Herbert Slater, who died last week, was one of a dwindling group of men who took part in the now largely forgotten harpoon fishery that made Menemsha a major source of swordfish landings on the East Coast in the fifties, sixties and seventies. It was a vibrant and exciting chapter in the lives of those men and a since-unequalled time of activity for the harbor itself.

In those days, late in June Menemsha harbor filled with the small boat fleet, some local, some from ports on the mainland. Rigged with topmasts and pulpits, the boats tied up two, three and four deep the length of Dutcher Dock. When the weather was good, the fleet left early, the sound of engines starting and boats getting underway filled the air before sunrise. Some hours later, with two or three men in the mastheads, the boats crisscrossed the waters 10 to 20 miles south of Noman’s, scanning for the signature dorsal and tail fins cutting the ocean surface.

These men were hunter-gatherers, fiercely competitive and secretive about their plans. They rarely fished in sight of one another. Their radio “chats” were studies in non-communication: “Not much doing here; think we might try going to the west’ard some.”

“Not much” might mean two or three fish on deck and another struck and still in the water. “West’ard” could mean east or north or south.

When a fish was sighted, the striker climbed down the ratlines (if he was not already in the pulpit) and from a steering wheel at the masthead the boat was set on a course to intercept the fish. Struck, ideally in the back close to the dorsal fin, the fish usually dove, carrying with him 50 fathoms of stout hemp attached to an airtight nail keg painted with the boat’s colors and names. The doryman was dropped to pick up the keg and gradually, hand over hand, haul the fish alongside. It might take as few as fifteen minutes or as long as two hours to get the fish up the dory, where it was fatally lanced. A raised oar signaled it was time to be picked up, and the fish, now mostly lifeless, was hauled aboard by a fluke rope tied around its tail. On deck the tail and sword would be cut off to allow the fish to bleed, and then covered with a piece of canvas. While the doryman was out hauling, the boat would circle widely hoping to find another fish, and sometimes it did.

On a very good day, a boat might get two or three or four fish. On a bad day, none, and often only one. And because of the weather there were many days when boats couldn’t fish. So in a season, which generally ended soon after Labor Day, a boat might get 40 or 50 fish, sometimes over 100. The men were compensated with shares. In a boat with two men, the value of the fish sold, less the cost of fuel and food (sometimes they anchored out over night), was divided in three: one part for the boat, one part each for the two men.

The great excitement for those ashore was finding out how the boats had done. Late in the day the boats would round Gay Head and head for Menemsha with the setting sun behind them. If birds trailed a boat it was a good sign; the fish were being gutted. Most of the fish landed during that period were sold to Everett Poole who had a retail fish market on Dutcher Dock and a wholesale business that served fish markets on the Cape and in Boston. The fish were weighed on the dock and then hoisted into the cool room in the market. Gutted fish weighed between 150 and 500 pounds, which implied whole fish weights of 250 to 750 pounds.

There were bigger boats, the Larsens’ Christine and Dan and the Tiltons’ Three Bells, and others whose trips to Georges Bank lasted a week or more, and they would take their fish to the fish auctions in New Bedford or to Sam Cahoon’s in Woods Hole.

Many of the boats that tied up each night at Menemsha were commercial fishing boats, but not all. There was Nelson Blount’s Aphrodite, a sleek black yacht without a mast said to have been won in a card game; there was the Seer, a William Hand motor sailor with two very tall masts, which carried its wealthy superannuated owner out to the grounds in the usually vain hope that he would harpoon a swordfish. And there was of course Herbert Slater’s Aloysius, a former rum-runner with a saloon cabin amidships and a tall mast and pulpit added for the chase whose most important and enduring catch was his wife Jane. On the local commercial side there were Gay Headers Walter and Jimmy Manning and the boat Bozo, Chilmark’s Ben Mayhew and Eric Cottle in the Dorothy and Everett, Jimmy Morgan in the Mary B, and boats from Point Judith and New Bedford and Block Island and Newport. All together, a forest of masts and rigging stretched across the twilight sky.

The harpoon fishery got a lift in the late sixties from the introduction of spotter planes which made boats more productive by scanning wider areas, but the introduction of long lining doomed the fishery. Overnight sets of a 14-mile long line with baited hooks every 50 feet could catch 50 to 60 fish at one time. And whereas the harpoon fishery ended with the first big storm in September, the long liners, in bigger boats, pursued their catch down the gulf stream, off Hatteras and into the Gulf of Mexico. In a few years the swordfish were gone from local waters and the small boat fishery, the harpoon fishery, was finished.

Now at Menemsha harbor on a summer’s eve there is no such trail of boats coming in from Gay Head. The great excitement is the setting of the sun itself, and that to great applause. You can’t even find a place to park.