Something Fishy in the Hamptons

Men’s Lives: The Surfmen and Baymen of the South Fork

by Peter Matthiessen
Random House, 352 pp., $29.95

A jerk on one end of the line, waiting for a jerk on the other.” The literature of American fishing is large but not, on the whole, distinguished. It has three chief modes: the reflective-pastoral, the heroic, the technical. The reflective-pastoral descends from the ancient line of Izaak Walton, and is mainly about trout and salmon; the finesse of fly-casting, and the long time between fish, encourage reflection. Piscator is usually a semiretired surgeon with access to a vanity press, writing pensées so coy and homely that one wishes his waders, when they filled with water that day on the Gallatin River in 1957, had drowned him. Once in a while, however, the mode produces a book as lapidarist and admirable as Norman MacLean’s A River Runs Through It, published in 1976.

The heroic mode has the most difficult life of the three in America, because it began with one gnarled, inimitable masterpiece, Moby-Dick. Since so much dissection of Melville’s purpose has been done by landlocked symbol hunters whose acquaintance with “the watery part of the world” is confined to a trip on the Staten Island Ferry, it is not perhaps surprising that Ahab’s fiery hunt of the whale should have been taken for an allegory of almost anything from union with God to the psychoanalytic process, and not for what it mainly is, a fish story. Melville’s long shadow has intimidated almost all efforts at epic fish writing since. The worst case was Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, in which the rituals of bonding between Man and the Unknown Adversary were processed into virile kitsch. It is to marlin catching what Little Nell is to death; yet even now, each Piscator who aspires to catch something bigger than a flounder must endure his colleagues’ suspicion that he is only striking a pose in emulation of Papa. As a result, one cannot attempt the genre without a sense of hubris.

The technical accounts are what the rod owner usually reads. They fill the pages of the sporting magazines, and are for the most part turned out to formula by amateurs and hacks. Occasionally they rise to real interest and seriousness as reportage, as in Striper, John Coles’s fine 1976 book on the striped bass; and still more rarely, to an unpretending but exact elegance that traces connections between society and the natural world, as managed by William W. Warner in Beautiful Swimmers, his book about the Chesapeake fishery of the blue-claw crab.

The latest and the best book in this vein—fishing as social activity rather than mano a mano existential encounter—is Men’s Lives, by Peter Matthiessen, on the baymen and surfmen of eastern Long Island. Its title comes from a line in one of Walter Scott’s novels, “It’s not fish ye’re buyin, it’s men’s lives.” Its aim is threefold: to tell the history of the South Fork fishery and of the men who work it; to set their hard and risky labors in small boats against the landscape and sea to which they belong, and the landsliding social changes they cannot stem; and to examine the lobbies and laws that threaten their economic extinction.

Matthiessen has lived on the South Shore and fished on and off with the baymen since 1955, learning their foibles, values, and skills. He has also made his living skippering a charter boat. He knows all sides of the issues firsthand, as I can attest, having fished with him in his boat and mine. Men’s Lives is not only an intensely felt elegy to passing relations between work and nature, but a precise and distinguished social history. For Matthiessen has a fine eye for nature, and especially for the sea.

Twenty years ago, after sailing on a schooner with a Cayman green-turtling crew to the Mosquito Cays off Nicaragua, he wrote Far Tortuga, a book with hardly a surplus word, whose emotional power and exactness of language make it the best marine novel I know of by an American since Melville. Two virtues carry over from the novel to this factual account.

The first is Matthiessen’s precise and respectful ear for spoken dialect. It enables him to set down argot and elisions without a trace of condescension. (Hemingway could rarely do this right; witness the quaint pidgin in which his Spaniards converse and the Old Man apostrophizes the fish.) He has listened to the Bonackers, as the local fishermen are called, as carefully, and as long, as Mark Twain did to his river people; he gets their speech straight, its salt and wryness intact. “I’m gonna put this goddamn oar over my shoulder,” a weary seine hauler snorts, “and head west, and the first sonofabitch asks me what it is, that’s where I stick it in the ground and settle.” Cap’n Bill Lester, elder of his clan, reflects that “there’s something beautiful about work, I don’t know why these younger fellers are so afraid of it. Fishin’s a hard life, but it’s a good’un…. All you need is a little ambition and some drive. Need some intelligence, too, I guess. But not too much.”

