Holly Masterson’s neat shingled home has nautical charts pinned to the wall, a barnacle-encrusted glass bottle on the front step, and a lobster buoy hanging from the porch roof. Painted white, blue and DayGlo yellow, the pattern on the buoy is registered with the state of Maine for Jennifer Lynn, the 35-foot Mitchell Cove that Holly lobsters on with her stepdad Dave Horner. Near the house a six-foot tall sign is propped by the garage advertising Maine shrimp for sale, and you get the idea that Holly’s life is wrapped up in the sea.
Holly makes her living fishing. She lobsters, scallops, shrimps, and has dragged for haddock, monkfish, cod and other ground fish. It is not an occupation for those who aren’t willing to work long hours, and hard hours. Holly is a woman who sees the sunny side of life, however, and hauling traps, shucking scallops, and marketing the catch offers her the chance to be outside, with variety and challenge as well as income.
When she was fifteen, her stepfather hired her to clean his fishing boat and get in provisions for the next day’s run. She would drive down in a small red pick-up, hose down the boat, grab the list left by the fishermen, and get in their supplies. Jim was stern man, and Dave’s right-hand man back then. Holly’s job included cleaning his working station and fishing gear. While Holly loved the grown-up feeling of driving a truck with her worker’s license, and restocking the boat, she never once thought someday she would be doing what Jim did.
“I’m now the crew,” Holly says, “using all the equipment and working with all the tools that I used to keep clean, but never imagined I’d be operating.” She also went out on the boat when she was young, but claims, “When I was fourteen, I wanted nothing to do with it. It was interesting to watch, but that is all. Nothing I ever contemplated as a career.” Fishing and being on the water is now Holly’s life, and it turns out she comes by this naturally. During a recent visit to family she learned that her great-great-grandfather Charles Beshong, a fisherman out of Gloucester, Massachusetts, was lost at sea in 1893, leaving Holly’s great-great-grandmother a widow and seven months pregnant. This tough lady, named Lena, also lost her next husband at sea. She went on to remarry, raise her family and pass on to Holly a love of the water and a resilience that is just can’t be quenched.
Growing up in Southwest Harbor, Holly spent a lot of time on the water. Her family had a fish market, and she used to watch her great-aunt Connie cut fish and learned how to look for freshness and quality. Her bedroom looked out over the harbor, and she recalls many happy years waking to the sound of wormers and clammers, and watching the sun rise on the sea. “Now I see the sunrise out on the boat, “ she says. “I can’t imagine a job where I couldn’t see that.” Standing on the commercial dock in Southwest Harbor, her old family home is just across the way. She points to a white-frame building close to the shore, now a seasonal rental. “If that house ever goes on the market, I’m going to try to get it,” she says. “It would be great to be back there, and with Eden.” Eden is Holly’s three and a half year-old daughter. Waterfront property is a big dream, but does not seem impossible for this hardworking woman.
Tanned, with sun-blonde hair and sea-blue eyes, Holly exudes competence as she moves around on the Luke and Grace, a 45-foot Dixon that she, Dave, and another family member, Molly Damon, have been shrimping with. The boat is docked at Great Harbor Marina in Southwest Harbor. Holly points to the net that hauls up as much as nine hundred pounds of shrimp at a time and spills them into the boat. She refers to the shrimp as red gold. “Dave yells ‘Touch down!’ when we haul in a full net,” Holly says. There is excitement in her voice as she recalls the heavy net swinging overhead and brimming with wriggling shrimp, water pouring from them in streams.
“The shrimp season is going to be reduced by almost seventy percent next year,“ she says, referring to new state legislation. “While there are plenty of shrimp north of the Penobscot River, samples taken south of that show smaller shrimp populations, and that is what they based their decisions on. But they are the ones that make the rules, we just follow them,” and she shrugs philosophically.
Today the boat is rigged for scalloping, and for the past few weeks they have been dragging near Newberry Neck. “Oh my God, it is ridiculous,“ Holly exclaims, “sixty boats in a one mile area.” She describes how hard it is to maneuver in crowded waters, and refers, as she does frequently, to the skill and judgment of Dave. “He is amazing, he always knows what to do. He can steer this boat through anything. We keep our distance, but I have heard of fistfights, and chaos at the docks when it got crowded there.”
