This is an excerpt from the chapter on Line in the book to be. Two of these men, Russell Daigle and Neg Sauce are gone now. We celebrated Edward Couvillier’s 80th birthday earlier this month. Far from acting his age, he is ready to start building a new boat this spring.
As with hooks, it is impossible to overemphasize the fundamental importance of line to a fisherman. Strength and durability, often taken for granted in today’s ubiquitous artificial fibers, was not a characteristic of organic fibers like cotton. And the story of line does begin with cotton, at least for the Myette Point community it does. Cotton was the only fiber made into fishing line during the early years of the three generations, and while it provided the necessary connection between fisherman and hook, it performed its role with such serious shortcomings that it actually limited the performance of commercial fishing activity.
Cotton line was all there was. And put to use by fishermen, it was wet most of the time. Being resourceful, the Myette Point fishermen found ways to minimize the limits of cotton brought about by its inability to withstand deterioration when wet.
Cotton line was available in bulk amounts in what were called hanks. These bundles of line were loose coils measuring about 14 inches long by six inches wide by two inches thick. They came in a box of five one-pound hanks. Line was sold by the pound, not by length. There were any number of sizes, usually designated by one of a series of numbers, the smaller ones noting the smaller diameter (and therefore strength) and grading upwards. Number 15 might be used to knit a dipnet while a number 42 could be used for a trotline mainline. The commonly used numbers were 15, 30, 36, 42, 48 and 60. It was always one pound, you just got less per pound in the larger sizes and more in the smaller ones. The cost for a five-pound set of hanks was four or five dollars.
But the main problem with cotton line was that it didn’t resist breaking down when wet. It only had a lifetime of from several weeks in the warm water of summer to a couple months in cold water. The fishermen had to constantly be changing out line, making new stageons or knitting new nets for their dipnets, castnets, etc. It is necessary here to define a couple terms even though they will be dealt with in detail in other places. The terms “main line” and “stageon” define the primary components of a linefishing outfit. The main line is just what it says it is, the line that connects two points and from which the hooks are suspended. It is usually the heaviest line a fisherman deals with. The stageon (at right) is the item that connects the hook with the main line, and usually is a swivel joining two equal loops. One loop ties the stageon to the main line and the other has the hook on it. The stageon is tied directly to the main line. With respect to the problems with keeping line in the water, Edward Couvillier talks about the difficulties they had.
EC: I remember, you get out there and get you a bunch a lines together, get em out, fish em…maybe a month or two months, three months whatever, they’d last better in the wintertime than would in the summertime. First thing you know the fish would go to bitin and go out there and start your line [and it would] be breakin in half.
JD: In your hand?
EC: Yeah. Then you’d have to be changing line.
JD: You try to do the whole thing all at once, or you had…the main line, the stageons, the hooks all brand new at the same time?
EC: Aw yeah. Umhm.
And Russell Daigle adds this:
RD: …when we started fishing it was cotton line, there wasn’t no such thing as nylon. And about every three weeks, in the summertime, you had to put out new line.
JD: Whether you tarred it or not?
RD: Whether you tarred it or not, it lasted about three weeks and then it would go to breakin.
There wasn’t much you could do to retard the degrading strength of the line, but a number of things were tried and one seems to have had at least have some effectiveness. That was coal tar. Tar was “cooked”, heated, in such a way that the substance would convert from permanently soft to drying into a firm film. Left alone without cooking it would never dry, and overcooked it hardened into a shiny black substance that had no pliability and cracked when bent in any way. So it was necessary to know how to cook it properly. There were no cookbooks with recipes to teach the method. Neg Sauce explained it this way.
JD: And so, to try to preserve that cotton, you used tar.
NS: We used tar…that pitch tar.
JD: Pitch tar, the same thing as on…for nets?
NS: Yeah. Used to cook it. The longer you would cook it, the harder it would get.
NS: Tar. When you buy it, it was soft. You could call it raw tar. [laughs] Yeah, buy it, it was soft. Just like…something like a thick, thick paint. And you put it in a can and cook it. Oh yeah, if you cook it too long, it was…it was too hard, it would get too hard. It would get stiff. If you cook it too long.
JD: Didn’t you have…didn’t you have some danger of burning your line if you left it in there too long?
NS: Oh, you couldn’t, uh, you couldn’t heat it…it couldn’t a been too, too hot, you know, when you soak your line in it. It had to be just hot enough. A lil bit too hot, that line was gone. You’d burn it.
JD: And how would you tell when it was just right?
NS: We used to spit in it. [laughs]
JD: Spit in it?!
NS: Yeah, a drop of water, or something, you know? The hotter it get, you drop a lil drop of water and that thing would sssshhhh. Let it cool off, when it cooled down, when it didn’t hardly do that [hiss], that’s when you put your line in it.
JD: Ohh, so that’s how you checked it, eh? You’d spit in it until it did…
NS: Yeah, that’s what I used to do, my brothers and them too. Spit like that, boy, that thing sssshhhhhhhh. [laughs]
JD: When it was too hot?
NS: Yeah. Leave it cool down till it didn’t hardly do that, you could put your line in it.
JD: And was it pretty…was it kind of like water when you’d put your line in it? Or was it thick, thick?
NS: No, when you put your line, it was pretty thin. It was hot, but after it cooled off, that stuff would get hard.
JD: It would get stiff too, I guess, then…when it would dry, the tar, eh?
NS: Yeah, that’s why you couldn’t cook it too much, cause your line would’a got too stiff. You just cook it where it wouldn’t stick on your hands.
JD: Wouldn’t stick on your hands?
NS: Right. Just cook it enough where it wouldn’t stick.
JD: By stick…what you mean by stick?
NS: Well, it’s like when you put your hand in paint, you know how it stick? Same thing, probly be the same thing. Put your line in…in there, if it wasn’t quited cooked enough, well it was stuck all the time was out there. You…you get that stuff all over you hands.
JD: Ohhh. So it would kind of stay sticky, and wet, like, eh? It wouldn’t dry.
NS: Yeah. Sticky and wet, like. That’s why you had to cook it. You probably could’a fixed with a lil coal oil and put your line in raw, but then you’d had to leave the line out in the sun, maybe for a week, or more, for it to dry.
JD: Before the coal oil would dry, eh? Well, who taught you to do those things, with that tar like that?
NS: Aw, we come up with that. From our old parents, we come up with it.
JD: So, tar had been used for a long time, you think?
NS: Aw yeah. As far as I can remember. That was about the best thing.
And so that's a sample of what they told me in recorded interviews a little more than a decade ago.