Out of our group of friends, one or both of the people in each RV is a dedicated fisher, with the exception of me and Ben. I’m comfortable in my observer role, and it’s been fun to watch a few of our friends at their sport. Each fish species has a season it may be caught and length restrictions for keeping a catch. Too short, it goes back in the water. Too long, also back in the water. Young fish need to be allowed to grow and older fish need to be allowed to spawn. I also learned a lot about Florida fish species from our fishers. Rae is an accomplished sportswoman; she is an expert fly fisher, an excellent shot with a rifle or pistol, a dedicated birder and a certified naturalist. When the zombie apocalypse hits, I’m heading to her house. Rae fished standing in the bay in her waders. I watched her cast over and over with great patience. She caught two spotted trout, silvery and speckled.Steve is a classic Michigander with a strong Upper Michigan lilt in his voice. Time has slowed him a bit but nothing has dimmed his enthusiasm for fishing and the outdoors.Steve usually fished from the beach and got a huge fish. After snapping it’s picture, he turned it free. “Dat fish gave a great fight,” he said. “He deserved to go free. Maybe I’ll catch him later again!” And then he laughed in his big throaty way. Paul, another in our group caught a wahoo, which ended up in our shrimp boil. Gary is the lone Floridian among us, which means he owns a boat. He was born in Ohio, but after many years he is firmly rooted in south Florida. Gary and his wife took us along on the boat for a short fishing expedition.Gary caught a black drum and a trout, both fish were exceedingly happy to be sent back to the water no worse for wear. A sea turtle broke the surface briefly and sank into the bay. We spied a lone float near the turtle that was moving quickly through the waves out to sea. It was so weird to see the float moving so fast that we chased it down. Ben and Gary hauled it up; it was a fishing net lost long ago. I half expected we were going to find the turtle tangled in it, but all we got was a jellyfish and a few oysters. The net was being dragged out to the ocean by the powerful undertow created by the tide. Who knows how many rides it had taken in and out of the bay. We took the net back to the boat dock; one less thing to entrap sea turtles and other creatures.
Recreational fishers share the shallow bay with the oyster boats; Eastpoint is a working fishing town. Shrimp boats operate out in the deep water, trolling for shrimp in huge nets. When the nets are winched out of the water on either side, sea birds swarm the boats looking for an easy meal. They are far off from the bay though. The bay is all about the oysters. It is only a few feet deep with a few deep holes (according to the fisher folk) here and there. Dozens upon dozens of oyster boats hit the bay starting at a half hour before sunrise to a half hour after sunset. For a portion of the year, oysters can be harvested seven days a week. During restricted seasons, harvesting is banned either Friday and Saturday or Saturday and Sunday. At the moment it’s allowed daily, so oyster boats are out working all the time. Oystering is hard, dirty backbreaking work. You work with a rake that is about 10′ long and about 4′ wide. Oysters are broken loose from the floor with the rakes and hauled up. I was told a bushel of oysters was worth about $50.00. I saw whole families working the boats. Mom, dad and kids work together. At the end of the day, the boats barrel back to one of the several seafood complains that dot the coastline in Eastpoint to deliver their catch. By about 5:00, most of them are back on shore. There are no tourist docks in the area; working boats and recreational boaters all share the same spot, so interaction is inevitable.
Gary’s boat returned to the dock about the same time the oyster boats were docking for the night. Oyster boats are not glamorous. Both boat and human take a pummeling from harvesting oysters, their hard shells damaging wood and flesh equally. A sun weathered guy with pierced ears and long red hair stood next to me to watch Gary pull his sleek boat into the trailer. He had a longneck beer in his hand and his skin looked like leather from sun exposure. He looked a lot like Keith Richards in his Pirates of the Caribbean role, but when he started talking to me, I figured he was in his late 30s, “Catch any fish?” “Yeah,” I said, “trout and black drum.” It was a great day to be out.” That was all I had in fishing lingo, so I hoped I wouldn’t have to talk any more. “Oh, yeah, it’s great fishing in the cut, and over there there’s a deep hole that’s great for…” right about then Gary came up and stated talking to him so I was off the hook about fishing, figuratively speaking. As the two of them talked fishing, I watched a young woman scrub down her boat for the night and another man and woman unload their boat, which was so full of oysters it looked (to me) like it would sink.Both of them were covered in muck, and looked strong enough to bend iron bars. Fishers are allowed 20 bags of oysters per boat per day. Each bag weighs about 60 pounds. They unloaded their overloaded boat and overloaded their truck, then sped off to the processor. The guy I had been talking to finished his beer and headed to his truck; the woman finished wiping down her boat, gathered an assortment of bags and coolers and followed him to the truck. Then we got into Gary’s truck and took his shiny boat back to camp.
Most of us have no idea what it means to work at hard labor of any kind, let alone working on the sea. Oysters used to be food for poor people; now of course it’s a delicacy with a price tag to match. I used to begrudge the price of oysters at home. Here they are much cheaper, being so close to the source. After watching them work for hours on end, I’ll never complain about the price again. Sport fishing is a pleasant luxury, something to be done for fun and to have an experience in the outdoors. I get why our friends fish, but I was amazed to learn how many people who worked all day every day in the water still loved to sport fish. “It’s in our DNA,” said one lady. “It’s what we’ve done since we’re kids, and it’s how we fed ourselves in hard times.”
The oyster beds along with most other sea life in the bay are slowly vanishing. Overfishing has caused some of this, as has damage from hurricanes. Nearby Alligator point was nearly washed away by the last storm. Sunken boats litter the coastline and bay; blown from who knows where. Some boats were sunk at the moorings, and owners must be uninsured or unable to retrieve and repair them. I’m told Apalachicola got a grant to begin cleaning up the abandoned boats. Degradation of the environment is the major culprit. Cities and agriculture upriver pull more water and affect salination levels in critical habitat at the lower river mouth. Every time a new beach house is built, every time a boat churns through water too shallow and plows a dead zone in the sea grass, a little more life is lost. Schoolchildren help plant sea grass starts in an effort to rebuild what has been lost. Sport fishers like our friends work hard to keep awareness of the need for clean water and viable habitat alive. I hope the fishers of Apalachicola are able to keep their way of life for the next generation.