Trap Fishing

Get up close and personal with one of the last remaining trap fishing families in Rhode Island. Meet Corey Wheeler Forrest, her father Alan Wheeler and brother Luke Wheeler. Learn the art of trap fishing and what it takes to make a living on the water.

  • David Helfer Wells
  • David Helfer Wells
  • David Helfer Wells
  • David Helfer Wells
  • Project Type:
    Documentary, Short
  • Runtime:
    7 minutes 2 seconds
  • Completion Date:
    September 15, 2017
  • Production Budget:
    1,000 USD
  • Country of Origin:
    United States
  • Country of Filming:
    United States
  • Language:
  • Shooting Format:
    Digital Video
  • Aspect Ratio:
  • Film Color:
  • First-time Filmmaker:
  • Student Project:
  • Southeast New England Film Festival
    United States
    April 26, 2018
    Rhode Island
    Best New England Documentary Short
  • Voices from the Waters Film Festival
    December 10, 2017
    Official Selection
  • New Haven Docs
    New Haven
    United States
    June 7, 2018
    Official Selection
Director Biography - David Helfer Wells

Director/Cinematographer/Editor David Helfer Wells brings three decades of experience making still images and, more recently, documentary films for publications and websites. One editor described him as a “...specialist in intercultural communication and visual narratives that excel in their creative mastery of light, shadow and sound, stills and video." His still imagery has appeared in Fortune, Life, National Geographic, Newsweek, The New York Times, Time and other magazines. He received funding for past projects from the MacArthur Foundation's Program of Research and Writing on International Peace and Cooperation, the Fulbright Foundation, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and the Alicia Patterson Foundation. The Philadelphia Inquirer nominated his work on the pesticide poisoning of California farm workers for a Pulitzer Prize. His short documentary films have been juried into festivals in Ankara, Bangalore, Jaipur, Lahore, Lisbon, Mumbai, New Haven, New York City, Philadelphia, Providence, Rome, Sacramento and San Francisco.

The complete list of the awards my videos have won are listed at

Select awards include:

Best New England Documentary Short, South East New England Film Festival, Providence, R.I., 2018
Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, Project Grant for Individuals, 2017
Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, Mini Grant Award, 2017
Necati Celik Prize, HAK-IS Respect for Labor Intern. Film Contest, Ankara, Turkey, 2016
My video Blending into the American Dream, was selected as one of the "Picks from 2016" by David Schonauer at Motion Pro Arts. See
My Cafe video won a Best of ASMP award. See
Eddie Award, Folio Magazine, New York City, 2013

Add Director Biography
Director Statement

Corey Wheeler Forrest is a third-generation Sakonnet Point, Rhode Island fish trapper and fish dealer, who, at age 40, works right alongside her brother and father on their trap boat, the Maria Mendonsa. “I grew up as a little girl hearing my grandfather and father talk about fish, weather, the nets. It’s the same thing today: Our conversation revolves around fish and work. It’s who we are,” says Corey.

Fishing families are rare in Rhode Island, with a few out of Point Judith, and a few up the Bay. The Wheelers are three generations into fish trapping with little sign of giving up. Although it is it rare to come across a family that works together over generations, the way the Wheelers harvest fish is even more rare. There are only four trap companies left in Rhode Island, down from approximately 200 in the late 1800s.

The floating trap, as it is called, is unique to Rhode Island and has a long history in the state. It is designed to catch fish that are moving and works best on schooling fish like scup, striped bass, butterfish, bluefish and bonito.

The trap has four components: the leader, the wings, the frame and the net itself. The leader is a long wall of webbing that leads the fish, guiding them down into the trap. This leader, on the Wheelers’ big net off Newport, near the end of the Cliff Walk, is about 1,200 feet long. After the leader comes a series of funnels, called wings. The funnels act like the inside of a lobster trap, making it hard for the fish to escape. At the end of the last funnel is the actual trap, essentially a box made of twine, 60 feet long by 60 feet high. This is where the fish end up. The whole arrangement is held off the bottom by 26 (900-pound) individual anchors. “In a lot of [types of ] fishing it’s the boats that move around,” says Luke. “They follow the fish. In trap fishing, we can’t move. The fish have to come to us.”

To make a trip with the Wheelers and steam out of Sakonnet Harbor is to take a trip back in time. “Not much has changed from the way we fish now to back when this [trap fishing] began,” says Alan. There are no hydraulics. The 30-feet-long skiffs that are towed out behind the Maria Mendonsa, on the way to the nets, have no engines. They need to be either rowed or sculled. When the skiffs are circled around the trap and the net is hauled, called “pulling twine,” it is literally that—hand-over-hand, the entire crew pulls and pulls. Some wear gloves, some do not. Some talk, others are silent. It has a rhythm to it, the air around the boats smells strongly of salt, seaweed and fresh fish.

Making a living in trap fishing isn’t easy. All fishing is unpredictable and full of uncertainty. The warming ocean has an impact; so do fish prices, fuel prices and the list goes on. “It’s hard work to keep it going,” says Alan. “A lot of people have gotten out of it. But I think it’s worth holding on to. We feed people. That’s important.”