Look Back At Cape Cod’s Fish Traps

Take a step back in time with Cape Cod's weir fishermen.

Cape Cod’s Fish Traps

Take a step back in time with Cape Cod’s weir fishermen

As a young boy on Cape Cod, I could often be found exploring nearby waters, searching for fish. Freshwater species were my primary targets, as saltwater required transportation to good fishing spots. The fish I caught, though exciting at the time, paled in comparison to the many photos of my father’s catches from years gone by. These were magical photos of monstrous fish from another time. I imagined the day I would have a boat of my own and could fill it to the gunnels with fish, just like in my dad’s photos.

The nets were tarred to make them more durable. This was difficult work done while wearing hot and uncomfortable protective clothing.
The nets were tarred to make them more durable. This was difficult work done while wearing hot and uncomfortable protective clothing.

My father was a commercial tuna fisherman in the 1940s and 50s, when the predominant way to catch tuna in New England waters was using weirs, or “fish traps.” Weir fishermen rely on nets and nature to make their catches. These weirs consist of long poles driven into the ocean floor, with nets strung from them. A long, straight line of poles and nets running in an offshore direction from shallower water toward deeper water would create a barrier, and at the deepest point of this barrier, there would be a heart-shaped chamber with a purse seine strung from it. The fish would swim along the coast until they were blocked by the trap. Their natural instinct to swim toward deeper water would bring them into the heart of the net. Once there, they would get disoriented and, unable to find an exit, be trapped until the fishermen returned to harvest them.

“Horsing” around! The boys take a quick break from their work to pose with a “horse” mackerel (bluefin tuna.)
“Horsing” around! The boys take a quick break from their work to pose with a “horse” mackerel (bluefin tuna.)

The Cape Cod Bay waters just off of Barnstable Harbor were a perfect spot for such a trap. The Goulart & Rupkus Fish Company worked weirs in this location from 1937 to 1964. My father, John Karras, worked for them in the late 1940’s. The photos he and his friend “Mickey” Goulart took show some amazing catches. They would sometimes catch 500 tuna in one day, from footballs to giants, with many other species mixed in.

Hoisting a giant tuna onto the pier in Barnstable Harbor.
Hoisting a giant tuna onto the pier in Barnstable Harbor.

The crew of Goulart & Rupkus Fish Company made just about everything needed for this fishery. They cut the trees, skinned the bark and tarred the poles and nets. They even built the boats they fished from. Their fish house was on Blish Point at the entrance to Barnstable’s inner harbor. It was there that thousands of tuna were cleaned and prepared for market. This was hard work, often done by family and friends. Bluefin tuna was not in the upper echelon of the seafood market as it is today. It sold for pennies a pound and was not as desirable as cod, bass or even mackerel. This was almost half a century before the U.S. began to ship bluefin to auctions in Japan. In fact, these men, many of them WWII veterans, could never have imagined the fruits of their labors ending up in Japan!

A nervous school of tuna explodes within the confines of the weir.
A nervous school of tuna explodes within the confines of the weir.

The news of a sailfish caught in the Cape Cod Canal in 2013, surprised many area fishermen. My dad, at age 85, was not one of them. “See, I told you billfish came through the Canal!” he gloated. He would often tell me of rare and exciting catches they would pull up in the nets, species you would not expect to find in the waters just outside Barnstable Harbor, including giant rays, sturgeon, huge goosefish and even marlin! I often look at his photo of Mike and Mickey Goulart posing with one of the three white marlin they caught in the fish weirs off Barnstable in 1949 and 1950. When I tell others about it, I can see the skepticism in their eyes. I can’t say I blame them. I would find it hard to believe, had I not grown up looking at the photos. The recent sailfish catch, some 63 years later, makes me wonder just how many billfish have come through the Canal in the past 100 years.

Fish weirs were a lot of work to set up and maintain, but the fishermen’s efforts were often rewarded with boatloads of fish.
Fish weirs were a lot of work to set up and maintain, but the fishermen’s efforts were often rewarded with boatloads of fish.

While fishing these same waters today, I can’t help but think of Dad’s old photos. I wonder if the descendants of his catches are roaming these same waters, about to fall prey to my baits. It’s a pleasant thought!

