New Recruit: A career outdoors, on the water

First published in the MLA Newsletter, February, 2012

Holly Smallidge and Downeast Pride. Stefanie Alley photo.

Holly Smallidge of Northeast Harbor hauls traps from her wooden boat, Downeast Pride, her purple and orange buoys dotting the waters near the harbor. She grew up on MDI, where her dad worked for Acadia National Park Service. Her interest in lobstering started when she was young.  Holly said that she hung out around the dock, rowed, fished for mackerel and caught rides on lobster boats, always staying close to the water.

In high school Holly signed up for a Maine fishing class taught by Dennis Damon. In class she knit heads, learned about scalloping, dragging, and navigation, even how to put hooks on halibut trawls. But as an adult, Holly worked for six years at the Jackson Laboratory where she micro-injected mice for the lab’s cancer research. At age 35, she knew she was ready for a change.  “I was drawn to the outdoors, the water,” she recalled. She wanted work that related to her interest in nature and met her eagerness to learn new things.

So she got a five trap license and hauled from a rubber raft, a vessel that posed its own risks and adventures. “Patching and pumping it up was part of the routine,” Holly recalled. Then she apprenticed three years with Scotty Harper of Bass Harbor and finally got her commercial lobster license in 2003. “I was fortunate to get the experience and good knowledge that he passed on. He had a good sense of humor,” Holly said. “He always thanked me at the end of the day and said ‘see you tomorrow.’”

As an apprentice Holly baited bags and banded lobsters for long hours. “But I thought that I  could somehow manage my own boat,” she said.  Her first boat after the rubber raft was an 18’ Gilley skiff built in Southwest Harbor named Sweet Jean after her grandmother. Holly started out with 90 well-used traps, and a compass, depth sounder, GPS unit, outboard motor, and electric hauler. Her second boat was a 22’ x 9’ skiff, “a good, ugly boat” as Holly describes it, named the Next Step.  She eventually was able to buy Downeast Pride from Scotty Harper.

Holly recalled with a smile the education she received apprenticing with Harper. “One time it was so rough out, really sloppy,” Holly remembered. “Scotty didn’t want to stop hauling. He looked at me and said ‘I’m going to make a man out of you.’” The two continued fishing for long hours. “On the way in, he asked me how I was doing,” she continued. “That’s when my sense of humor took over. I let on to how I was feeling more like a man.”

Holly appreciates being on the water and working for herself.

Changes in management regulations and the faltering price have made it more expensive to operate a lobstering business.  Nevertheless, Holly continues to find ways to keep fishing her 250 traps, learning new things out of sheer necessity. “There’s always something comes up that you have to deal with,” Holly said, “like the electric hauler burning up the other day.” Luckily, a fisherman helped her repair it, as is customary.  “Often you hear fishermen on the VHF talking to a fisherman whose engine has quit, going over a list of possible causes, trouble-shooting, and various fixes,” Holly said.

Holly does her own maintenance of her boat. She checks the engine oil and coolant daily, and uses basic mechanical skills to repair what she can. She has a special tool, made by a friend, so she can tighten the steering and hauler belts when she is out alone.

Like the name of her boat, Downeast Pride, Holly approaches her lobstering with respect:  respect for the lobsters and for those lobstermen who have come before her.  Because she owns a wooden boat, Holly carries on some of the old ways, by asking questions of area boatbuilders, learning more maintenance skills, and doing most of the work herself.  “The big job this year will be to refasten the boat,” she explained.

The local lobstering community has been fairly accepting of a woman lobstering alone. On her birthday one year Holly was out hauling her traps as usual.  She was just going through the motions, feeling a little grouchy, when a lobster boat came steaming up towards her. She felt a little uneasy as the boat drew closer and thought, “What did I do now?”  The boat with two guys aboard whom she knew came alongside. The men tossed her a bag with two lathes, a bag of bands, a couple breakaways and some mackerel.  Surprised, Holly thanked them. “Quite a birthday gift,” she thought to herself.

Another year, Holly was bringing traps in for the season in December in her 22’ skiff. The weather was unusually warm and calm and she kept piling the traps aboard. When she got into the dock, a couple of fishermen offered to help hoist the traps out. They took forty out and then saw that there were still more. “How’d you get so many on the boat?” one asked.  Then they walked off shaking their heads, not knowing the amount of work they had gotten themselves into.

Downeast Pride heading out for the day. Photo courtesy of Holly Smallridge.

Holly finds that winter is a good time to reconnect with her two grown children and young grandson, to  paint buoys, repair traps, even cane chairs. “There is no end of work to do,” she said. “It’s really satisfying to do something every day.”

When Holly decided to try lobstering, a few people told her that women don’t do that. “I didn’t do it for the money, and it is hard work,” Holly explained.  “But I love it.” She can get up in the morning, hop on a boat, catch what she catches, work hard, and feel satisfied that she accomplished something at the end of the day.