For the early settlers in Newfoundland, the caplin played a vital role. In late June, just as the tiny potato shoots were showing above the ground, caplin would be spread along the rows and covered with soil to fertilize the crop.
Caplin, too, along with herring and dogfish, were the chief food for dogs. But it is perhaps as a staple in the settlers' diet that the caplin fulfilled its most important function.
For the settlers of Comfort Cove, Notre Dame Bay, things were no different. After a long, hard winter the food supply was greatly diminished. The arrival of the caplin was looked forward to with great anticipation. Each year the caplin appeared at the Wild Bight so that the male and female ritual of procreation could be carried out along the sandy beaches. Soon the people arrived to gather the silver fish; the shimmering males were gleefully carried to the community kitchens to be fried in fat back pork and heartily consumed!
In my poem, "The Caplin Saga," the year is 1921. The day is June 25. The caplin come ashore under a full moon and the news soon sweeps through the village and surrounding area like a giant swell. A feeling of relief and great anticipation spreads along the coast. Settlers prepare to reap the bounty so generously provided.
The Caplin Saga
For a great many years the caplin has come
to land in the Wild Bight, 'twill suit everyone
With caplin on the ground the potatoes will grow
And ease the hard winter that's coming we know.
For most of our people they do not have cash
To buy fertilizer would be a hard task
But when God gives a bounty, it's free on the beach
And for a needy people it's within their reach.
The boats and the punts are brought quickly to fore
The seines and the cast nets are taken out of the store
The people move quickly to the rant and a roar
They sing "Jolly Poker" as they push boats from the shore.
Alfred Ginn down the Cove is first off the mark
His seine it is mended and red with spruce bark
Stephen White and John Godden are not far behind
Alfred's got a seine; they keep that in mind.
The Coopers, Adams, Wells and Uncle Sam Brown
Will go in small boats and load them right down
William Greenham will follow in punt to the ground
And if he capsizes he surely will drown.
The Heads and the Eveleighs have a number of crews
Uncle Mose broke a crankshaft; not very good news
Skipper Joe Eveleigh will take him in tow
Now everyone's ready, away they will go!
Walter Hale in his punt is rowing away
Hubert Harnett is making wooden wheels for his dray
When he completes his task no doubt he will say
"I'll go after the caplin later today!"
The Birchy Bay boats coming around Nine Mile Point
The dark blue and black bullies are all in a line
Billy Lewis riding point and doing it fine
George and Stewart Lewis are coming behind.
By ten in the morning the boats are all in The Bight
A small sea is running; the wind it is light
To the people on shore it's a pretty grand sight
The dark mass in the water says, "It's caplin alright!"
The cast nets are flashin', there's caplin galore!
The women and children grab them up from the shore
Most of the people will feast on caplin today
It is Manna from heaven God is giving away!
Uncle Alfred Ginn has a man on the point
Holding the arm of the seine with all of his might
The boats are ringing the seine round a great caplin mass
The man on the point must hold the arm fast.
Now dip nets are working; the piggins, as well
The water from the caplin soon fill up the dill
"Keep bailin' the water," Skipper Alfred will shout
If it reaches the flywheel you'd better watch out!
Now the boats they are loaded they're leaving The Bight
Some loaded to the gunnels; some not very tight
With a moderate sea heaving some men get a fright
And now they are bailin' with all of their might.
Lewis Head, a young man, just back from the war
Takes his punt to the Bight Beach; it's not very far
He will use a hand bar, buckets and a very strong arm
To carry caplin from there up to his farm.
Around Comfort Cove Harbour a mighty big chore
To carry caplin from boats on the beach to the door
With hand bars and dung tubs, and buckets and pots
And Uncle Stephen White is using his ox.
Uncle Hubert Harnett with his horse and his dray
Hauls up caplin for a number of people that day
With his latest construction, a round wooden wheel
One wonders at how good Uncle Hubert must feel.
To help out his neighbours in a most different way
With the new wooden wheel, his horse and his dray
The backbreaking labour is not there anymore
They land the caplin quickly on the ground that's for sure.
The caplin are spread, the potatoes are trenched
People are thanking their God for his help in a pinch
With a supply of dried caplin all stashed in the store
Lots of food for the dogs, there'll be potatoes galore
They will survive the long winter that's coming for sure!