45 on “Look Back At Cape Cod’s Fish Traps

  1. rob

    why do you guys continue to glorify the “old days” the fish stocks have been depleted for years from indiscriminate take as much as you can fishing back then. do these old timers ever say with a tear in the eye “Son, if I didn’t take so many maybe you would have been able to catch one with your son. Sorry we were so greedy”
    Now we have the draggers that rape the seas. I help many people get herring up the ladders in RI. Then they are caught later by giant nets. Something is wrong with this picture. Honest recreational fisherman are not the problem and see the commercial guys suck the oceans dry.

    1. Cody

      Rob, I think your missing the point. I can not understand your reasoning. I respect your god given right to opinions although your efforts may be Bette suited on a different forum. I for one, enjoy history especially local fishing history. Cheers

    2. Ed

      It’s a cool story, with some interesting pictures. I’m not sure if these guys knew at the time, they were depleting the ocean. I will say this– that’s when men were men, and not the pansies of today.

      1. Steve

        Thanks Ed! I have hundreds of pictures of my dad and I am still amazed every time I look at them. He’s going on 89 and still strong. You’re right. That’s when men were men. They didn’t know they were depleting stocks. They were just trying to make a living. I’m glad you liked my story. Hard to see all the negative comments. People are often too quick to judge.

      2. Robert miczke

        I think this depleting of the stocks is some liberal nonsense by wannabe enviromentalists u can’t control mother nature they try they fail it’s those crazy global warming crowd

    3. Steve

      I’ve been fishing rec in this area for 50 years. Take a look around. The number of draggers and days at sea are a fraction of what they were. Cod are “endangered” but there are more than ever. Haven’t seen too many Striper’s and blues but there are 200,000 fat seals that weren’t around 20 years ago. Dogfish that feed on juvenile cod were protected for years. You can’t drop a line in the GOM without hitting a haddock on the head but bag limits are lower. You can keep a halibut but not a wolffish. Atlantis canyon now a MPA. Wake up fisherman. Rec and commercial have to take on the real enemy. Flawed science and a good intentioned but incompetent government out of control.

      1. marko

        This attitude on seals always kills me – how did bass/blues even survive to exist to today with all the seals (dogfish – any predator) that must have been around eating them 500 years ago? Its like the elk/wolf argument in the west. They evolved together as part of a system. We came in with technology and screwed it up in the last few hundred years. You can’t blame the creatures that co-existed before us for thousands of years – as if a predator that’s livelihood has depended on prey species for a millennium should need suddenly change just because some guy with the weekend off and a new boat wants to catch a striped bass. Look beyond your nose.

      2. Matt

        From beyond your nose. Native Americans were harassing them whenever they hauled out. Before they showed up 10-12 thousand years ago it was bears , wolves and anyone else that ate meat. NO ONE is harrassing them now. They’ve grown fat and lazy. They need two legged land predators. My buddy ate some in Iceland. He said it was great.

      3. Anonymous

        Don’t forget great whites, they’re coming back for a reason.

      4. marko

        Good point. Sure native Americans harassed them. But not with rifles from power boats – its a matter of scale. The point is that the problems facing fish stocks are hardly based in predator species like seals or dogfish. The problem lies almost entirely elsewhere – likely industrialized human over harvest and most certainly industrial pollution that affects spawning areas. We humans just naturally turn to easy fixes and things we can see and possibly control on our own personal level. And yes – thankfully great whites are coming back to eat seals and the appendages of anything else that is careless enough to let them. Stay in the boat.
        I guess I can’t speak for the friend eating seals in Iceland, but I’ve eaten ringed seal, walrus, beluga and grey and bowhead whale meat in arctic Alaska and I can only say that there is nothing quite like the “flavor” of marine mammal. If you think that a harvest season for meat will go far in reducing numbers – good luck – I’m all for it as long as wanton waste laws are enforced. I suspect that one tiny taste would be plenty for most would be hunters looking to fill the freezer with the meat of any marine mammal. Its pretty rank.

      5. Scott

        So many cod in fact that we recreational fishermen are allowed a whopping ONE fish per day. Talk about a rich bountiful biomass!

    4. Matt

      Rob. “Those who forget the sins of the way are doomed to repeat them” History is History. Like it or not.