With this acuity of ear goes an equal sensitivity of eye. Since Walt Whitman’s day a lot has been written about the east end of Long Island, but nothing to surpass Matthiessen’s descriptions of the autumn beaches, the dories clambering up the swells, or

the quiet of the summer bay, the blue water and the hot sand shores with their acrid horsefoot smell and windrows of stout quarter-decks and light gold jingle shell that in other days was gathered up for oyster cultch; the gulls plucking scallops from the shallows, swooping upward, and dropping them on the old erratic boulders carried down out of the north by the great glaciers that formed the high moraines of “fish-shaped Pommanoc”; the ospreys lugging glinting fish across the sky, the bright lobster buoys and white sails, the yelp and crying of the nesting gulls, the screech of terns.

Such passages are as good, in their way, as Winslow Homer watercolors—each detail honestly named, the whole translucent. But Men’s Lives is mainly about the politics of fishing, a theme not common in serious writing. The basic problem has not changed since Thomas Bastard epitomized it in 1598:

Of exercises the most excellent,
Of recreations the most innocent.
But now the sport is marde, and wott ye why?
Fishes decrease, and fishers multiply.

The east end of Long Island is one of the richest fisheries in America or the world. Such is its abundance, even now, that those who did not fish there thirty years ago have difficulty seeing it as a system in slow decline, its marine population threatened by the depredations of long liners, ocean seiners, odd new algae, pollution, and selective pressure on fish species.

Yet the east end remains an encyclopedic museum of marine habitats, from shallow inlets where scallops jink like castanets through the eelgrass and drifts of hard-shell clams nestle in the ooze, to the tidal races where, from June to October, tiger-eyed bluefish gorge on millions of sand eel while gyring terns dive bomb the water for fragments. Flounder, mackerel, porgy, fluke, and weakfish inhabit, in their seasons, the Peconic bays from Shinnecock to Gardiners Island; striped bass patrol the rocks off Plum Island and the ocean beaches of the Hamptons; further out, past the tip of Montauk, begins the territory of the fall and winter cod and, in summer, the Scombridae—the long-finned albacore, the bonito, the yellowfin, and, most prized of all, the giant bluefin tuna. Among them are found the billfish, especially the Atlantic swordfish, Xiphias gladius—and sharks of all sizes up to the mako and the Great White, whose pursuit by sun-raw groups of day-charter fishermen, loaded with Dramamine and Budweiser, has become a grotesque manhood ritual. (The demonology of the shark, a creature that poses about as much threat to human life as the coyote, is one of the curiosities of American popular culture.)

Though the converse does not hold true, there are no fish without fishermen. Catering to sports fishermen is a seasonal mainstay of eastern Long Island, employing tens of thousands of people in tackle shops, motels, charter businesses, boat yards, and restaurants. The sport-fishing clientele is served at every level, from the child’s snapper pole to the fleets of Hatteras and Bertram offshore gin palaces which go beyond half a million dollars for the basic boat, not counting the Pompanette fighting chairs, the electronics, gin poles and outriggers, and of course the rods and gold Penn International reels, eight of them at $1000 apiece, trolling hula-skirted plastic squid known as Green Machines. With all costs factored in, a do-it-yourself tuna-fish sandwich is the most expensive food on earth, making Beluga seem like oatmeal.

Sport-fishing interests are large and vocal in this part of America; those of local commercial fishermen, small and obscure. Moreover the sport-fishing lobby has for years been implacably opposed to the South Fork baymen. There are only a handful—perhaps a hundred—of these full-time fisherfolk left. Their old nick-name of Bonackers comes from the Accabonac Creek in East Hampton. They fish from small boats, setting nets out into the surf from the Atlantic beaches of the Hamptons; they trap fish in the bays, and do seasonal work like clamming and scalloping. They have fished and farmed the South Fork for three hundred years. The Bonac accent preserves the cadences and inflections of Kent and Suffolk, from which their ancestors emigrated in the seventeenth century. Most of the Bonacker families—the Lopers and Lesters, the Millers, Dominys, Edwardses, and Havenses—descend from Sag Harbor whalers who became seasonal farmer-fishermen. They are clannish, gritty, and self-sufficient, never asking for (or getting) a cent in government subsidy, relying entirely on the work of their own hands. At a time when the American air reeks of feel-good patriotism, they seem to exemplify the ancestral independence that fat cats preach but seldom practice. Their attitude to work was summed up by one of them, talking to Matthiessen: “Independence costs you a lot of money. I starved myself to death for independence when I could have made good money at a trade. You ever see anybody yet get fired from fishin? No, no! You’re just glad to find someone stupid enough to go fishin with you.”

