Bob and his father Jack with a day’s catch.

NEWBURY, MASSACHUSETTS – There is never a lack of things to write about. Last year we wrote up several articles on handlining for tuna titled “When Tuna wasn’t Wicked.” It began when several people from Newburyport/Plum Island, Massachusetts wanted to gather and tell their stories before the people who did this were gone forever. A large group of these fishermen gathered at PITA Hall on Plum Island and stories were told and photos were share for over two hours. It was a great time and it became very evident this history needed to be captured before it was lost.

One couple who has been instrumental in getting this off the ground was Lee and Bob Yeomans of Newbury. They were joined by Debbie Lesynski and they began by talking about those that we have lost since that meeting last May. Bob told of Pete Atherton of Plum Island, who had passed away on 10 March. He said, “He was a good fisherman. I asked him about the meeting that we had down to PITA Hall. He says, ‘Yeah, I will show up, Bob, but I don’t want to do an interview or anything like that.’ Then he says, ‘Who the hell is left?’”

Bob explained, “He was the first guy I met. Pete and I caught our first tuna fish in the MOBY DICK. We bought a boat together, 34-foot wooden boat, and converted it into a gillnetter and tuna boat. We went out gillnetting and the name of that boat was the WATER BROTHER. It was a party boat. Pete grew up in Salisbury and then he lived down on the island for years. Another boat he owned was NET PROFIT and that was a 35 JC plastic boat and he did gillnetting and handling for tuna in her.”

Deb asked about his Sisu, which had a phone booth type house, which she fished on with him. It was thought this was the first NET PROFIT he owned. She added, “That was the first time I ever stuck a tuna fish. I said, ‘I don’t know’ and he said ‘You can do it. Just do it.” He was so excited when I stuck it, and he said, ‘She button-holed it.’ I was like, ‘What did I do?’ That was pretty cool.”

Another name mentioned was KATIE M., a 35-foot black Novi and the last boat Pete owned was the AMANDA, named for his daughter.

Bob remembered the swordfish Pete caught right in the bay. He missed it the first time, so he turned the boat around and came back and stuck it while his wife was taking photographs. They all fondly remembered him as a great fisherman, but also someone who gave a lot back, especially to the veterans, of which he was one having been in the Vietnam War.

In the winter Bob lived in Natick, but the family summered on Plum Island. He was introduced to tuna fishing by his grandfather, Reginald Yeomans, and his father, Jack Yeomans. His grandfather’s boat was the GLEN BOB, named for his grandsons. Bob remembers pulling it up on a railway located on Plum Island for the winter. Not long after he and Pete began fishing together. Lee added, “When Bob was on the water with Pete, we had just had our first child. He was probably two months old. Every time he left the house to go fishing there was a chart on the wall, down at our cottage on Plum Island, and he would take a pin and put it in and he goes ‘Here is where I will be today.’ ‘Ok, be safe, have a good trip.” He always said, ‘If we are not back by a certain time, go to the Coast Guard.’ So, the certain time came and he wasn’t back and the weather went downhill in a handcart. It was thick fog and breezy at the same time. There were no cell phones at that time, no communication at all. So, I went down to the Coast Guard station with a baby in a backpack and I said, ‘My husband is out fishing. ‘What boat is he on?’ ‘The WATER BROTHER.’ ‘We got a distress call from them, but we haven’t been able to get back to them.’ I said, ‘Oh, good, let me show you where they were supposed to be today.’ I went back to the house and I brought the chart down and go ‘Here is where he should be,’ and they started searching. It was still daylight out, but it was thick fog, you could not see a hand in front of you and they started searching. I had to call his parents and his grandparents. His grandfather came down and he was one of those who, at any opportunity would say a prayer. We are all in the Coast Guard station and he is praying. I am there with the baby and there is nothing. About two or three in the morning his grandfather stood up and he goes, ‘I just got a message, they’re fine. I am going to go back to the cottage’ and off he went. We hadn’t heard anything and the Coast Guard certainly didn’t know anything.”