    5. Joe G.

      rob I understand the point your trying to make but you might be on the wrong site

    6. Jack

      Bullshit, the commercial take depleted some species, but the recreational is just as guilty.

    7. Zane

      Yes the old fishermen do show remorse. They know the practices they used have a cause on the fish stocks today. I was lucky enough to be able to give my grandfather a whole haddock for dinner before he passed something he said he hasn’t had in years because of his own greed in the past. However if the government would let us fish and they got rid of foreign mega traulers the fish would be here.

    8. Jason keenan

      Rob like or not it’s our history I for one love to hear about the history of fishing good or bad

    9. Gordo

      It’s unfair to apply today’s norms to yesteryears. A hundred year from now many will look at what we give no thought to as selfish, strange, or unusual.

  2. Justice

    So we have not only you but your father to blame for the blatant loss of the marine ecosystem!

  3. RHT

    Pictures like these should be frequently reprinted to remind us just how productive these waters were and just how depleted they have become. I recall reading stories of hundreds of striped bass stacked up on the banks of the Canal from shore fisherman. It would do a lot of good to see some photos of those stories. There is enough blame to go around. Every fisherman is responsible to keep these resources alive.

    1. Chill bill

      Simmer down guys, I get it populations of fish r going down the tubes. Seals commercial fleets and cat food believe me I get it. Can’t we read the article and for once not go down the wow is us road. Those old school guys were bad ass the greatest generation and I personally enjoyed the pictures and the information. Anyone interested in learning about fishing in the 40 and 50 should check out a book named The Cape Cod Fisherman. It’s a good read on a winters night as long as u won’t get all butt hurt reading about the good old days.

    2. Jack

      Back in the fifties there were many days in Cape Cod bay not far outside Barnstable harbor we could see no less than a dozen schools of giant tuna at any one time. And no matter where we went, down toward Billingsgate or toward P-town it was always the same. Then the Silver Mink showed up from the west coast and it was downhill for tuna from then on. They were sold for catfood.

  4. Ron

    “I wonder if the descendants of his catches are roaming these same waters, about to fall prey to my baits. It’s a pleasant thought!”

    No, they most likely are not. Afterall, stocks don’t crash when fish have the opportunity to reach maturity and reproduce.

  5. Steve

    It’s a rich part of our history and culture here in New England. It was a man’s labor of love, that impacted his son enough, to share the story with us so many years later. I guess it makes coping easier to just blame someone else.

  6. trout26805

    While it’s great to look at the fishery as it was back then I always wonder even back then if fisherman thought the fish being taken in such numbers would last forever.It’s a resource that we share and have to pass it on to future generations of fisherman.When I was in the Coast Guard I saw foreign factory ships taking as many fish as they could catch and draggers cleaning the bottom until the bottom was a desert. Many stocks have never recovered fully if at all. Like the Whiting.
    I hope it’s not to late to fix the problem!

  7. Chris

    So many different views and so many interesting points. I will say that I am a bit old school so to speak just because of the way I was raised. While fishing, my dad was one to want to keep all the fish we caught. My older brother taught me to shoot deer until my tags were gone. Today, my boys and I release most of our catch and take 1 deer a year not to feed my family but to have as an honored treat from time to time. If you were to read Frank Daignault’s book, he is remorseful of the old days, but it’s the way it was. That was the culture of the times. Culture is different and wildlife stocks are not what they were. I will say that I couldn’t believe the difference one day made in the amount of boats fishing for stripers this summer off the coast of Chatham. One day we were the only boat, the next day a commercial day, 100’s. Almost every fish that was caught, short or not, went into a cooler. I had some explaining to do to my boys that day. I, like many of you are worried, bitter to some degree. I can’t teach my boys to net herring and live line them like we did back in the day. I didn’t see a deer while hunting this year. I kept 4 stripers to eat but caught our fair share. It is what we make it. I think people deserve to make an “honest” living not a greedy one. Maybe living by the old adage, everything in moderation? Tight lines all.

  8. Grep fish

    I highly doubt these guys with there trees and tarred nets are to blame for any of this!

  9. another Rob

    If you can’t take it by hook and line you shouldn’t be allowed to take it at all.