This way of life, precarious at best, has for years been pestered by bureaucracy; it is now menaced by the South Fork real-estate boom, which has raised taxes so far that the sons can no longer farm inherited land and sell out to condominium builders instead. On top of that, the Bonackers’ frail economy may now be given the coup de grâce by a law passed in Albany last July which forbids the catching and sale of their staple “money fish,” Morone saxatilis, the striped bass.

The Bonackers are mostly invisible to summer people, who take them for cranky rednecks. They have been elbowed to the margin of the post-Sixties Hamptons, land of the bronze Mercedes, the tortellini salad, and the $30,000 summer rental. Their problems epitomize an irreversible misery of American life—the destruction of real trades which have clear and practical relations with history, environment, and social need, and their replacement by a service economy which caters only to fantasy and leisure. It is the business of resorts to deny reality, and the South Fork will be nothing but an immense resort by 1995. Bad luck for the baymen to live within three hours’ drive of Manhattan.

Long Island was a much more remote place in the nineteenth century, let alone the eighteenth. You could ride a train from New York to San Francisco thirty years before a railway reached Montauk. Yet the east end was famous for whaling. Until the 1850s, Sag Harbor rivaled Nantucket and New Bedford as a whaling port. Ocean whaling collapsed, as sperm oil was replaced by petroleum. Inshore whaling along the east end faded, as the great cetaceans learned to stay out of sight of land and out of reach of the Bonackers’ dories. The last whale taken by shore boats off eastern Long Island for commercial purposes was in the summer of 1918, but its oil was unsaleable. One old-timer Matthiessen interviewed, Milton Miller, born in 1915 in a cottage at Amagansett and the descendant of more than three centuries of Accabonac Millers, recalled the deserted whaleboat house where he played as a solitary boy:

The whaleboats were ready to go and all equipment in them—the sails, the oars, the harpoons, water kegs, everything in place where it should be, just the way the boats were made ready after the last whale chase. They had not been used for several years. These whaleboat houses were never locked and never a thing out of place or taken, until with age they decayed and collapsed, as their time had ended.

After 1860, apart from a big trade in bunkers or menhaden (a type of herring, netted by the ton and processed into oil and fertilizer) there was no real commercial fishery on Long Island.

What changed this, as Matthiessen shows, was the Long Island Railway, which finally reached Montauk in 1895. Now fish of all kinds could be iced down and shipped fresh to New York, competing with seafood coming north from the Chesapeake Bay. The main demand was for cod, which up to about 1920 could still be caught inshore, from dories—grinding, exhausting work, struggling on the ocean in the black predawn cold of a December morning with the half-mile-long trawls of tarred fish line, a dropper with a hook every six feet, a skimmer clam on every hook, salt ice caking on whiskers and crackling in the folds of oilskins; then back, the dories laden to the gunwales with fish, through the treacherous beach surf that could pitchpole a boat stern over bow and drown its men in the wink of an eye.

A secondary trade was in sturgeon (whose pinkish flesh was known as “Albany beef”) and their caviar. When the sturgeon died out and the cod, under pressure of new and quasi-industrial large-boat fishing methods, took refuge beyond Block Island, there were still plenty of fish within reach of the dories: bluefish, black bass, stripers, blackfish, weakfish, fluke, and flounder, as well as the steamer clams, cherrystones and quahogs, the lobsters (which in the 1930s occasionally ran to monsters of twenty-five pounds; a five-pounder is rare enough today), and the tiny, exquisite scallops from the Peconic bays. As for the baymen, one of them named Jarvis Wood (b. 1908) recalled, “Nobody was in a real rush to do anything, they didn’t need all this money, all this stuff to go to, all they wanted was to make a livin. Everybody was fishin or farmers…. In the summertime, when they had their crops in, they’d go down clammin; in the wintertime, when their crops are gone, they go scallopin, oysterin. Everybody got along, y’know…no one went hungry.”