Bob added, “We were outside of the Isle of Shoals and I just remember when things were going south I could just see the White Island Light. So, we took a two-gallon galvanized bucket of gasoline, put it on the back of the boat, lit it and hoped somebody could see it. We fell asleep underneath the picnic table, I woke up with a bright light in my eyes, ‘You guys alright?’ It was the Coast Guard in a 95 footer from the Merrimack River, who towed us in.”

The cause of the problem was the batteries were low and they did not have enough power to start the engine or radio their position.

Bob and Peter fished in WATER BROTHER for a year or two and then they went their separate ways. This was in the 1970s. Pete bought the NET PROFIT and Bob purchased a wooden boat. Bob and Lee were not sure, but they thought she was the HO HUM, which they purchased from John Miller. She was followed by the 45-foot BUD.

Bob remembered Deb going out with him one time tuna fishing when his mate took the day off so he could collect unemployment. Bob debated whether he should put rods or just handline. Deb added that she had never fished with rods, but was very comfortable with handlines. Bob said, “So out goes the handlines, we hooked up and we catch one.” Deb added, “We came back and your mate was bumming out,” and Bob said, “Well, I gave her a check, I think it was $1,300 and he picked up his $86. That was the funny part.”

Another time they were fishing and Deb got her hair caught in the reel as they were reeling in a tuna. Bob said that he would get the knife and Deb screamed ‘Don’t cut my hair!”

Then there was time that they were handlining and they hooked up. They had been fighting the tuna for about 35 minutes when they realized that the north wind was pushing them towards Halibut Point and a bunch of lobster pot buoys. They never let the mono filament touch the rail as it would snap it off. Bob added, “My arms are down to the water. Deb, come here for a minute, wrap this around your waist and head for the cabin door. Finally, we put the dart in that one.”

“Remember Bobby Campbell? Unfortunately, he hasn’t been well recently.” Lee added, “He is doing fabulous. He did a lot of handlining with us. He was always energetic and wanted to be out there and they fished hard.”

Bob continued, “He used to be the general manager down at Tri-Coastal Seafood then he went to the fishermen’s co-op in Seabrook. He started with me. He was a janitor at a high school. I took him out fishing, he caught his first tuna and that was it.”

Then they remembered Jack Lyden. Bob said, “He fished with me one day and he says, ‘Sign me up for every Wednesday for the season and next year.’ He used to drive from Quincy up here to go deep sea fishing. He ended up working for us.”

Lee added, “He was the type that if Bob said, ‘Oh man, the boat is out in the yard and we are working on it’ and he’d say ‘I am trying to do this and I can’t do it,’ and Jack would say ‘I will be right there, Bob,’ and he comes up from Quincy.”

Deb added, “I worked for Tri-Coastal for one year and bought tuna for them. I was the representative in between the fishermen and the Japanese company, but I can’t remember which company it was. Me and a guy were going to go down together and the guy took another job a week before, so I went by myself. I would buy the bait down there in Gloucester and bring it back here and sometimes Tri-Coastal would buy off the boats up here and I’d take it down to our boats. So, I would load them up with bait and they would bring in their fish, I did all of the paperwork for the government and tag them. All of that was a big deal.

“Dana King,” continued Deb, “I hear him coming in one night. He was so mad at the Japanese company. I said, ‘Calm down,’ but they did not want to listen to me because I was a woman. One day I was coming back from Newburyport with bait, going back down there to unload boats. A boat was in and we knew it. I said, ‘Let them know I am on my way’ and they did not wait. One of the men, the head that day, he took the tuna out with a winch and cut his finger off. It was a rickety old lift. It was bad. So, I did that for one year, one summer.”

Lee began, “We had an El Camino at the time. First of all, we did not take care of the tuna like they do now. They would come in down at Plum Island Point, drag those fish up the beach through the sand, hang them up, picture time, drop them down, and put them in the back of our El Camino. One time there were two big ones back there and I am driving to Star Fisheries in the morning with my baby. They got such a kick out of me showing up with baby, back it in, and ‘We need bait.’ I loved doing that. I liked being on the boat more, but I really liked the other part too.”