Dave has gotten back into scalloping to offset the future reduction of shrimp. He has invested in the specialized gear this fishery requires, which includes heavy mesh nets with four-inch openings so that scallops below the legal limit do not get pulled up. The first day with the new rigging a retired scalloper came along as extra crew. Like most fisherman, he has his own style and method, and showed Holly some of his scallop shucking tricks. “Dave was impressed when I showed him my cleaned scallops. It’s tricky to get the guts off, and not slice or tear the meat. After hours and hours of cleaning scallops I began to see them in my sleep, an endless pile of scallops to clean.” She says that she now has her own tricks for shucking them, though knows if one scallop is missed, Dave’s eagle eye will see it all the way from the cabin.
She gazes around the Luke and Grace, loaded with heavy equipment, solid and well built. “I love this boat,” she says. “People ask if I’m not cold, all day out on the water, but I am never cold. I wear Under Armor, and it is a thousand degrees in there,” she laughs as she shows off the berths with two kerosene heaters. She describes taking the Master Gardener Volunteers Program, and doing all her homework in her bunk, “It is such a great place to focus, we would be steaming from one spot to another and no matter the weather, I was cozy and warm.” The Luke and Grace also has a microwave, coffee maker, computer, and internet access, so in addition to being comfortable, they are always in touch.
Holly leads the way across the dock to another smaller boat, the Jennifer Lynn which Dave and his wife, Jennifer, built. “This is perfect for lobstering, and it doesn’t use as much fuel. “What a mess,” and she shakes her head, picking up a stray rag and putting in away. The boat is actually very neat and clean. Smaller than Luke and Grace, it appears efficient and well planned. “It looks spacious now, but imagine when we are coming in with a full load of lobster,” she says. “There are crates everywhere, we have to move side ways to get around.” Holly talks about how when she was young Dave was always calling, “Get your hands off the rails!” That is something she no longer has to think about, and already her daughter is picking it up. “She has boat savvy,” Holly says proudly. She picks up a bucket containing sand dollar, mussel and clam shells. “These are for Eden, we are going to make decorations out of them.”
With a boat, two boats, there is always plenty to do, to fix, clean, or change. Dave schedules one boat being out of the water for repairs and improvements while they fish from the other. Right now both boats are in because the fall lobstering was so good. “The lobsters shed late, we were still pulling five hundred traps in December. Most people have their traps out by Thanksgiving. This year I saw people putting them back in!” Holly laughs. In the height of the season, they have eight hundred traps out. “We’ve been lucky this year. You always hear so much crying, but the truth is we are all in a good time.”
Dave stops by, and he and Holly talk schedules, equipment, and plan the next few days of work. Dave started fishing at thirteen, and is one of the most successful fishermen around. He fished many years with his stern man Jim, then with his brother-in-law. “Those were good years, but I have a family now, and don’t do any more overnights.” The respect he and Holly have for each other is apparent, and they work together well as a team. Holly remembers tagging along behind him at the fish market, helping Dave put up signs, or haul fish. “This is what I do now, same yard, same things as when I was a kid. I’m there to do whatever he needs, hand him tools, do what he says.”
Dave says, “People ask me how Holly likes fishing, I say, ‘Well, she keeps coming back.’” He smiles at her, and adds, “Look what she has done, a single mom. She owns her own house, and is making a good living.”
Holly quickly counters, “It was you who told me to set aside for the IRS, and not to spend all the money I made. It wasn’t easy.”
“We talk a lot out here about the mindset of success,” Dave says. “Making money is just half of it, doing something smart with that money is the other half.” Holly and Dave enter into a discussion they have probably had many times, about the phenomenon of being shedder rich. Fishermen get paid, but do not have taxes withheld. If they spend all the cash in their wallets they will not have enough to pay their taxes come April. “The government expects these eighteen and nineteen year-olds to know they have to set aside, but that is asking a lot of someone with ready money in their pockets for the first time.” He would like to see a system where money gets withheld. “I have seen kids, good fishermen, have to get menial jobs just to keep out of range of the IRS. They owe so much they will never get out from under. It is a shame to have their lives go so off track.”