All this was to change. Bay habitats degenerated under the relentless pressure of a rising summer population: landfill, sewage, pollution. Clamming thinned out by the mid-Seventies: the days when a bayman could rake up three or four bushels of cherrystones and littlenecks on a tide are long gone. Scalloping is in trouble, because for the last two years the breeding stock in the Peconic bays has been devastated by a “red tide” of algae. Except for a few small beds, the wild Long Island oysters are extinct. Moreover, the market for fish is not very resilient; Americans are almost absurdly conservative about seafood. Thus the common gurnard or sea robin, Prionotus carolinus, is justly esteemed on the Atlantic coasts of Europe, but spurned as an unsaleable trash fish here; and only of late has the hideous but delicious angler fish, Lophius americanus, made it into American restaurants under its French name of lotte. Because most Americans still seem to think of fish as weird slimy things, unlike the innocent lettuce or the user-friendly chicken, they prefer to stick with the fish they know about: and the best-known fish in the sea, at least on the Atlantic coast, is the striped bass. Without the striper, the Bonackers had no living.

But migratory fish populations, such as stripers and bluefish, run in cycles whose causes no one understands. The vast schools of bluefish have been disappearing and then coming back since records began to be kept two hundred years ago; for most of the 1920s they were so rare that baymen were getting fifty cents a pound for them—whereas in the summer of 1985 there was such a glut of blues that the price bottomed out at three cents a pound, not even enough to pay for gas.

In the same way, the striped bass population fluctuates so much that its extinction as a species has been gloomily predicted, at regular intervals, since the 1890s. Yet Morone saxatilis has always rallied. Its “collapse” in 1982 to a “record low” of 469,100 pounds for the New York state fishery must be seen against the period between 1921 and 1938, when the biggest annual catch on Long Island never rose beyond 120,000 pounds. In fact, as Matthiessen shows in convincing detail, the striper is one of the hardiest and most adaptable of all fish, capable of adjusting to almost any degree of salinity and even to fresh water—they get so far up any stream that connects with the sea that they have been taken three hundred miles inland in Georgia, and seventy-pounders are caught in California dams today. “For a decade or more,” Matthiessen argues, “it may all but disappear; then, in a single spawning season when conditions are harmonious, a relatively small number of adult females may produce an immense stock of new fish.”

So why has the bass become such a political hot potato? Why the alarmist talk about its extinction? The answer lies in the competition for it between recreation anglers and baymen. The striper is the surf-caster’s quarry par excellence. It is not a great fighter—a ten-pound blue has more gumption than a thirty-pound bass—and the really big ones taste like papier-mâché; but it is hard to trick with a lure, though whether one ascribes that to wiliness or to phlegm is a matter of choice. Morone saxatilis has an air of distinction that even Pomotatus saltatrix, the bluefish, that voracious killer with its Somerset Maugham jaw, does not. A sport fisherman who has just spent several freezing hours up to his thighs in Montauk surf and sees, as he trudges empty-handed up the beach, a net full of flapping twenty-pound bass being winched ashore by a crew of taciturn Bonackers is not a happy man. He will seethe with jealousy and conclude that he caught nothing because the surf netters have caught everything. He will be apt to believe that the bass fishery is declining. And he will seek restrictive laws.

Every year since 1951,” Matthiessen notes, “a bill designed to curtail or eliminate the net fishery of striped bass has been submitted to the New York State Legislature, accompanied by a great amount of paper waving, fist shaking, and shouting.” The argument has always been the same: that the prime menace to the bass fishery on Long Island is not line fishing, nor even the year-round pollution of their breeding habitats in the Chesapeake and the Hudson, but the seasonal work of eight or ten Bonacker dory crews who have, at the most, twenty places on the thirty miles of the Atlantic beaches of the Hamptons from which their nets can profitably be set. On the face of it, this has always been an improbable claim, especially since most serious conservationists agree that the striped bass population is not overfished; and the hypocrisy with which it is pursued can be gauged by the fact that (according to the Department of Environmental Conservation) half the stripers sold in New York’s Fulton Street Fish Market over the last ten years were caught and sold by sports anglers, not by inshore commercial netters—while in all the Atlantic states netters take only 10 percent of the total poundage of bass landed. Nevertheless, the rod-and-reelers waged a war of attrition on the poorly organized Bonackers, through every channel from fishing magazines to Albany lobbyists, for the last three decades.

