Montauk, NY - Shortly after 3 a.m., John Nolan walked down the pier of the Town Dock in Montauk, New York and toward the bright red hull of the fishing vessel he captains – the Sea Capture.
Despite his youthful face, and being one of the youngest captains in the small hamlet on Long Island, Nolan’s sweatshirt, ripped from years of fishing and dingy from days at sea, and five-o-clock morning shadow give him the look of a veteran fisherman.
Climbing on board in the dark, Nolan moved around, pulling ropes, flipping on switches and readying the vessel as if he’d been doing it since he was born.
In a way, he had. Nolan is the second-generation fisherman to captain his family’s tilefish boat. He watched his mother break the bottle of champagne over its bow when its construction was complete. He kicked fish on the deck and into the hole as a child. And when he was 8-years-old, he went offshore fishing with his dad for 10 days.
On this morning, Nolan headed out on another 10-day trip, 100 miles offshore.
“I did go off to college,” Nolan said. “That first year, I came home and did a fishing trip with Dad. I puked the whole time. I was miserable. But when I got home I got paid.”
Nolan came home from school, “never looked back,” and started working on the decks of the boat. He did that for more than two years. When fishing got tough, and the Sea Capture needed another captain, then 20-year-old Nolan got his shot.
“John paid his dues,” said big John Nolan, Nolan’s father. “It’s a requirement. We didn’t give him an inch. He really earned it.”
Nolan’s parents – John and Laurie Nolan – started the family tilefish business in the late 1970s and brought it to Montauk in 1980.
The Sea Capture may be one of three tilefish boats in Montauk, but they are responsible for roughly 25 percent of the tilefish caught in the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s region, which stretches from New York to North Carolina.
Fishing for the Nolans isn’t just what they do for a living, it’s a huge part of their family history.
Big John Nolan’s fishing started out before he met Laurie when he worked as a clam digger. When clamming got tough, he moved offshore to lobster.
“He sold lobster to my father,” Laurie said. “That’s how we met.”
Laurie worked the boats with John for years. When lobster fishing got tough, they tried their hand at tilefish. Eventually, they moved to Florida to bottom fish, which ended up being what set them up for successful tilefishing back in Montauk.
During their bottom fishing days in Florida, they used circle hooks on a long line. At one point, the gear for tilefish tactics transitioned from J hooks (pre-baited on the docks) to circle hooks (baited and snapped on the line while out at sea).
Since John and Laurie were already using that method, they were ahead of the game back in Montauk.
“They were really pioneers when they got here,” said another Montauk fisherman who’s known the Nolan family for decades.
The new style of fishing with the snap on circle hooks may have been more labor intensive, but it was better at catching fish.
So good, in fact, that, Laurie said, fishermen did real damage to the tilefish fishery, which was at one point declared overfished.
That’s when Laurie, now a veteran councilwoman with the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, got involved with the regulatory side of the business. She helped all the tilefish boats from Montauk through the process of developing a plan to rebuild the fishery.
Even as a regulated fishery, young John Nolan loves running the boat.
The Sea Capture is a four-man operation – the captain and three mates.
Their 10-days at sea are hard fishing days. Each starts 20 minutes before sunrise. Once there’s light, they start setting the line - miles and miles of baited hooks. They let the lines “sit” long enough to eat breakfast and then start pulling it in. Nolan steers the boat and takes hooks off the line at the same time. The other crewmembers gut the fish and get them packed into the ice-filled fish hole below deck. Each hook is re-baited as the fish come off.
There’s a morning and an afternoon set, Nolan said. The entire day is done about 3 a.m. and restarted just before the sun comes up.
“At sea,” he said, “you definitely sleep in shifts.”
Big John Nolan hasn’t been on the boat in a long time, and definitely not since Nolan started running it.
“I talk like I miss it,” big John said, smiling. “But if someone really asked me to go out, I’m not sure that I would.”
Big John does stay very involved with the boat at the dock, though, helping with maintenance and long term planning. Laurie still stays involved, too. Both Johns will tell you she runs the whole show, talking to the markets, managing the books and keeping them all straight.
As dangerous and hard as life at sea can be, Laurie said, she doesn’t worry about Nolan while he’s fishing.
“It’s when he’s on land in the middle of July and I hear sirens that I worry,” she said. “He knows what he’s doing out there on the water.”