Dave is a man who cares deeply about the fishing industry, and gives a lot of thought to ways to make it better. His approach is always sensible, and this includes judging the weather. If it looks bad, he calls it a day. Holly considers these weather days one of the many good things about her job, and says, “Dave pays attention to conditions, and knows when we should stay in. For me, I get unexpected time to be with Eden. It is a gift.”
Even with weather days, Holly puts in long hours. “I get annoyed when people say, ‘You work so much, that sucks.’ They are wrong. I am making money, I have family time, I love what I do. I really don’t know what else I’d rather do. My mom worries about me, and even she says ‘Can’t you find something else to do?’ But why would I?” She goes on to say, “The only hard part of my day is getting out of bed. In the morning Eden comes and cuddles with me, and it is warm and sweet and toasty. But once up, I’m ready. Happy to be on the water making money, learning, and being with Dave, who has been such a positive influence in my life.”
It is because of Dave that Holly has the job she loves.
“When my mother and Dave separated, he and I stayed really tight, he was, and still is, a mentor to me.” She explains that in 2004 Dave was in a bind, he had lost his crew and needed help to haul traps. “Of course I helped him,” Holly says, ”but it was a terrible day. It was cold, and my hands were frozen. I was crying, and just wanted to go home. My fingers got stiff, and it hurt to put the rubber bands on the lobsters’ claws. I was so glad when we got back to shore, there was no way I was going to do that again.” Back on the dock she was warmed and getting ready to leave when Dave told her what her share of the day’s catch was. “It was a truck payment!” The astonishment of that moment is still in her voice. “I signed on, and have been at it ever since.”
In the beginning it was simply a job that paid well, but Dave’s passion has rubbed off on her. “I love it, I love putting fresh seafood on people’s tables, I love being on the water, and I love how well it works for me to spend time with my daughter.” When Holly became pregnant she had been working full time, but after Eden was born she began job sharing with Molly, working three to four long days, then having three to four days with her daughter.
“When I am on the water, all my attention is there, I am surrounded by nature and air. It’s stimulating and I appreciate it. Then we steam back in, and I call restaurants, and people who said they wanted seafood. Many like to meet us at the dock.” That is her transition time, connecting with people, getting back on land. Dave says, “If they show up with a bucket and money, we’ll sell right off the boat, not care about a profit. It feels good to feed people.”
Holly handles marketing and contacting restaurants and other buyers. She sells from her garage, and is tuned in to requests on Bar Harbor Barter and Swap, a local Facebook trade group. Someone posted an entry looking for scallops at 4:38pm one day. A short while later Holly posted, “I have them, $105/gallon $12/lb. We have them fresh when we can get out and also frozen. We have been bagging them up in one and two pound bags and put in the freezer same day they are caught!” She offers to meet people, or stay up for them, or do whatever is necessary to make it easy for her customers. Fishing is her job, but it has become her passion, and she is always willing to go an extra step.
Then comes the final portion of her day, when she picks up her daughter. “When I get Eden, I am done with work, all my time and energy are for her. We have so much fun together.”
Holly’s home reflects the love she has for her little girl. Side by side with nautical charts and high tech tools for marketing fish are fuzzy stuffed animals, a shelf full of kids books and games, and a child’s desk where Eden neatly arranges toy cars by size and color. Family and work fit well together for Holly Masterson. Anyone who thinks she works too hard or should get another job hasn’t seen the smile that blazes forth when talking about Eden, and or heading out to sea for another catch.
Shrimp with Feta and Ouzo on Angel Hair Pasta
Easy, quick, and a great combination of flavors. The licorice-flavored ouzo brings out the sweetness of the shrimp.
1 medium yellow onion, sliced thin
1 T olive oil
3 medium tomatoes, diced
One pound of Maine shrimp, cleaned
¼ cup Ouzo ( if you prefer no alcohol, try anise-flavored Italian soda syrup)
½ pound of crumbled Feta cheese
1 package off Angel Hair pasta
Use a pan that can also go under broiler. Sauté onion in olive oil until translucent. Add tomatoes and shrimp. When shrimp becomes opaque, stir in ¼ cup Ouzo, and sprinkle cheese over top.
Prepare pasta and keep warm.
Place pan with shrimp into broiler, and broil until cheese begins to bubble. There will be a few browned spots.
Slide shrimp onto pasta and serve.