Partners in Fishing and Fishmongering: Father and Son Tied Like Bowline Knot
One Louis S. Larsen wasn't enough for the world. Louis Samuel Larsen, 81 was born in Menemsha. He began fishing at the age of 14 and retired from offshore fishing in 1994. In his career he fished as far north as Newfoundland and as far South as the Yucatan. He and his wife Mary have four children and they run three fish markets on the Island. His youngest son, Louis Stanley Larsen, 53, fished for many years with his father. He shifted to running the Net Result fish market in Vineyard Haven in 1984.
Interviews by Mark Alan Lovewell
Louis Stanley Larsen (Little Louis):
I was called Little Louis from day one.
Whenever Dad was home, I can remember being with him, going on the boat, standing around, helping him work on the engine and stuff like that. Anything that he needed. He called me Louis. He didn't have to worry which Louis I was. He was the one calling me. It was tough with the girlfriends. Which Louis do you want? Do you want the big Louis or the Little Louis. ‘Jeez Mom, do you have to call me that in front of them?'
My father, he was a fisherman, you know. He plied the ocean. It was neat just listening to his stories. My grandfather was on the ocean. My father just kept on going.
My father was definitely hard, I think that is where I learned to work so hard. For a long time I couldn't understand why he worked so hard, but when you started putting the numbers together I realized we usually caught more fish than anyone else. We fished early in the day or late in the day - when everyone else wasn't up yet, or had already quit for the day. All of a sudden it would get slack tide or something and we'd get eight or ten swordfish. We'd have a big day when everyone else had a mediocre day.
There were a few times when I couldn't understand why he did things different, until it panned out. Okay. I can remember a few times when we left the fleet. You basically think that the fleet is on the swordfish. And it was just too crowded and he'd say: ‘We have to find our own fish.' And we ended up having huge days.
I can remember one day we had 61 fish. On the 82-foot schooner Mary Elizabeth there were five on board.
I was the mate, the cook, the engineer. I was wheelman and steered onto the fish. Unless it was foggy, then I would stand. Everyone else could go to the bunk, but on a foggy day, I had to stand on the stand. That was fun too.
You are only out there for one reason and if you aren't fishing then you aren't making money. So you needed to keep fishing. It took me awhile. So when two boats would hook up, the guys might be playing poker and whatever else. But we were still working. On our boat we were always busy. You were either finishing up for the day or getting ready for the next day. So you could start earlier.
People flocked to Dad. When he told a story, you couldn't stop listening to him. He was natural. Sometimes I hated my father, especially when he told me to go up the mast and there was a 30-mile-per-hour wind. I would think, are you kidding me? He would just say to me, ‘Just remember that when I strike the fish you have to be going downwind. I'd say okay.
And when I did something wrong, I can remember I'd get the look. When I didn't come up on the fish right. He would turn and he'd look up at me. He'd give you that look that went right through you. The look said you screwed up. And you knew you'd messed up. It was like that if he saw a fish before I did, and I should have seen it first.
I quit fishing in 1984.
When he built the steel dragger Mary Elizabeth, he needed a commitment from me. I said I would give him seven years. But the whole time, I was thinking: ‘I hope nobody opens a year-round fish market down Island.' I thought, I can make it. I kept waiting. Everyone told me I was crazy.
When I opened the fish market Dad would do whatever he could to help. When we were building the place, he was there. He would come down and put lobsters in the freezer. He was a phone call away. He would be there.
He was my go-to guy. Whatever I wanted, Dad was there. It was natural, he was always there.
Christmas Eve dinners. The thing I love most about the holidays, no matter what problems you might have in the family, you leave it at the door. You just have a good time. We never had a problem partying.
I quit fishing because I wanted to be home with my family.
Louis Samuel Larsen (Big Louis):
Someone would holler ‘Louis!', and we would both respond. Then someone would ask, which one? They finally got to say Little Louis.
He was just a little tyke. They still call him Little Louis.
Whenever I came home from a trip, we were always together on the boat. Later on we started lobstering together. Then he fished with me. He was just a little thing.
Fishing is all I ever wanted to do since I was a kid, that is all you heard about at Menemsha. A fisherman was as good as anyone could be. That was my goal, to do the things I set out to do.
When he fished with me, he was great. He was a wonderful boy. He never doubted anything I ever did, regardless what I suggested. Although, I remember a time and only one time.
We were on the southeast part of Georges Bank, swordfishing. We weren't doing very well swordfishing. And so they all said, ‘We heard someone got some up by the lightship [Nantucket Lightship].' So the whole fleet went to the westward to the lightship.
When we got up in the morning, I said, no we are not going up that way. We are going down to the eastward. We are going to this other spot.
We steamed down that way. He said all the boats are going to the westward, but we have to go to the eastward. So the next morning, I couldn't believe it. I had the morning watch. And God I looked out and here is a swordfish finning right along side of us. We harpooned him. and before the airplane got out by 8 a.m. we had eight fish ironed on.
We ironed out [harpooned] 61 fish that day, and then we got back 52. Sharks ate the nine. He was just out of high school. He wasn't married at the time. He was always with me, when we did things.
When I had the Mary Elizabeth [a steel dragger] rigged up, I had it rigged up for the kids, have something good for the boys.
He just said, ‘Dad, as you know I promised I would be with you on the Mary Elizabeth for five years. I want to start a year-round market on my own.' So I went down to talk to someone who knows Vineyard fish markets.
That person said, ‘Tell Louis he will never make it in the winter time. People will not buy fish. So I told him, ‘You know Louis, don't you think you should research it more?'
He said, ‘No, that is what I want to do.' Then I said, ‘Well that is great.' I worked with him and helped him. And between fishing trips I would help him. When I came back in with a trip of yellowtail and flounder, I would call him on the phone and he'd meet me wherever I came in. If I was coming up the Sound he would meet me in Vineyard Haven, or he would meet me in Menemsha. So he always had the very best. The last part of the trip is what we saved for him. I couldn't believe he would take it. I would be in every week, and he'd say he needed five bushels or totes of yellowtail, haddock and cod. He bought all my lobsters. So the market started growing. He deserves all the credit for it. He puts in long hours.
My daughter said to me the other night, ‘Without you Dad and Mom, we couldn't have made it. None of us could have made it. For you gave us the inspiration, to do the very best you could.' I am very proud of each and every one of them. They are my life.
When things are dismal and dark, I always look for the brighter side of things. I never thought that this storm was coming and we couldn't finish this trip, or something else, stop us from finishing the trip. I always felt that I will go this far, whether the hurricane comes, or the breeze comes, I think this is the motivation I gave him. To go ahead.
He works too hard. Gosh, he goes to the store at three in the morning. He doesn't get out until 10 p.m. He doesn't get much sleep by the time he gets home. He has the same leg cramps I have, because in the days of fishing, you were on your feet all the time. He is doing the same thing at the market down there. It is very long hours.
He is a part of me. I want to be there for him. And that is what he wants from me. He calls me so many times. I had a friend teach me how to fill the freezers and how they work. When Louis started up the market I ran the refrigeration. If a cook didn't show up, I would cook. I was an engineer for years and mate.
I am very proud of him and I am proud of all my kids. They all work hard. Tom Tilton used to say, ‘You can't go by the way the Larsens fish. They are lucky. The swordfish breach aboard their dories.'
Every Christmas Eve we have a Norwegian dinner, and we all get together.