Lee was originally from Vermont before her family moved to Natick, where she went to school. Bob and Lee met in high school, “I asked him out to a Sadie Hawkins dance, which is when the girls have to ask the guys, and he said ‘No, thank you.’ He was holding out for the sexy blonde and I said, ‘Yeah, hold your breath.’ Then he called me up and said, ‘I’ll go with you.’ That was 1964. We graduated in ’65 and during all of those years he lived on Plum Island in the summer and I lived in Natick. He was always my favorite. He took me fishing, probably ’65 or so.”

Bob added, “Screaming outgoing tide, we were in a skiff catching stripers, she looks at that red buoy and she goes, ‘Why is that buoy going upriver?’”

Defending herself, Lee said, “I am from Vermont, remember? What do I know. One time, we were out catching stripers in the mouth of the river in his little 14-foot Amesbury skiff. His father and uncle were in another boat and we were right in the middle, almost on the south jetty. We look over and his uncle and Dad are frantically waving at us, flapping their arms and waving and we are waving back. All of a sudden we turn and there is this big wave coming right into the boat. This one says to me, ‘Don’t lose any of the fish, hold onto the fish,’ because we had caught a lot of stripers. That was the first time I ever swore, flinging fish into the water.’ What were you thinking? Are you trying to kill me? I did not know anything about the river and the ocean until I met Bob and I was hooked both on him and the water.”

The two were married on 8 June 1968. Lee added, “It’s been an interesting life. We lived on the island in the summertime. Then we started building our house and it was snowing in October. We were like ‘oh, we are so screwed,’ because we’re living in this unheated cottage on Plum Island with two babies and now we are like freezing to death. I woke up one morning it was me, Bob, two kids, a dog and a cat in the bed. I said, ‘I think we need to make a move, Bob.’ So, we moved into the next door neighbor’s basement. The septic system was horrendous, it was overflowing all of the time we were dying in there.”

Bob was doing oil in the winter and they fished in the spring, summer and fall. They learned about a piece of land in Newbury, which was owned by Barbara Kezer and Lee said she still thanks him once a week for finding such a great place to live. Lee added, “Tuna fish by tuna fish we paid for this house.”

They added a barn and made that into rental property and that was paid for by tuna fish. The house had plywood floors for five years, but that was good since their boys and neighborhood boys would come in after playing hockey on the pond across the street with their skates on. Deb said, “We’ve come a long way, baby as they’d say.”

Bob added, “We’ve come a long way, but I don’t know if this way is any good,” which was instantly challenged by Deb and Lee. Then the conversation questioned the fact of getting old.

In the late 1970s early ‘80s the price dropped to 40 cents per pound, there was no Japanese market, and a number of the fish went unwanted and just ended up in the dump. The Moonies stepped in and Bob said, “We’ll pay, I forget, $2.50 a pound plus a case of beer.”

Lee added, “Then another boat would come along and give you a case of beer and a box of bait. You could fish longer.”

“That was the competition,” explained Bob. “That’s what made our American buyers go up. But the Moonies were a pain in the butt.”

Deb remembered, saying, “There was a whole fleet of Moonies boats. The ONE HOPE, the TWO HOPE, the THREE HOPE and the SEA HOPE I, II, III.”

Lee added, “We named the big boat that led them, the NO HOPE. They were trying to give you their propaganda. We would be hooked up fighting a fish and they would come paddling on over or would steam over in their little skiffs with propaganda to hand us, about their religion. And we are like, ‘You can’t be here, we’re hooked up right now.’”

Deb then brought up the challenge of surviving in the ‘90s. They caught 15 tunas in 183 hours. She said, “I remember figuring it out and going Bob, ‘You don’t want to know what we are making an hour because we are going to go flip burgers at Mickey D’s.’ This is our big fish at the Co-op, 10 feet long, 845 gutted and 686 dressed, September 15, 1994. This might be the one that we have the video of.”

