A Bayman’s Lesson
A Baymen’s Lesson By Glen Stalter Despite moving out east in the early 90’s, I didn’t realize the real draw of the east end until a couple of years ago. Like most, I was drawn by the bucolic beauty. The vast coast line offers a great diversity of wildlife and scenery. I’ve often enjoyed Kayaking trips up the tidal creeks on the South Fork where I’ve been among millions of peanut bunker and herring dancing on the water around my modest craft while strippers and blue fish fill their bellies on the ample bounty. Long relaxing car rides are a staple in our lives. We often take “the loop”, a ride where we take Route 105 North to the end drawn by the tractor beam of Briermere’s baked goods then take the winding North road East past the countless farm stands and into Wine Country. At times we stop and enjoy live music at one of the many great vineyards but ultimately make our way to Greenport and a stroll around the town taking in a street fair or bouncing around between the restaurants, shops and pubs. We take the North ferry to Shelter Island and meander up and down the hills of Shelter Heights and driven by the whimsy of the day but ultimately end at the South Ferry where we are minutes from our next mandatory stop; the Corner Bar in Sag Harbor. If I have my way, we’ll head east to Lake Montauk and slowly hop west back towards Remsenburg. Though these modest excursions would be enough to sustain my desire to live in these surroundings the rest of my days, a few days with a bayman would demonstrate the real treasure of the East End. I met Robbie at a local watering hole where I began a 20 year research initiative for this writing contest. I endured the rigors of countless beers and cocktails to prepare me for this moment. Robbie is a fifth generation bayman who lives in the house his Grandfather owned on Seatuck Creek. There is the expected ruggedness that would come from nearly 40 years of harvesting a living from the bays of the East End. His face shows the experiences of scalloping in the winter in the Peconic as his hands are calloused vice grips with each finger looking like a thumb. There is a matter-of-factness to him that is paradoxically disarming. He can say no to someone and not invoke the expected disappointment or ire. I suspect this is the nature of someone who is exactly as they seem. Being authentic coupled with being a tremendous story teller drew me to spend more time with him. As I am a legendary early riser, I offered to help Robbie on one of softer assignments for the budding greenhorn. I would cull as he ran his crab traps. We would often meet before sunrise and take his battered skiff up and down the tidal creeks branching out of Seatuck Cove. On the still waters, we would quickly settle into a routine. He would drive the boat to the first pot, retrieve it, turn in upside down and bang the pot on the gunnels of the skiff freeing the stale bait into the water, rebait, drop the catch on the culling table, and head to the next pot while I sorted the catch returning the small ones back to the morning waters. Though oddly I really enjoyed the work, it was the Robbie’s perspective about ecology, local history, and less publishable topics that captivated my interest. The history of the East End is rich. Settling families are memorialized by the landmarks named after them. Haven’s Point, Tuthill Cove, Penniman Creek and Phillips Point are examples of families that owned large parcels of property but as Robbie pointed out “You pretty much get to name the stuff you own”. Though he is fiercely proud of his family’s heritage, he is quick to point out that a family’s name on a street sign has little to do with how much they contributed to the area. With the advent of named roads and GPS, landmarks aren’t the critical navigational tools they once were. For those of us that enjoy exploring by bicycle or Kayak, they still provide comforting signals. When returning from a kayak trip to Swan Island, I knew the winds would subside once I passed the protective leeward side of Haven’s point. One of the favorite early morning talking topics was, as expected, the fishing industry. There is a great efficiency to the fishing industry. Avoiding waste is critical to surviving in this most difficult of industries. If he caught fluke for example, he might wholesale them where they would be filleted and the remaining “racks” would be returned to him and used as crab bait. Likewise, if the market was soft for a particular catch, at worst it would end up feeding the crabs or eels in the traps. My prior work experience is in the Healthcare industry where quality control is understandable heavily regulated. For the Bayman, the test often is “if I won’t eat it, I won’t sell it”. I wonder how much better the consumer would be served if this pragmatic standard was used. We would speak of the distinction of being considered a local. Though I’ve made life-long friends and many of them out east, I would never be considered a local. My kids, being born and raised out east would be adorned this characterization. Robbie’s family is amongst the earliest settlers in the area and richly proud of understanding the local history. We would often see small patches of decaying bulk head and Robbie would speak of the quirks of the Duck Farm owners who once worked the area. Robbie has a knack of assigning nicknames to people. There are a few common characteristics to these newly assigned names. The first is that they are almost always funny and the second is the recipient often feels otherwise. Yet again, Robbie’s disarming demeanor makes it tolerable. There is Angry Rob, Crab Cake, Zoo Mama, Medium Steve, P-Bud, Baldylocks, and My Jenny (spoken in the distinctive Forest Gump accent), to name a very few. My 5’11” frame somehow endures my 230 pounds, hence, the moniker Glen Belly. Robbie’s endless sense of economy has now shortened the name to “Belly”. Fighting the name only insures its continuing existence. It is amazing what you can get away with when there is a complete absence of malice. I’ve come to feel that the real treasure of the East End is its people. There is a warmness and genuine nature to these people that call this area their home. So if you’re in Seatuck Cove some early morning give a wave to Belly and the Bayman, we shouldn’t be hard to spot.