My dad retired after over twenty-two years service in the U.S. Navy. He completed his service as a Commander and served in what I now think of as three wars: WWII, Korean, and Cold. As a result of his service, we moved a good bit for the first 12 years of my life and—very importantly for me—spent two and a half years on the island of Malta when he was seconded (to use the cooler-sounding British term) to Headquarters, Allied Forces, Mediterranean (HAFMED in the strange acronymic language of probably all military organizations everywhere), a NATO subsidiary. To date, I have no idea why he got this plum gig but I think the explicit reasons he took the post were that (1) my mother was dual citizen British and U.S. until she was 18 and this was a way of her introducing her kids to an element of British Commonwealth (aka colonial) culture and (2) he had a much more global and progressive perspective than most of his colleagues in the military. As such, when people ask me where I’m from, I never have a simple answer as I do not have any sense of the place I was born. I was raised in all over.
I actually have a poor understanding of what he did in his day job. What I do know is that on retirement, he used his G.I. bill benefit to return to university and complete his education, started with no great skill or enthusiasm (as he admitted) back in Great Depression era in southeastern Washington state. Apparently, day job or not, he had spent so much time reading during his service years that he was able to place out of much undergraduate coursework and obtained his B.A. with top honors in Philosophy in two years. Anyone who has taken a sophomore or above course in philosophy knows that the stuff is usually written with the eloquence of a legal document without the story-telling prowess usually demonstrated therein. He immediately started work on a History Masters degree, one that required a full-length dissertation (or perhaps he wrote one out of pure bloody-mindedness because he just wanted to), and wrapped that up in a year… with top honors again. This led to employment as an assistant professor of history, which eventually resulted in his advancement to a professorship at a regional campus of a state university.
Now, I provide all of that back-story to place the worm on the hook. I will not be talking about the apparently dull life of the retired Navy officer who becomes a professor and spent most days in his study reading astonishing numbers of periodicals and preparing formal lectures for his classes.
I will be revealing what a very dubious experience (to put it mildly) fishing was with this career Navy man. It is pretty easy to dismiss the idea that he was a sailor in any sense, particularly given the semi-piratical clichés that accompany landlubber notions of sailor-dom. He did not, as might have been true in earlier centuries, spend any time at all running up the mizzenmast or belaying a halyard or battening hatches (well, he might have battened some as this just means to close a hatch in bad weather). I do know he stood by the large guns that pointed out at targets over 8 kilometers distant. He was somewhat deafened by that practice.
But when it came to piloting the 20-foot plywood boat with the 35-horsepower motor, when it came to setting it in the water, running around in the tidal waters that ebbed and flowed around the sea islands he chose for a retirement home, when it came to fishing, it was usually ninety-nine problems versus the fish.
To be analytical, these problems came in two varieties: (1) problems associated with poor navigation and planning and (2) problems of the weather. Neither problem was ameliorated by my father’s inability to convince his kids (my brother and me) into thinking this was all part of the wonderfully complex plan he had intended. Or part of a Robert Louis Stevenson/Daniel Defoe/Samuel Taylor Coleridge/Herman Melville/Nordhoff&Hall/Ernest Hemingway-inspired adventure pitting a man and his sons against the forces of fish and sea. His temperament tended to the choleric, which is sort of antithetical to what is required by fish and fishing.
Although we did fish, usually catching sharks and stingrays rather than what we hoped, we sortied for shrimp more often. The mighty shrimp traveled in schools and spawned in the labyrinth of finger-like inlets and creeks that surround the countless islands of the intracoastal waterways of our new home. To call the complexity of these inlets and islands fractal-like would be doing them a disservice; they were so much more irregular and odd-shaped than even the most complicated Mandelbrot set. The islands in their essence are little more than accretions of silt and long-dead oyster beds festooned at their edges with marsh grasses, building towards the center of any isle of size with yaupon holly, wax myrtle, live oak, and palmetto trees. The shrimp come and go with the tides in this brackish water and as they do, they grow into the tasty question marks we boil, behead, defrock, devein, and dip into a purée of tomatoes and horseradish (I can do without the horseradish bit, thank you!). To get them to the boiling pot, the amateur shrimper must thread their way through the shoals of marsh grass, past living oyster beds and sand bars and submarine ridges of the dark silt the region calls “pluff mud” that lie just beneath the surface of the dark water. Then, they use a circular casting net, weighted at the edges, that can be drawn into form a bundle of sorts. The bundle, if a cast has been successful, contains bunches of shrimp, all of which are snapping their bodies in a seizure-like motion that makes a tiny sound like fingers snapping for attention.
The next step in shrimping is a less graceful one. It involves removing them, all very busy in their contortions, from netting in which they’ve been snared. You see, pointy ends of shrimp faces are adorned with a rostrum, a sharp extension of their carapace.They also have a scaphocerite, short antennae, chela, long antennae, pereiopods, pleopods, and a uropod, not to mention a segmented abdomen, so they are well-made to get hung up on the interwoven strings that primarily compose a net.