Bob added, “We had a woman out there one day and she did a video. We were only seven miles off of the beach when we catch this handline fish. We tied it off the back of the boat and she [Deb] is raking the gills and bleeding the fish and this woman is saying, ‘look at this, who would date this woman?’”

Deb added, “We did get it in the boat. First, we tried to bring it out by the tail, but it was too long to get up over the rails. We added extra height to the rails because we took the kids fishing and they had to be a certain height for the Coast Guard. We ended up flipping the fish around, putting a line through the gills and bringing him up that way. The tail was not as heavy to lift up over the rail, but it took three of us to do it.”

Deb said that the first boat she fished on was the ARTIST with Ricky and that is how she got into fishing. She also named the boats BRENDA and BARBARA K., which fished out of Gloucester or around Newburyport. She added, “I then got a job on the CAPT. RED as galley girl, which is a party boat. I really didn’t know much about that, but I learned quickly.”

During the off-season she would go tuna fishing and one of the people she was working for did not want a woman on board, but the person who ran the boat said that she had been on the boat all summer and she was going. Then she drew a funny face on one of the balls they were going to use and the one that did not want her on board got real mad. She said, “’That is going to be the basket that goes off,’ and he says, ‘You are so crazy.’ We really got along and he was my boss, but he was on land. I said ‘Well, if that line goes off first I am taking your picture with the ball.’ Well, there you are. I have pictures to prove it. I named the ball Herman. I don’t know how many fish we got the day, but it was a ton of fish.”

Lee then said, “Bob and I are out there and we in the ERICA LEE. We were up in the tower and Trigger Watson is out there in his plane looking for fish. All of a sudden he is doing stunts.”

Bob added, “He came up from behind us. We are up in the tower and all of a sudden I hear this, grrr. I looked down and he is waving up at me. He had to be three feet off of the water. He is crazy.”

Lee added, “We about died, I am like, ‘Oh mother. He is trying to herd tuna now.’”

Deb added, “It was hard because it is a summertime job and in the winter you’re going to Green Street to collect. They send you to a job interview and if you don’t take it, you don’t get any money. I had a couple crazy winter jobs. Then I went and worked for the co-op, Tri-Coastal. I worked for them for, I think, two winters and a summer. That was a great job. Then I got real job. I worked for Craig Hudson when he started a computer business, Computer Emporium. I processed parking tickets and ended up being the office manager. I did that until ’86 and then I went to Virginia as a live-in companion for a woman on a horse farm. Then I came back and I started working for the Yeomans.”

Lee added that they had a gift shop in downtown Newburyport for a time and Deb worked there. She could do that when she was not fishing. Lee then had a part-time job at a doctor’s office. She left and then the doctor called and asked if she could come in to help out for a couple of months. She did that for a year and then went back to the boat.

In the meantime, Deb had gone to Florida and when she came back for Christmas, Lee called her and asked if she could help at the doctor’s office for a couple of weeks. She ended up there all spring, but the boat was calling. The doctor said that she could go this summer, but had to promise to stay on full-time after that. She found it hard to do a full-time job year around and not be on the boat.

To even out the season and make a little bit more money, the Yeomans decided to start a kids camp on the water in 1989. Lee explained, “We needed to do something else with the boat other than fishing, because fishing was not paying off.  Well, I kept waking up with the idea of a camp type thing for kids. I sat Bob and our son, Rob down and I think Erica might have been there, and I said ‘What do you think about this and they are like ‘Yeah, we can do this.’ Then we had to come up with a name. We sat around for days trying to come up with a name and we finally decided on Coastal Discoveries. Then, we’re like how do we do this? What are we going to do? So, we set up a regular curriculum. Now, how do we get kids, so I said ‘let’s run a contest.’ We ran a contest in schools and if you are interested in doing this tell us what you would like to spend a week aboard a boat doing. We got some great letters. Beth Abbott Bishop was one of the winners and she was eight years old. She stayed on that boat forever. We started on the ERICA LEE, then we had the ERICA LEE II. She started in the camp and then she became a camp counselor, now she owns the ERICA LEE II. So, she never left camp. When we started talking about giving up the camp she was crying. ‘You can’t stop doing this, I never want to stop doing this.’ ‘Well, buy the boat.’” She and her husband still run Coastal Discoveries.”