The main bone of contention (up to 1986) was legal size limits—how large a bass should be if one keeps it. The aim of size limits is to make sure that no hen fish is taken before it has a chance to spawn, so that fishing does not imperil the genetic future of the species. A striped bass is old enough to spawn at eighteen inches, and probably at sixteen. To raise the limit has less effect on rod-and-reel fishermen (who seek trophy fish anyway) than on commercial watermen, whose money fish is young adult bass of sixteen to twenty inches. Young stripers are the most delicious and, in the early 1980s, they fetched up to six dollars a pound on the New York market, a price rivaled by nothing else that swam off Long Island. Each time the size limit was raised, therefore, life got harder for the baymen, though there is no evidence that setting it beyond eighteen inches affects the annual hatch of bass.

The climax of the sport-fishing lobby’s efforts came in 1983, with a bill introduced on its behalf by Patrick Halpin, an opportunistic assemblyman from Babylon, Long Island, the up-island heart of the sport-fishers’ lobbies, who knew nothing about fish but plenty about rich lobbies. It fixed the size limit of striped bass at twenty-four inches, and this time it passed; the Bonackers’ few friends in the legislature were tired of standing up for them. The occasion was so rank with Schadenfreude that, after the vote, another Babylon politico named Owen Johnson taunted the Bonackers in the gallery with an offer of new jobs “changing sheets in motel rooms.” Signed into law by Mario Cuomo (with some misgivings, it is said, though not enough to make him veto it—baymen mostly vote Republican, anyhow) this bill was an economic disaster for the Bonackers.

And it did nothing for the bass, since the problems of Morone saxatilis lay further back in its life cycle—in the degenerating environments of the Chesapeake Bay and the Hudson River, which the sport-fishing lobby seemed to use none of its political influence to alleviate. The Chesapeake, greatest of all American estuaries, is now so fouled with chemical gunk drained into it by the Susquehanna, Rappahannock, Choptank, James, and Potomac rivers that no immediate political action, given the power and the delaying tactics of the corporations in the age of Reagan, can reverse it; while the Hudson River, in whose upper reaches the bass also spawn, has not recovered from the gross destruction wrought by General Electric’s outpourings. One theory is that “pulses” of swift runoff of sulfur oxides left by acid rain are wrecking the spawning environment in the Chesapeake, subjecting it to the eutrophication that has left innumerable northern lakes clear, blue, and dead; only the limestone ledges of the Hudson, whose alkaline molecules neutralize the acids, prevent this from happening at the same rate there. None of this, to put it mildly, is good for bass larvae.

This fact was acknowledged—though again, in the wrong way—by the state legislature in Albany last July. In 1976 there had been a local ban on the sale of bass caught in the Hudson because of the levels of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) accumulated in their fatty tissue. Ten years later, spurred by alarm over the PCB content of Long Island bass, New York in effect declared a plague on the houses of both sport fishermen and seine haulers: it passed a law (too late for discussion in Matthiessen’s text) that overrode the twenty-four-inch limit and made it illegal for anyone, under any circumstances, to keep, eat, or sell for public consumption a striped bass of any size. This, too, was framed and passed in haste, without enough research on which kinds of PCB the bass contained: a necessary precaution, one might have thought, since there are apparently scores of types of PCB which when ingested do not interact with the human system at all, and only a few that have been shown to be carcinogenic. It may be that these contaminated bass are harmless—or it may not. But since the syllables “PCB” trigger a sharp reflex, the conclusion was foregone. One might have supposed that anyone so rash as to swallow a bite of poached striper a l’oseille would emit a green glow and fall dead off his chair.

So it is a sad tale of loss all around. The only consolation, if one can so call it, is that the anglers’ lobbies were hoist with their own petard. However, all they lost was amusement and the money that it generates, whereas the Bonackers have lost most of their livelihood. It may be that the growing eclecticism of New York fish eating will enable them to keep going on inshore species other than bass. It may also be that a legislative drive could threaten industry enough to reverse the entropy of spawning environments in the Chesapeake—but one wouldn’t bet on it. Certainly, Morone saxatilis will survive as a species, even if its big runs off Long Island become a thing of the past. The cultural survival of the Bonackers is less certain. If their way of life goes, the genius loci of the South Fork will vanish with it—to be commemorated, no doubt, by some future restaurant called The Bonacker, serving bluefish-and-radicchio pizza to baby arbitrageurs in Reeboks. In which case one will continue to thank Peter Matthiessen for preserving their annals with such great care and decent anger.