The man and the sea.
July 5, 2014 § 13 Comments
I used to be married to a fisherman.
Not a Saturday fisherman togged out by LL Bean.
Mine was a white-boot fisherman who lived with one ear tuned to NOAA weather.
A man who could stand poised on the transom of a bobbing powerboat the lead-line of a twelve-foot cast net in his teeth watching the surface of the water for the nervous boil of a school of bait fish before flinging that impossibly heavy net.
And I was a fisherman’s wife.
For years we patched together a living with him commercial fishing and me working some scrap-of-a-job and caring for our daughter, Josie, who could not endure day care.
Looking back, we were just doing what every other couple who didn’t have a municipal job or money made elsewhere did to get by in the Keys. We depended on the unreliable sea and the unreliable tourist economy. Our fortunes shifted from day to day.
Josie’s standard greeting when Ray motored up to the dock was, “What did you catch, Daddy, two-pounds-grouper?”
I rarely asked about the day’s catch when he idled in. If it was good he’d tell me.
If it wasn’t, why rub it in?
Besides, with a little experience I could judge the weight of the cooler by the sound it made when it hit the dock.
What I couldn’t tell was the species of fish in the box–and that meant the difference between a pay day and just covering the expense of getting out on the water again.
The biggest money fish was yellowtail, which brought as much as a buck sixty a pound when they were hard to catch, but all the snappers paid: mangrove, lane, mutton.
Then there were dolphin and mackerel and the groupers: gag, black, jewfish, snowy.
Other species were labeled trash: grunts, ladyfish, jacks and porkfish. At the fish house they paid twenty-five cents a pound and went straight into the chum grinder.
Ray was then free to buy them back the next morning as a frozen block that slid into a mesh bag trailed off the stern of the boat.
Often, we cut out the middle man and ate those trash fish. They were, for the most part, good eating, just plagued with myriad small sharp bones. “Grits and Grunts” or as Josie called it “Gits and gunts” was a family favorite.
During those lean years we learned a lot about living in that narrow space between the rock and the hard place.
We respected every penny that came our way. We made do.
And we learned truths about the fishery.
Even if you go back to the same spot the very next day, fish the same rig and bait and don’t make the mistake of having bananas aboard (bad luck for fisherman) a good day will never repeat. The sea is ever-changing.
If you are ahead of the fishery and get into a species that is just beginning to run you will get top dollar for a day or two and then everyone will be boating dolphin or yellowtail and the price at the fish house will plunge.
A run of good fishing days is always followed by an expensive mechanical failure on the boat.
We left the Keys in the same truck we arrived in with little to show but fifteen years of memories and for Ray, a deep familiarity of the Keys’ waters.
My fisherman took a state job, first as a maintenance mechanic and then as a cabinet maker.
He managed to work long enough to draw a state pension.
But passions—like the need to get a line wet—only go dormant. They aren’t extinguished by punching a time clock.
Even before I knew him Ray’s handle was “Fish Faass.” As a kid overseas he would ride his bike to Wales to go fishing–and his father, the original Raymond Spencer Faass, fished too.
My husband’s favorite fishing expression is, “It’s called fishing, not catching.”
What he’s always liked best about fishing is being on the water, watching the birds, learning what swims under the boat, not turning it into a job as he did when he fished commercially or worked as a guide.
Now we bob on Apalachicola Bay in the hazy hot summer light. All around us gulls and terns are hitting the water, fishing too.
The fish species here in North Florida overlap those in the Keys, and Ray can still identify them by the way they strike and fight, and I have no trouble naming them as they come over the gunwale.
Ray pulls up a gafftop catfish—a member of the trash crowd during our fish house days.
The cat coats Ray’s hands with slime as he unhooks and releases it.
“Now, how could you have any more fun than this?” he asks as he scrubs the slime off his hands with salt water.
Guess I’m still married to a fisherman.