They ran the camp for 26 years. They would have 24 kids on the boat five days a week, Monday through Friday. Some weeks were teens only. “The very first week we were like oh my god, this is really happening,” said Lee. “There were kids coming down the ramp getting on the boat, what are we going to do? There was something to be learned from every activity that we did. We started out the day with a little talk at the dock, say we were going to pull lobster traps that day, so you would talk about lobsters, what they ate, the regulations so forth. Then as we were heading out the mouth of the Merrimack River, we made sure that they all knew the name of the river and where it started. They learned so much. We were teaching environmental issues way before it was anything to be talked about. Our son Rob does another boat camp, called Boat Camp and he is already filled for this summer.”

Bob built three 18-foot dories for the camp, based on the lines of the Lowell dories. The kids loved rowing the dories around the Isle of Shoals. Then Lee said, “Deb and I were out on Smuttynose and we would tell the story about the murder that took place out there. Remember the night that we were there and all of the kids got freaked out? The girls are in one cottage and the boys are out on the boat. Once you put those little lamps out it was all blackness except for the lighthouse. So, we were in the cottage and this young girl says, ‘I want to go home,’ and we are like ‘Oh no, there is no way. Bob is out on the boat. Tell you what, you stay beside me on the floor. So anyway, we’re laying there and this girl freaks out and she throws up. There is no running water. There is an outhouse somewhere outback in the dark. We get things cleaned up and she is laying back down and the girls won’t shut up. All of a sudden it is very quiet, and one of them had brought her boombox and it turns on. It is way up on a shelf, ‘Who did that?’ I said, ‘It is probably a timer.’ I said, ‘Just get up there and shut it off.’ She gets back down and it happens again and now they are really freaking out. I said, ‘Bring that to me and I start taking the batteries out.

“Then everything quiets down again,” continued Lee. “But the wind picked up and we heard the screeching on the rooftop, just like eeeek and the girls wake up, ‘What is that?’ ‘That is just the wind.’ There is a weathervane up there and it squeaks when the wind blows. Then the squeaking got worse and they’re still freaking out. So, Deb and I get up in the morning and we are out on the rock having our morning coffee because we really hadn’t slept very much and we were both sitting at this picnic table and we look up and there is no weathervane on the house. What are you going to tell them now? Well, I am sitting at a meeting, we became stewards of Smuttynose Island, and some guy gets up to talk and he goes, ‘Well, before we begin today’s meeting, I thought I would finally divulge what goes on out at Aunt Moses cottage on Smuttynose Island. When you hear some weird screeching at night.’ This is like 15 years has gone by and he goes, ‘The wind is blowing out there and the seagulls get blown right off the roof and they are holding on with their talons and it screeches right down that roof.”

