Hugh Bishop, 86, says when he watched a new documentary about lobstering in Marblehead recently, the first thought that popped into his head was, “Who the heck is that old guy?”
“And it was me!” he added with a laugh.
Bishop is one of dozens of local lobstermen and women featured in “Lobster Fishing in Marblehead,” a two-hour film by local historian and photographer Dan Dixey.
“It brought tears to my eyes seeing the life behind me,” Bishop said. “I talked to a couple of other hard-bitten guys and they said the same thing.”
Bishop is still an active lobsterman. He’s been doing it since he was 10 years old.
Dixey, who grew up in Marblehead and traces his roots here back to the Mayflower, began his documentary project in the summer of 2021, after spending time at State Street Landing.
“I started taking pictures and videos of lobster boats coming in and going out,” he recalled. “I thought it would be fun to talk to some people, see what they had to say.”
He added, “I didn’t have a layout and probably broke every documentary rule because I had no plan but to talk to people. I got a huge response.”
Dixey shot 700 gigabytes of video.
“I think there are probably 50 different people seen in the film,” he said. “It’s not just about the current guys. There are stories about some of the old-timers, too.”
In addition to his footage, Dixey pulled from his collection of 5,000 historic photos, all from Marblehead. The earliest ones shown in the movie date to 1890.
Dixey’s own 10th great-grandfather Issac Allerton started the first commercial fishing business in Marblehead in 1631 after coming over on the Mayflower.
“Fishing was the deadliest occupation in Marblehead in its 400-year history by far,” Dixey said. “There have been so many accidents. And the 1846 gale killed 65 men and boys. There were two Dixeys who died in that storm.”
Dixey said he learned “a ton” making this movie.
For example, lobstering equipment has changed quite a bit.
“The older lobster traps were made out of wood,” he said. “Imagine pulling those soaked, wooden traps up by hand. Now they have aluminum wire traps that are half or a third of the weight. And they have electric pulleys. There’s also all the new navigational equipment.”
Dixey added, “The other big change is the regulations they have today. It’s pretty expensive to keep up with the regulations that are constantly changing. A lot of fishermen don’t like the regulations, but none of them dwelled on it or complained a lot. “
Susan Michaud, 79, has been lobstering since she was 14. She and her husband, Jay, go out a couple of times a week now.
“We don’t fish as hard as the other guys; we’ve cut down on the size of our traps,” she said. “They are 3-footers instead of 4. Last year, we fished 400 traps.”
The Michauds enjoyed watching Dixey’s movie.
“It’s a good piece of posterity,” Susan Michaud said. “It’s absolutely fantastic.”
When asked about his favorite story from the movie, Dixey couldn’t choose.
“It’s hard to single out,” he said. “I think just the emotions from these people. I had no scripts. I didn’t even have questions written down. I turned the camera on, and people just started talking to me, speaking from the heart. It was pretty powerful to me, pretty emotional.”
The documentary premiered this spring at the Marblehead Museum, and Dixey is hoping for more screenings this summer and fall, possibly at the Warwick.
As for his next project, Dixey didn’t pause before saying “sleep.”
“This thing went much bigger than I planned,” he said. “This is my favorite Marblehead project of everything I’ve done over the last 40 years. I didn’t know any of these guys. I was kind of intimidated to walk down and say, ‘Hey, do you mind if I take a video of you?’ It’s amazing the relationships I developed with these people. They are my friends now.”
You can watch the trailer for “Lobster Fishing in Marblehead” at youtube.com/watch?v=XAqSSCIhIvw.
Dixey has written two books and appears regularly in the Current, sharing historic photographs. You can follow his work at facebook.com/Marbleheadimages.