People of the Coast: Sonny Willey IV, Spruce Head

First published in National Fisherman and reprinted with permission.

Walter “Sonny” Willey IV, 62, of Spruce Head, Maine, has been a lobster fisherman for more than 45 years. “It would take a week to explain all the changes I’ve seen in the business,” said Willey. “I started on wooden traps, then wire pots, which everybody has now. I’ve seen them change the

Willey fishes from Criehaven, as Ragged Island is often called. Brandon Bezio, photo.

V-notch.” V-notching became mandatory in Maine in 2002, as a way to mark egg-bearing female lobsters so they can be identified whether they are bearing eggs at the time or not. Those with notching are returned to the ocean to grow and reproduce for future generations.
Before lobstering full-time starting in 1974, Willey went out with his father, who taught himself, in an outboard boat. “I got his outboard,” said Willey, “but basically also had to teach myself.”
While he keeps his boat, Morning Star, in Spruce Head, he belongs to a close-knit and longstanding lobstering community of about a dozen fishermen on Criehaven (a local name for Ragged Island). For 32 years he has been part of the fabric of Criehaven, 18 miles offshore. Unlike some Maine islands, Criehaven is not centered on tourism. Visiting requires a two-hour boat ride.
“Out there, we have a longer season because the water is cooler,” he said. “On Criehaven, I have a house, wharf, workshop, but no electric power — it’s pretty off the grid.” Solar power and a generator help. “It’s like camping,” he said. “I don’t work on Sunday, but in summertime, my wife joins me. I’m there seven days a week.”
Criehaven, to Willey, is “magical.” “Being on an island is special. You never know what to expect. Every year is different.” At first, spring lobstering was strong, and urchins were plentiful. Now, he says, seeders (female lobster carrying eggs, which get notched and tossed back) have become abundant.
“We average anywhere between 2 and 3 up to 8 or 9 per trap,” he said. “They’re everywhere, and have made our business quite difficult. I do think it’s good to see them, because that’s lobster for the future — but if they never leave, it’s hard to make a decent living.”
Willey describes his father, 83-year-old Walter Willey III, as his hero. “He lives for fishing — he’s an inspiration. He’s still fishing! He’s been at it for at least 60 years.” Like his father, Willey cannot envision any other path. “I’ll go till I can’t go no more,” he said. In fact, he recently had a new boat built by Peter Kass named Island Magic.
“I like being able to work my own pace,” he said. “The only boss I have is Mother Nature. I take pride in being a fisherman. I enjoy making a living at it.”

Criehaven Harbor, Flicker photo.


What do you Know about Criehaven?

Map of Criehaven showing its official name as ‘Ragged Island”

Criehaven is named after Robert Crie (1826–1901), an early landowner. He and his wife, Harriet Hall moved in 1849 to Ragged Island, where Crie prospered in farming and lumbering. Island chronicler Charles McLane wrote that within thirty years Crie owned the whole island. By 1896, all of his five children, with their spouses and children lived there, too. He incorporated Ragged Island as the plantation of Criehaven in that year, and for the next few decades it was a thriving island community. In addition to fishing, sheep raising, and farming, Crie kept a general store at Criehaven for many years.
Criehaven plantation dissolved in 1925, eliminating the need for town meetings and taxation. The school continued to operate until 1941. After the school closed, year-round families also left, leading to the closure of the general store and post office.
Ragged Island showed up on nautical charts in 1754, 1776, and 1819, when it was called “Ragged Arse Island.” McLane asserts that the name might have been an attempt to render “racketash,” Abnaki for “island rocks.” Charts in the mid-19th century began calling it Ragged Island.