“Then we stayed out on the other island,” said Lee. “Prudence Crandle Randall owned an island out there and I had rowed a dory over and I was just talking to her one day and she goes, ‘What are you doing out here with all of the kids?” I said, ‘We did in overnight over here.’ ‘Well, if you ever want to spend an overnight on my island.’ It was beautiful. It had a beach, had all this flat land and she had a big house there. The following year, we did. We are on the ERICA LEE and just as soon as we come around the island the sky got so black and this thunderstorm came roaring in while we were still trying to transport the kids onto the island. They had tents, we dressed the kids in trash bags and they’re freaking out because of the thunder and lightning. I am trying to make light of it, going around and pretending that I am a news reporter and ‘Tell me what you think of all of this. Let’s hear your side of the story.’ They got the tents up and things sort of calmed down. Then another storm crops up and every tent blew off. We’re standing there and ‘Like oh my God.’ Prudence came to the door and she goes, ‘I am really concerned, you can come in here. It will be safer. So, I got all of these teenage boys. She says, ‘We only flush the toilet once a day.’ Well, they were killing themselves laughing. She then goes ‘Let’s gather around in the living room and I am going to read a story to you, I have been writing a story of my life out here.’ She starts reading and all of the boys are laying all over the floor and things started out okay for about a minute and then it wasn’t okay. She is serious reading her story and she is flailing her arms and she is talking about her first years out there and I could hear the giggles. I am like, ‘Stop it.’ They are like ‘We can’t help it, it is too funny.’ They stopped and she is still trying to read and finally they are trying to stuff pillows down each other’s throats so they wouldn’t laugh. She has read for an hour and I am thinking, she is at the point when she was 8 and now she is 80. There is no way that we are going to read about her life on this island tonight. I said, ‘It is so nice of you to have us in here but, you go on up to bed, we will all go to sleep and I said, but leave your story here and I will read it. I am reading by flashlight and all of a sudden the boys are out of control. I go, ‘You have got to stop this. We can’t be doing this. That poor woman invited us into her home and she is trying to sleep up there.’ ‘We can’t help it this is the funniest thing we have ever been through.’

Bob is out on the boat with the girls and he is trying to get to sleep on the bench. Then he says, “They were all giggling and going nuts and ‘Hey, do you think he is asleep yet?’ ‘Maybe.’ So, then they really start telling jokes and I am going man, oh man.”

Getting back to the fishing, one time they had on board a group of kids and they were out catching bluefish, when all of a sudden a pod of tuna shows up. Bob calls his mate up into the tower and says, “There is a pod of fish right there. Just come up on them nice and slow and when you see that pole leave my hands, take it out of gear.’ Bap, the line goes sailing out and the kids don’t even know what is going on until the flag goes by.”

Lee added, “Capt. Bob just harpooned a fish. I am flipping out. We had this woman working with us that summer and she was one of those holier than thou people and she goes, ‘Let’s all take a moment and pray. We are going to be real quiet for Bob and we’re going to pray that he is able to get that fish.’ The kids are all sitting there and they are looking at me and I’m like, the parents are going to love this.”

Bob was able to get a hold of his father and told him that they were going to be late by an hour or two because they had caught a tuna. So, his father went down to the dock to tell the parents that all was fine, but they would be a couple hours late because they had caught a tuna.

Lee added, “I am flipping out because all I know is parents have schedules. First of all, they had to get this fish into the boat and it was just him, Dennis, myself and Hail Mary.”

Bob turned around and there was a big kid standing there and he helped them get the fish on board. Lee was real worried about the reception they might get at the dock, but when they arrived the parents were all cheering. The boy, who had helped get the tuna on board went with them to Tri-Coastal to pose for photographs with the tuna.

“The last year with CINDY LEE,” said Bob, “I am up on the dock and the boat is being loaded up with kids and this couple is standing beside me. ‘Hey Bob, you don’t remember us but we did camp and that is where I met my wife. Now, we have a kid going to this camp.’”

Lee added, “I am thinking were you one of the ones we were chasing around Thacher’s Island when you’re in the wrong tent.”

Deb said, “Monday mornings when they are all sheepish looking around because they don’t know anybody and they’re going to be stuck on a boat. By the end of the week, they are buddies, exchanging numbers, they’re going to come back next year and they want to be on the same week.”

Lee responded, “Those we called repeat offenders.” She then said, “Did you hear when Beth took one of those worms and put it between a couple slices of bread and ate it in front of the kids. We were dying.”

Deb added, “When I worked on the CAPT. RED I used to make fish chowder on the way. Rocky, he was a little red head, he was a mate who had just started. I took a codfish eyeball and I put it in his cup of chowder. He’s eating along and he came up with that eyeball and he lost it. It was bad, but I couldn’t help it.”

After two hours of recording a good snap shot had been captured of a type of fishing that is no longer, handlining for tuna. It shows that this was not an easy life, but those that did it, did it because they loved it. And if they had to do over again, they would not change a thing, well maybe just…