  10. Art Jr

    Steve, my favorite fishermen of all times,I am blessed to have sat in your living room with your Dad.As he shared his scrap book with all the pictures with me. All the different types of fishing,eel fishing for the Holidays,shell fishing. back in the late 50’s I could see the net out in the distance,never ever thought that I would talk and know the man who labored out there.I’m honored and blessed to know all of you.I also know that your probably the best fishermen in the bay,you have that sixth sense a gift from God. Have a great year.
    ,

    1. Steve K

      Arthur, Dad always loved telling you his stories cause you were genuinely interested. Thanks for being a good listener. Not many of us were blessed enough to be told of the history of this fishery first hand.

  11. Steve

    I don’t think the use of fish traps or hook and line fishing have much to do with the decline of fisheries. They allow for selective of catch of desired fish and return (alive) of fish that are too small, illegal, or not the targeted. They are also not destructive to the ocean floor, and do not litter the ocean with plastic tackle. Finally, they never came close to the volume of fish caught by factory style trawlers…

    This is in stark contrast to the commercial trawlers which continue to fish our waters and destroy our fisheries. If you have the stomach for it, read this article (from last year!) and take a look at the youtube videos related to this kind of fishing, and you will know what I mean.

    http://www.mvtimes.com/2016/09/07/squid-trawlers-leave-wake-death-south-marthas-vineyard/

  12. Sharon

    Thank you for sharing your memories as well as some history of fishing off of Barnstable Harbor, Steve (Captain Steve)! Adam Rupkus was my great-uncle. I knew he was a fisherman, but I had no idea he co-owned a fish house. My grandparents had moved away from Cape Cod and we only got to visit a few times. My great-grandfather, Adam Rupkus Sr., built boats. Wish I could have know them better and had them share their stories! Your story filled in many blanks for me. Thanks again! 🙂

    1. Paul Rupkus

      Contact me Sharon I’m Paul Adams son who are you. I didn’t think we had family around her on the rupkus side. Are you Julia’s daughter?

      1. Sharon Foster

        Hi Paul. Sorry I missed your reply after I posted 4 years ago. I’m Julia’s granddaughter. My Mom is your cousin, Betty Leahy, Julia’s daughter. I remember meeting you when I was a child. We lived in upstate New York, but were on a family vacation and stopped by your house in Massachusetts.

  13. Dennis R. Mahon

    Thanks for this article. Spending summers in Dennis in the 50’s and 60’s I recall marveling at the weirs. One was right off our beach off Shore Drive. Another was off Sesuit Harbor where we would launch our outboards. I always wondered what they were catching with them. Through the 60’s we would see them when fishing, and even ride around them on water skis, as at low tide they were not very far from shore. Apparently sturdily built, those poles lasted for many years after they had gone out of service. Thanks again.

  14. June Noll

    In regards to the seal population on Cape Cod today, they are grey seals. They first appeared on Monomoy as a birthing destination in the the mid 1980’s. This was the most southern island they had ever been. They will travel to find the best birthing conditions. They found disruptive conditions on Seal Island off of Maine and traveled south, to Monomoy. In 1986, 2 or 3 pups were born, they were then urged to be protected. We have always had seals here on Cape Cod but they were harbor seals, at least 1/4 or less the size of grey seals, and they had a bounty on them, take a nose and turn it in for short money, very short money. They have very few preditors to cull the population. Hopefully some thing will happen to deter them from breeding and birthing here…. I too fished for striped bass in the 70’s and 80’s with no restrictions, caught many, too many fish. There were no regulations. No one ever thought about the idea of over fishing.. I’m glad to see rules and restrictions to help bring back many species that are at risk. Hopefully we and all of the states involved in the conservation of our fisheries will unify with a sound and equitable plan.

  15. Bacalau Bill

    In the third week of August 1950 one afternoon at mid-tide between the two major docks at P-town the Bluefin were chasing feed for about 15-20 minutes. The next afternoon between these two docks a coating of coagulated tuna blood went out with the tide from their dressing and into the refrigerator trailer trucks lined up on the dock waiting for the dressed carcasses. The price dropped substantially as controlled by “Micky”

  16. Sharon Foster

    Hi Paul…sorry I missed your message! I am Julia’s granddaughter. My mom is Julia’s daughter, Betty Leahy, your cousin. 🙂 I remember meeting you when I was a child. We lived in upstate NY, and were on a family vacation to Massachusetts.

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