If you pick the shrimp up without gloves or if the shrimp head is not poking out of your hand, you will get punctured, gored much in the same way a rampaging bull might gore you, albeit without the trampling part of that festivity. The fresh hole in your hand will include an injection of whatever microorganisms were living on the sharp shrimpy bit. It will need attention or an infection may set in (note to my adolescent self: bring peroxide and antibiotic cream on the shrimping expedition; you didn’t back then, but now you know). You will be punctured many times and your fingers and hands will feel numb and tingly, not in a good way. The good news is that this puncture wound is much like those delivered by various fish spines or barbs around the mouth of a catfish; the stingray spine actually contains venom, unlike shrimp rostrum and catfish barbs.
Once the shrimp are removed from the net and sitting in a bucket of water contemplating their future in a boiling pot of water and Old Bay®, the net is arranged for the next cast into the murk.
Of course, this glosses over the very important fact that shrimp do not swim around holding dayglo signs above their schools. The intrepid shrimper has a tremendous number of fingerling marshy areas to visit. One drops anchor (it is tidal water and always on the move), casts a few times to determine that the area(s) chosen have no shrimp who are willing to be gathered, weighs anchor, and moves on to the next picturesque cove in search of the elusive decapods.
And this is where the story becomes one of a retired sailor, two kids, and brackish water instead of about tasty crustaceans (I hope the descriptions above have not put you off; they are rather delicious once their rostrum-enhanced carapace has been severed from its abdomen and it has been deprived of its intestinal tract (aka “deveined“)).
For whatever reason, my father was forgetful about bringing along a very important spare part on our waterway adventures. The spare part is known as a shear pin, a short, skinny cylinder of soft metal that ensures that the outboard motor propeller turns when the engine is running and stops turning when the propeller hits a sandbar, mud bar, oyster bed, a patch of submarine grasses, a bit of junk floating just out of sight, et cetera. Basically, anything that exerts more torque on the propeller blades than the shear pin is designed to resist will break the pin so that the propeller stops turning, although the motor continues to purr happily away. The result of the shear pin doing its duty is that your boat will not be going anywhere unless the currents and tides say so. Well, unless you have oars of some description.
But our vessel was a twenty-foot plywood thing with few adornments other than a steering wheel and throttle up in the front bit and some lengths of plywood along the floor that covered its shallow bilge. It may have had a basic windscreen; I can’t remember. Its primary features were that it was blue and white, it floated, and it was very heavy. Wooden boats float when they are not waterlogged, but wood is not as light as fiberglass or aluminum. They need to be hauled around on a boat trailer and the trailer backed ddown a ramp into the water—submerged—before the boat can be coaxed off its resting place. When floating, an oar or two are usually (but not always) included among the necessary ingredients to ensure an error-free day. But these paddles are most often used to push off a dock or a sandbar or a mud bank. They are not persuasive in the “let’s go home” department, particularly against a current or tide that has a mightier master than paddles wielded by an old man and his adolescent sons. This boat did not resemble a canoe, kayak, or rowboat in any conceivable way. I have looked for a picture of a similar vessel and have found none that are as basic in design. The entire catalog of boats posted on the web and available through Googling “twenty-foot boat” are prettier than ours was or simply are very different. Our boat has gone the way of the dodo bird; it has ceased to exist.
Off we go, a heavy blue boat in the arhythmic chop of the river, outboard running, its deep grumble pushing us through the water, going to some set of inlets where shrimp are presumed to be. There are tall creosoted poles in the water here and there, warning the larger boats (no ships in this river—it is wide and deep but not for them) to stay in the center of the passage. We do this, although we will be veering off into the shallower parts as that is the point of the mission.
Eventually, we arrive at an inlet, rumored by someone to be a hot place to cast the net, and drop anchor. We cast—and no shrimp come up. We spread our arms in the graceful way a net must be cast again—sort of a prayer to the dark waters and their contents—in another zone nearby, suspecting that another imaginary cylinder of water is the one that contains the delicious question marks with their pointed beaks and snapping tails. None come up. Now it is just a matter of pulling anchor, starting the motor on low, finding another pool between jetties of marsh grass, dropping anchor, casting the net, and seeing what comes up.
Now, let me be clear. All of this moving around in the web of water and grass is the fun bit. It’s mostly peaceful, casting is a sort of beautiful zen-ish experience that has a lot of inherent grace to it—it can even be done fairly well by those who have never done it—and whether there are shrimp or not is really secondary to the pursuit (although getting shrimp, barbs and all, is a good outcome too).
