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Said Herb Randall of Newburyport, 28 years a tuna fisherman, first with rod and reel but more recently a harpooner, "I only spent half my life at sea, and there's Frank Mather sitting in his office, drinking cocktails and reading letters from fishermen in Sicily. Sure Europe's tuna are in tough shape, but why pick on us? We've got a healthy fishery."
And in Rockport, Ellis Hodgkins, listening to his crackling radio at 4 a.m., could not decide whom to believe. "I feel a fellow like Frank Mather knows a hell of a lot more than I do," he said, "but who really knows? There may be 75 boats in one spot not catching a thing, and maybe there's fish 10 miles away, but everyone goes to the same spots, year after year."
Everyone had been fishing in Ellis Hodgkins' front yard for a long time. There had been no better fishing anywhere for really big fish—the last of the big breeders, as Frank Mather calls them—than at Stellwagen Bank and Jeffrey's Ledge, and in Ipswich Bay, where Hodgkins earned his first headline. He was a 98-pound 14-year-old then, with a 14-foot outboard with a five-horse Evinrude. One August afternoon, he bought a 15� mackerel and a handline, and while the Coast Guard searched for him he was 10 miles at sea, in mountainous swells, hauling in a 700-pound tuna. At the time Ipswich Bay was one of the world's first great tuna areas, and Ellis Hodgkins grew up with the new fishery.
The bay and the bank and the ledge lie off Cape Ann, a rocky peninsula 30 miles northeast of Boston, extending six miles to sea. The city of Gloucester is on the Cape, and at its eastern tip, six miles away, is Hodgkins' Rockport, where his LuAnn is the only boat rigged for tuna. That explains why no tuna fisherman, not one, is as close to the best tuna fishing left in the U.S. as he, in his little aerie above Rockport Harbor. From his front door Stellwagen is 14 miles south, Jeffrey's 18 miles east and Ipswich three miles north. He is an hour closer to Jeffrey's than all the millionaires docked at Gloucester's Cape Ann Marina, which has fuel available and plenty of mooring space. Rockport has neither, so Hodgkins gases up in Gloucester, and squeezes his LuAnn into Rockport Harbor, a very small pond, where he is a very big fish.
Hodgkins lives above The Candle Shop, at the corner of T Wharf and Mount Pleasant Street. The view is pure Rockport—the sheltered inner harbor beneath, ringed with granite and rock-weed, and bobbing with lobster boats. At its outer edge is Motif No. 1, an old red lobster shack that is supposedly the most painted object in the U.S. Below Hodgkins' porch railing is a sign, advertising his tuna charters, which he has been meaning to remove for several years.
On a recent Saturday morning Hodgkins was wakened at 7 a.m. by a loud knock on the side of his open bedroom doorway, three feet from his nose. "Hey," said one of two large, unshaven men, "what time the fishing boats go out?"
Hodgkins sent the men down the wharf, to where the head boats were loading. Then he got up. It was a beautiful morning, and he was going tuna fishing.
He left his front door half open and on it he placed a large homemade GONE FISHING sign, one of a pile that includes AT WORK, SUSAN CALL ME AT JANET'S, AT CAPE ANN MARINA LOUNGE and SLEEPING COME IN. He walked 25 feet to the edge of T Wharf, boarded LuAnn, maneuvered through the packed inner harbor and past Motif No. 1. Outside the breakwater he headed south toward Stellwagen Bank.
His mate was a 25-year-old friend, Wayne Hale of Boston's Hale Fish Co., who says that Hodgkins is the most generous man in the world. Hale was 18 when Hodgkins, who hardly knew him, heard he liked fishing. "Go take my boat," Hodgkins said, "the keys are in it."
Twelve miles out they passed the area where in late October of 1962 Hodgkins caught five tuna, from 200 to 400 pounds, in one day—single-handed. He was still the Boy Wonder then. He was dating an American Airlines stewardess at the time, and she ran the boat. He had to fight the fish until they tired, jam the rod into its holder and then jump out of the fighting chair to do the gaffing. He believes the feat has never been equaled.