A life lived on the water floats underneath every trap buoy

The shape of them today is pretty much the same as it has been for many years; the colors, well, that is another story. The colors as varied, as there are colors, abundantly dot the blue surface of Maine waters like an Easter basket brimming with brightly colored eggs. They look the same, but are in many ways distinct and different, just like people.


In the summer months, the floating colors of the lobster trap buoys are probably the second thing people driving the coast will see, just after the raucous waves of the sea pounding against granite ledges. If lucky a lighthouse will be perched not too far away.

The buoy is a fisherman’s calling card. It is also his note to self of where he was yesterday and where he will be going tomorrow. But more importantly, it is his signature of a life lived on water.

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Many of us never realize the time and money invested in an occupation such as this. The average trap runs over $120 and the line and buoys add to that cost. Then there is the time and labor in making it all right in preparation for the daily trips out to sea. A fisherman can fish up to 800 traps, and the boats to haul those traps are the six-figure type as far as cost goes.

If the fisherman fishes year round rather than just the summer months, then the gear and tackle needed to go miles off shore is much different and far more expensive. It is also dangerous, whether fishing in a shallow cove or miles off shore. And though it may be hard to believe for us watching this all from land, the job can be lonely and full of repetition, perhaps even boring, as days become years.


Fishing is intrinsic to life Downeast, and this is glaringly obvious to visitors and natives alike. Numerous signs of the constant work and effort that go into this livelihood are just as evident outside a fisherman’s home as they would be on the dock of a working harbor. Piles of equipment, traps on the mend, and lines that stretch for miles can be spotted in the yards of fishermen plying their craft. Freshly painted buoys drying on a line, boats parked on blocks awaiting their due, coils of rope and stacks and stacks of traps: all are signs of this effort.

The smells, the sounds, the hard and repetitive work seem glamorous to those from away, but a constant reality to the fisherman and his family. It is a living, sometimes easy, but often hard when too many are doing it or get too close to one another while doing the job. The constant unpredictability of the weather added to shortages of things such as bait and the ever tightening of fishing grounds adds to the stress and tension of going out and coming back with a decent catch. This is all right there, underneath a painted buoy floating on Maine waters.


The trap buoy is just a small piece of a much bigger picture, sort of like an iceberg with much of its girth hidden from view. From the shore, the colored buoy is a pretty slice of Americana, with so much of the work, devotion and dedication hidden under the water, not visible, not palpable to many of us. But it is there: the struggle, the effort, the work, and the stories of those that have done this before. Fathers, grandfathers, sons and daughters tethered by line to trap and to the past, a past that rolls with the breakers and speaks when a trap is pulled and breaks surface revealing its bounty.


So when I look to the waters off the coast of Maine, I see more than just colors bobbing on a blanket of blue. I see lives floating before my eyes. And as the wind whips a frenzy of froth, foam and salted spray, I wipe my face and give thanks to those that live life on the water, for themselves and for us. Their lives are what I behold every time I look to the sea.


RJ Heller

About RJ Heller

Having arrived here from Pennsylvania over four years ago, there has been plenty to learn and even more to observe. This place is different, but I mean that in a good way. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, I am a college graduate with a teaching degree, a business founder and seller, and a father of two children with my wife Stephanie; life has been full and somewhat adventurous, but finding Maine remains a high watermark in my life.