Problems start when the outboard is on and in gear, meaning that the propeller is turning and pushing water in a spiraling cone behind the boat. When the propeller is turning, it can hit a submerged oyster bed or sand bar or just the thick ooze of the pluff mud. If there is enough resistance, the shear pin will do what its name implies (is there a word “explies,” because that’s really what is needed here—a word that states that something is explicitly indicated in its meaning).
As a child on into my adolescence, it was sort of fun to go walking in pluff mud. The stuff smells like sewage, but the chemist in me now knows that this is just the result of deterioration of living things—grasses and creatures—their substance turning into amino acids and other fundamental molecules, some of which contain sulfur (cysteine, homocysteine, cystine, methionine, taurine, s-adenosylmethionine, etc., all the way down to hydrogen sulfide). The good thing about hydrogen sulfide is that we can smell it at very low concentrations. The bad news is that at high concentrations it is lethal to human beings. The mud, outgassing hydrogen sulfide and other volatile sulfur-containing compounds, is not telling us it will kill us outright. It is more subtle than that. If you walk into it and lack the strength to extricate yourself from its powerful ooze, you may need help getting back out. In tidal waters, it is important to get out before the water rises above your head. Death by pluff mud is not common. Fear associated with the sense that you are stuck, your shoes have disappeared somewhere in the sticky holes your legs have made, and your next step will place you knee-deep in the dark clutch of that heavy, smelly sump of life, the fear is real and common, particularly among the senselessly brave people we call “the young.” Pluff mud may hide something far more sinister than suction, though. It may hide old oyster beds or shells abandoned to the waters at some time in the past. Those oyster shells all have edges that will lacerate a foot, ankle, calf, or arm (it is common to try pushing yourself out of the mud’s grasp by giving it your arms to sup on while it is busy with your legs) and open cuts that will bleed into the mud as happily as they will bleed anywhere else.
So, here we are, leaving one shrimp-free zone and moving to another zone, hopefully shrimp-enhanced. We are moving slowly but we are moving under power. The propeller hits something and we stop moving. We try turning on and off the motor. We tilt the motor out of the water, reach down and find the propeller is spinning freely, that no connection exists between it and the driveshaft. We are, in the modern sense as surely as in the ancient one, dead in the water. We will go where currents and tides take us. If there is a wind, it will move us as well, but we are no longer capable of moving on our own.
There are various ways in which this scenario plays out from this point on:
- Not only have we sheared the pin, we have beached ourselves on the submerged mass of whatever description we will soon learn when the retreating tide reveals it
- We have now learned that we do not have a spare shear pin
- We reach for the oars which we know we placed in the boat and find that we did not place the oars in the boat as our memory tells us we did, thus giving us no choice about what to do next
- One or more of us exits the beached chunk of plywood, temporarily not much of a boat, and tries to prise it off the mud, sand, or oyster bed, thus losing our shoes and sinking in mud, cutting ourselves on oyster shells, or (and this was the best of the outcomes) finding that we could push ourselves off the sandbar and go on our way
- We have and oar, we push ourselves off the impediment without issue but find that we are now simply adrift with an oar, maybe two, in our hands and no conceivable way of using them to “row” our way back whence we came
- We have had the good luck of freeing ourselves, absent shear pin, but it now starts to rain in some very exhaustive and punishing way, filling the shallow bilge and covering the plywood that keeps the bilge hidden, thus requiring the use of containers meant for shrimp, which were not caught, to be used for bailing
- During the bailing, one of us finds that the fish hooks, being at the ends of fishing lines which are spooled out from the fishing poles we brought with us, hoping that if shrimp were not caught we could catch something with fins, those fish hooks are floating about at the ends of the lines and, against all probability (as they are quite small and the boat is much larger), they skewer my brother’s thumb with the deliberateness of an arrow shot at his finger by William Tell himself
- We are drenched, we are oarless, we are pin-less, we are skewered, we are beached, we are shrimp-less, our vessel overly full of murky water, and we are at the mercy of others
- Who, somehow and against all probability, arrive and tow us back to our landing and our boat trailer, looking much like a set of freshly washed felines would look if they were leashed up and taken for a pleasant walk around the neighborhood.
So, this is why I don’t fish.
And then there is the toadfish. A picture will suffice:
The problem with all of this is that it is now uncommon to find wild shrimp in these inlets; they have been overfished. The shrimp boats once common to these waterways and the Atlantic just off the southern United States, have to go out for longer journeys. Many shrimpers don’t even try anymore. The haul does not pay for keeping the boat maintained, much less running after the increasingly elusive morsels that used to be so common. It’s a problem that affects much of fishing worldwide. For me, for my brief history of fishing and longer history of doing it very badly indeed, it’s not a personal problem. It is very much a problem for all of the people on earth who have survived for millennia on the seas’ bounty. We could all take a moment to care for their future as they have helped us enjoy the fruits of their labor in the past.
Featured image: https://id.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berkas:Camarones.JPG