East End Exploration

Written By: Bob Worden

East End Exploration Sometimes you find yourself looking at surprisingly odd things that reconfigure your thoughts about your world. I had that happen not long ago in an estuary in Shelter Island. The day began with a road trip on a Saturday morning to Montauk with the teenagers, swimming and sunning on the beach by the Albatross. The day was memorable in many ways as my 14 going-on-26 year-old daughter had quietly decided to forego sunscreen in a misguided effort to achieve a perfect facial tan. Both she and her boyfriend were committed to obtaining a bronzed look, despite their pale skin tones. The consequences of her experiment were revealed the next morning when she slowly transformed into a swollen Asian-looking child I didn’t recognize. The boyfriend must have secretly applied his own sunscreen, as he suffered no obvious facial injury. Anyway, we had gone to Montauk early that Saturday morning as my brother-in-law Jimmy was coming out to go fishing with me in the afternoon. Jimmy had helped us fix up the little cottage we had bought the year before, and I owed him. He’s a big bear of a guy and as nice as they get. I didn’t want to disappoint him. So the kids and I left the beach about 2, and headed westbound toward Sag Harbor, watching the mounting number of eastbound cars moving like lemmings heading for the cliffs. Traffic was no picnic in Sag Harbor either, but after about a half hour of stutterstep in the main drag, we finally hit South Ferry, and arrived home in no time. Jimmy had been there since noon and looked bored when I arrived. Worn down from the kids and baked in the sun, I helped Jimmy pull the big blue Kayak out of the garage, more from obligation than desire of my own. Jimmy brightened up when he knew we were going out on the water. I had bragged to him about the fun we could have fishing from a two-seater kayak in Dering Harbor, and about how we would net bait fish in the estuary with my 8 foot by 4 foot amazon 5-star Prime-shipped net. It had plastic floats lining the top, metal weights lining the bottom, and had wooden pieces on each side to hang onto when it was pulled through the water. The problem was that the tide was low. The net worked best at high tide pulling it around in waist deep water right off shore and picking up 5 or six silvery bait fish in each sweep. It didn’t work well in the 2 feet or so we then had close by shore. I had Jimmy stand still with his end of the net while I walked around him in a circle, dragging the net along the bottom. Every so often we turned it upwards out of the water. Both of us were sweating in the afternoon sun. We might get one baitfish in a sweep if we were lucky. We kept getting these tiny glassy crayfish things, which you couldn’t use, for bait, and jellyfish and seaweed. And on just about every sweep, we got one miniature, dark green-backed flounder, looking exactly like a big one, but each about 1 inch long. When you flipped them over on to their backs, they looked exactly like a big flounder looked, with a white bottom and a tiny mouth smaller than a grain of sushi rice, lined with tiny sharp little teeth. They looked like little toys a kid would collect, or something for the “honey I shrunk the flounder” movie. We weren’t getting anywhere in two feet of water. I decided to try to walk out farther from the shore to get in the deeper water. The problem was that the muck out there was really deep and my feet would sink down to mid-calf. It wasn’t unpleasant but I had to take off my rubber slippers so as not to lose them, and as I walked through the muck my feet slid further down through layers of large clams or oysters, stacked loosely on top of each other. I feared stepping on an old board or broken glass or something, and worried that, if cut, the ancient bacteria in the muck would infect me with flesh eating staph or ciguatera or god knows what. The next sweep of the net in fact revealed god knows what: As we turned and pulled the net up, what looked like some sort of weird lobster tail on its back, without the lobster, flopping like mad in the net, spraying droplets of seawater in the sunlight. It had a small tan lobster tail, the size you would get on a one-pound lobster. Its head looked sort of like a bronze helmet but I couldn’t get a good look it while it was flipping around. I was starting to get excited at the prospect of using it as attractive bait to catch a big fish. I had grown up in the Finger Lakes upstate where we caught smallmouth bass using big crayfish as bait, and this looked like an ocean version of a crayfish that would bring us a big striper. But just then Jimmy reached over the net, delicately took the bottom of the tail between his thumb and forefinger, and flipped the sea creature back into the water. I said, “Hey, we could have used that to catch a striped bass!” Jimmy didn’t say anything in response. We made a couple of more sweeps and then gave up, the few small minnows we captured were enough, and we could always use artificial lures when the bait was used up, though lures were less likely to succeed. Now I had used the kayak with the kids many times and never had a problem. But as Jimmy and I moved slowly out into Dering Harbor, it just didn’t feel right. There was a small chop on the water and we were sitting low in the water. The kayak moved like we were dragging an anchor behind us. I did the math in my head. Jimmy probably weighed 240 pounds; I weigh 180, which made 420. There was no way the kayak was rated for that much weight. I was worried about handing a wake from a big boat, as we drifted carefully through the harbor, carried down to Second Bridge by the west wind, losing minnows to the bottom or to snappers we never hooked. When we beached, I told Jimmy about weight problem and my concerns about padding against the chop. We fished awhile without luck, and then as I knew the harbor better than he did, Jimmy decided to walk back over Winthrop Road to the house. It was easy to paddle back against the chop, and I got back to the house at the same time he did. It had been a nice afternoon anyway. I kept thinking about the lobster tail thing Jimmy had tossed back. What the hell was it? In the quiet of the bedroom late that evening, it didn’t take long to identify it using Google Images: a mantis shrimp. It turns out that they are a seafood delicacy, supposedly tasting better than lobster, although a photo of a big plate of them cooked was not appetizing to me. On the other hand, a lobster probably looks worse if you think about it. Oh, another thing about mantis shrimp. They are called mantis shrimp because they have two arms like the arms of a praying mantis. These folded arms must have been the “helmet” I thought I saw. These are very sharp. Mantis shrimp use their arms to split open crabs and shellfish. Some of the tropical mantis shrimp have arms with round hammers like bowling balls, which they use to hammer their prey. Mantis shrimp are given an affectionate name by commercial fishermen of New England: “thumbsplitters.” Their strike is one of the quickest movements in the animal kingdom: A mantis shrimp’s arms hit as fast as a .22 bullet coming out of the barrel of a gun. They crack open crabs and oysters with these arms. This explains why we aren’t all wading around trying to go catch them for a nice seafood dinner. I called Jimmy the next day to thank him for tossing that one back when he did, or we probably would have spent the afternoon in the ER, if and when I had tried to handle it. After that, I did an Internet search is for protective water footwear. I didn’t plan on going into the deep muck again, but who knows what else might be out there.