The State of the Bay

Working a Montauk fish trap with Stuart Heath and Nicky Havens.

On a Monday in early summer, at 6:30 a.m., Nicky Havens, 56, and Stuart Heath, 51, head to their pound trap in Fort Pond Bay off Navy Road in Montauk.

“The first sunny day in two weeks,” says Havens. Sunday’s bad weather still lurks on the horizon.

As the mass of clouds drift out to sea, the two fishermen are excited about the day’s catch. They already know there are going to be a lot of fish.

Heath’s boat follows the leader, a line of poles holding underwater fencing that runs 250 feet into the bay, perpendicular to the beach. Fish swimming alongshore hit the leader, follow it out to sea, and are funneled into the inner-pound or heart, finally ending up in the smallest part of the underwater trap, the box. The fishermen motor around the trap and get to work, unfastening the net from the poles and loosening it from the bottom of the sea, in order to gather it into a smaller and smaller pouch.

“Once they get into the funnel they feel comfortable swimming around,” says Heath, “they just don’t go anywhere.”

A total of 54 wooden poles and thousands of feet of net make the trap a complicated system of pulleys and ties.

“Weir traps go back to Roman times,” says Heath, using one of the many terms for this design. “The American Indians were not the first ones to figure it out. People were trap fishing like this all over the world.”

Slowly, the fishermen pull the net inward as it gets smaller and smaller. Soon, it is just the fishermen and the fish. The net is secured and the fishermen sort through the mass, one fish at a time.

Orange baskets are set in the boat, and the fish are separated by species. Sea robins, a bottom feeder with pectoral fins like wings and six feeler legs, are all thrown back to walk the seafloor. In fact, because the bayman can pick and choose, this style of fishing is one of the most elegant and precise, compared to a dragger that might scoop up untold bycatch, which often perishes in the net or on deck. In fact, trap fishing has virtually no wastage, as unwanted fish can be tossed out of the trap unharmed. In fisheries industry jargon it’s called “passive fishing.”

Stingrays and baby skates are let go. Herrings are, too. “We let go of so many and then we found out they’re buying them in the city,” says Haven.

A rare kingfish, a “Georgica-style” blue crab and a stargazer, eyes looking straight up at the sky with “a face only a mother could love,” are released. “Be free my friend,” says Heath.

Fluke, on the other hand, is highly prized. The flat white fish replaced yellowtail flounder in the American market when that fishery became “overregulated” by the government and subsequently taken off American menus. Fluke, cast aside in the past, is the closest in taste and texture to flounder and it’s retailing at $14 per pound and up.

“Everybody eats flounder, even people who don’t eat seafood, picky people,” says Heath, “Fluke, or summer flounder, are filling that void right now.”

Delicate butterfish, squid and porgies are tossed into the open mouths of bushels on deck. What makes this catch so special, however, is the bobbing sea of blowfish.

Outrageously inflated white bellies float on the surface like balloons. The sea squab, as they are sometimes called, have bright emerald or brown eyes, veneer-looking teeth in little round mouths. They look comically out of place. They squeak like rubber against one another. “Start deflating guys, we’re running out of room,” Heath says. “This is their Monday morning traffic jam.” The puffer fish, as they are also known, puff up as a defense against predators. “They’re saying, ‘Try to eat me now,’” Heath says.

(It’s worth noting there are different types of puffer fish (Tetraodontidae family) caught around the world. Fugu, “river pig” in Japanese, which naturally accumulates certain toxins in its liver, ovaries and skin, is notorious in Japan for lethal food poisoning when prepared incorrectly, usually served as sushi or in soup. People in Japan have died from suffocation or turned into zombies, but there’s no need to worry here on the East Coast. The “northern puffer,” which is what’s caught locally, does not contain deadly toxins. They are gutted, skinned and eaten, raw or cooked, prized for the two long lobes of flesh on either side of the spine. Yama-Q in Bridgehampton uses them in tempura. Charlotte Klein Sasso from Stuart’s Seafood Shop said they lend themselves well to scampi recipes since they look like large shrimp when cleaned.)

Heath has been fishing these waters for 30 years and has never seen so many blowfish. “I’m a newcomer.” Not so for Havens, who remembers the funny fish from when he was a kid. Back then, there were so many blowfish, the whole family pitched in to help his father and his grandfather skin and prepare them for market.

It’s been so long, the fish has lost its market. “Generations don’t know what a blowfish is. Once the market is gone, it’s hard to get back,” says Havens.

It would seem the locals have longer memories. The same people who adore bay scallops love blowfish, says Heath, who scallops in the fall. Only the local fish markets and restaurants will know what to do with this delicacy, which is caught in both spring and fall like other bay species. The sweet, white fish is best panfried in peanut oil and eaten right off the one center bone, being careful not to swallow the tiny, yet prickly, fin. Heath dips his in a cornmeal and flour mixture before frying and in buffalo sauce after the pan. No plate needed.

Heath learned to fish from his father, the famous jazz musician Percy Heath. Before 1983, anyone could catch fish and sell them, but not anymore. Restrictions have escalated, and many would call them brutal. Still, Heath wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I just like being on the water. I’d rather be on this boat than be on the land. I don’t care how much money I make. As long as I can pay my bills, it beats being on land,” he says.

This is the first season the duo has set a trap in this location on Navy Road. They inherited the site from their friend Jimmy Bennett who had fished there years prior.

Brent Bennett made their net. “He knows what works and what doesn’t,” says Havens, who does the repairs.

The total cost of putting the net into the water was about $4,000, and one storm can take it down. Every trap is slightly different. Hopefully it’s in the right spot for the right fish. The two fishermen split the profits evenly.

As the clouds move out of sight, the fishermen are back on land, hooking the boat up to Heath’s blue F350.

There’s a quick stop at Stuart’s home, where his 86-year-old mother pops her head out the window. “It looks like a truck full of balloons,” she says.

“What about selling those to restaurants?” she asks.

“I don’t want to get into all that,” he tells her, “Too much running around.”

Wholesale outlets, like Fulton Fish Market, will often take 100 pounds, when retail outlets might take 20 pounds.

“Yeah, and you don’t want to cut the middleman out and make him mad,” suggests his mother.

Mrs. Heath turns down an offer of blowfish, and the fishermen head to the pack-out house at the docks in Montauk. Once there, they do not pay a fee for packing their catch, but they must purchase the waxed cardboard boxes, sold for up to $15 per carton.

Everything except the blowfish is sold to one of the seven outfits within the Fulton Fish Market right there. Fulton trucks pick up every evening, Monday through Thursday. The fisherman “ship on consignment,” meaning they sell their fish without a price tag. The price is determined by supply and demand, dictated by the Fulton Fish Market.

While at the docks, they get wind of a new seafood shop in the Village of East Hampton that wants the blowfish.

“How much do you have?” the woman behind the fish counter asks when they get there.

“About 100 pounds,” Heath tells her.

“Don’t play me like that,” she says, filling boxes of hot lunches for a customer.

The look of panic sets in on the worn faces of the two fishermen. And they set off to find a willing buyer for approximately 12 bushels of Bonac blow toad.

 Kelly Ann Smith lives in Springs between Gardiner’s Bay and Accabonac Harbor and has been writing about Bonac culture for 17 years.

 

 

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Kelly Ann Smith lives in East Hampton between Gardiner's Bay and Accabonac Harbor. She's been writing about the East End since 1995. Her weekly column, "A View from Bonac," can be found in the East Hampton Press.