is attracted to fishing. Lobster fishermen themselves don’t do too much to discourage that impression of their profession. My impression is that they don’t much give a damn what anybody thinks of them. People who insist on spending their lives alone in a little boat 300 yards to the west of the civilized world are hardly preoccupied with their public image.
Nevertheless, when I recently went out lobster fishing with Randy Miller, of Encinitas, he seemed sober enough for 5:30 in the morning. “I’m a family man,” he protested as he cleared the beer bottles off the deck of his skiff. “I go to bed when my daughter goes to bed.”
We shouted back and forth over the noise of his diesel engine as it warmed up. The sky to the east was just starting to turn orange when we pulled out of the Oceanside harbor. It was a clear morning with a medium swell that, from the perspective of his open boat, looked bigger than it really was. “There’ll be a wind from the northwest later on,” Miller said.
We started checking his traps as soon as we were outside the harbor jetty. Miller’s traps run from San Clemente to Cardiff, but today we would only go south as far as Swami’s, in Encinitas. There were dozens of multicolored buoys, but only those aqua and white were his. I was surprised that the fishermen didn’t have their separate territories staked out. “Naw. I’m afraid the days of the gentleman fisherman are over,” Miller said. Not only do the lobster fishermen have to worry about divers stealing from their traps, but fishermen have begun stealing from other fishermen’s traps, and even taking another man’s buoy and replacing it with their own — stealing the trap, in effect. “It’s pretty cutthroat, really.”
Miller snagged the first buoy with a long pole and dragged the line toward him. Then he slipped the line over a hydraulic davit, which has replaced human muscle for the backbreaking job of hauling the traps up off the bottom. As the trap boiled to the surface, he leaned over and hacked the seaweed off with a knife. Only then could we see that the trap was empty — just a couple snails and a little starfish picking the bait clean. He rebaited the trap with a rock cod head, glanced at his fathometer to find the reef, then shoved the trap overboard. Whatever the romantic notions of lobster fishing might be, this simple, fluid, repetitive act — hauling the traps, rebaiting them, and shoving them overboard — is really what the lobster fisherman does with his day. This is the reality of his trade.
“I don’t know how these guys do it who drink all the time,” Miller laughed. “I used to be able to do it when I was younger, but not so much anymore. One of the best fishermen on the coast recently had a 300-pound guy fall off a bar stool and land on his knee. I mean, that’s the kind of thing these guys have to worry about.… I remember one time when I ran into this friend of mine. He was fishing out past the kelp beds on this cold December morning. He was waving a wine bottle around and called me over to share a drink with him. I thought, sure, why not? I started heading over there, and I could see from a distance that he wasn’t wearing a shirt — I mean, it was cold! When I pulled up alongside him, there was a woman aboard, and I swear to God she wasn’t wearing anything but this guy’s shirt.” Miller shook his head. “That guy never has any money, but he always has these women. I don’t understand it.”
Miller has been fishing for lobsters for about 15 years and gill-netting fish in the off-season. He doesn’t look as salty as you might expect. Even in a grimy old baseball cap and rubber boots he looks young for 34, not at all like someone who makes his living from the sea. Born and raised in Encinitas, he grew up watching the fishermen come in at Swami’s. He used to help them with their catches, and he always thought it was something he’d like to try. In 1964, when he was going to MiraCosta College in Oceanside, he started fishing in order to earn his way through school. “I was playing a little basketball andwasn’t really into school that much. One day I asked my coach how much money he made. He told me he made about $900 a month. Well, I was making that much every two weeks and only working about four days a week. So I quit going to school and I’ve been fishing ever since.”
The second trap Randy pulled was empty, too, except for a bunch of beer cans. “It’s the standard catch outside the harbor,” he shrugged. “The only thing I can figure out is that the bottom must be covered with them. I’ve hauled up sofas, chairs.… One time I pulled up a stretcher with an outboard motor strapped on it.” Not far away, lounging on one of the big buoys marking the entrance to the harbor, were a half dozen fat seals. They looked hungry and lazy, like many of the characters who hang around the Oceanside harbor. I asked Miller if they ever steal from his traps. “Sure,” he nodded, “especially if you use bonito for bait. They love bonito.”
Some lobster fishermen say that seals are their number-one enemy; supposedly, the seals know how to open traps and steal everything. But Miller says that scuba divers are his biggest enemies. “I hate divers. Five out of ten won’t steal from you, but the other five will. If they’re out diving and they haven’t caught anything, and they see a big one in your trap, and no one’s around, they’ll take it.” One time he hauled up a trap with a diver attached; his arm was in the hatch. The guy’s wetsuit was torn and his arm was bleeding. I wondered if it ever made Miller feel like committing violence. “Sure, but I can’t ever find anybody in the water mad enough to fight me.” (One veteran fisherman out of La Jolla purportedly carries a submachine gun on board to intimidate divers. The same guy caught a diver stealing from his traps one time. He grabbed the diver by the collar, gunned his engine, and dragged him out to the kelp beds before letting him go. “Next time I’ll take you clear out to the islands,” he said.)