Seining the Tide

My Daddy, Bob Sutton Sr., is long gone now and yet his indelible memory still tugs at my dreams. If I could bring him back for just one more day, some of you would recognize him immediately as an authentic, native waterman—a species of sportsmen that grow here in the Lowcountry as thick as clustered oysters. Bob worked hard all his life, but he was rarely at ease except when he was out playing among the estuaries and barrier islands of his childhood. He was probably the least-presumptuous fellow anyone ever met and he wore his humility like a cloak, but Daddy made friends easily, and nobody ever blamed him if he somehow escaped into a salt marsh nearly every afternoon. Recently, one of my boys asked me to tell him a fishing story about his grandfather and, perhaps because there’s something unforgettable about a “first time” for anything, I recalled for him the first time Dad took me out to seine a beach.

I was probably nine or ten at the time. We lived in Kingsland, Georgia on the old Brazell place east of town. One summer night in—call it 1964—Dad hauled Danny and me out of bed and loaded us into his truck. It must have been three o’clock in the morning, pitch black outside, and we could tell he’d already been up for a while, maybe even all night. He tossed some rubber wading boots and a couple of #10 galvanized washtubs in the back, then piled on a couple of fishing rods in that haphazard, matter-of-fact way he abused tools and equipment. We had no idea what he had in mind yet, and woke up quickly as he turned the truck south down Route 17 toward the state line. As early sleepers, night-time travel was still a novelty to Danny and me and we were suddenly very alert at the possibilities, trying to divine Dad’s plan before he spilled it. I remember seeing Kingsland’s only traffic light blinking red in all directions, and it suddenly seemed very liberating to know that we were the only vehicle on the road at that hour. “I’ll bet you could run that light if you wanted to, Daddy.” And he did, letting us know that he felt it too.

Just outside of town, we stopped at Steffans’, ablaze with light and the parked reflections of two or three other pickups and a deputy’s patrol car. “Let’s eat, boys,” Dad said. Inside, Charlie Brazell was waiting for us along with one or two others—I think it might have been Rabbit Bruce and J.W. Mills, but I can’t say now if this is an accurate recollection or just what my heart says would have been right.  We slid into a booth and while Danny and I fiddled with the little jukebox at the table, Dad ordered eggs, bacon, grits and toast all around. When the waitress returned, he pulled a huge thermos bottle from somewhere beneath the table and asked her to fill it with coffee, saying “It’s going to be a long night.”

An hour later, we were bouncing along a rutted dirt road in northeast Florida, somewhere on the backside of Amelia Island. To our right, a wide expanse of marsh grass opened up to the west, and for the first time, I was aware that the moon had risen. At intervals, we’d pass beneath a canopy of live oaks and palmetto thicket, the truck’s headlamps picking out another oysterman’s ramshackle shack, standing pale above a dirt-yard strewn with broken toys and chicken coops. But now and again, the sky cleared above us, and when it did, a sliver of moonlight shined on a wide creek that looped back and away, paralleling the road. Through the truck’s open windows, I could smell the Atlantic and everything about the scene told me that we were running out of land and would soon arrive at a place where the creek and marsh and dirt track yielded to dune grass and scrub oaks and beach and the whole starlit tableaux would slide, salty but warm off the edge of the continent.

Shortly, Dad announced, “We’re here,” and nosed the truck into a rutted hollow between two small dunes. He killed the motor and we were suddenly conscious of the quiet around us, and then the slow, distant crashing of surf beyond the dunes and darkness. A match flared in the near distance as someone lit a cigarette, and for the first time I understood that there were quite a few men there already, waiting in the night for us to arrive. Charlie’s truck appeared behind us and stopped with a clank. Dad hoisted Danny and me onto the bed of our pickup and instructed us to stand out of the way but observe closely. I could hear muted voices and occasional laughter and, as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, made out the outlines of several cars and what looked like a flatbed truck scattered around us. There were probably a dozen men, maybe more, sitting in a circle on crates and ice coolers, the ground beneath them littered with beer cans. Abruptly, several got up to help Charlie as he wrestled a large object from the back of his truck and tumbled it into the clearing among the men. A flashlight shown and somebody, I think it was Dad, worked a pair of oars beneath the object, which in the glare of the flashlight became a very large tub of some kind, encircled by a thick black inner tube. Inside the tub was a complicated-looking net, comprised of ropes and dark knotted mesh, dotted throughout with cork floats and lead weights. Two stout poles taller than a man projected from the tub, and from my perch above it all, appeared joined to the whole apparatus as handles. In a few moments, several strong hands hoisted the bundle up and, with men pinioning their shoulders beneath the oars like pallbearers, marched it over the nearest dune. Danny and I leapt down and followed along to the crest of the dune eagerly.

Below us, I discerned a great tumult of dark shapes and moving water. We were on the banks of a wide tidal inlet that I now recognized as the mouth of the creek we’d seen earlier. All of Amelia Island had thinned down to this narrow promontory, and where the land ended in dune grass and coastal vegetation, the creek flowed darkly into the Atlantic in a jumble of confused seas and cresting waves. Beneath a dense canopy of stars, the men were making slow progress toward a long tidal slough that began in the sandy banks of the inlet and turned to parallel the beach behind a great sand bar. The water here was calmer, protected for most of its length by the bar, and I grasped that our goal had something to do with this temporary impoundment of seawater. The air reeked strongly of salt and damp spartina, and in the dark, I spied a pair of cynical gulls careening above the slough like ghosts.

Down on the beach, the sand seemed abnormally damp and, for the first time, we discovered the magical spark of tiny phosphorescent creatures trapped in the sand. Below a certain saturation point, wherever we stepped the earth glowed bright blue-green in our tracks. This lasted for seconds. Amazed at our discovery, Danny and I kicked off our sneakers and drew our toes through the dark borealis. In all my life since, I have been on nighttime beaches all over the world and never again experienced such an intense concentration of this phenomenon.  Drawing my finger across the ground in foot-high letters, I wrote B, O, B, B, Y in phosphorescent light and stood back excitedly to watch my autograph glow on the sand for many seconds longer. Danny discovered that the wet sand transmitted phosphorescence even when you picked it up and, within moments we were covered from head to foot in murky illumination, conveyed by a sand fight that was as inevitable as the shining phenomenon was not. “Boys!,” Dad barked from somewhere down the beach, and we bounded away reluctantly, to earth.

At the slough, preparations were well underway.  I picked up bits and pieces of conversation among the men that sunrise would happen soon and that we had little time to haul the impoundment before a rising tide cleared the bar, freeing its contents back into the ocean. In a huddle of men, Charlie Brazell was again a focus of activity and I observed first Charlie and then our Dad as they were strapped into what looked like rope harnesses, with nearby men testing their knots and resolution as if preparing astronauts for launch. On the beach behind them, other men had separated the poles in Charlie’s tub and one group now drew a pole away from the heap, hauling it along the edge of the water. This was attached to the harness on Dad, who stood minding his pole erect while the men hustled the tub and inner tube apparatus into the water. Charlie connected himself to the second pole and, grasping it firmly, twisted the side of the net bearing corks into the air. When he was satisfied, he waded into the gloom ahead of the tub, trailing net and tub behind him.  After what seemed to Danny and me a long interval, Charlie gave a yip! in the dark and turned seaward, advancing his pole across the slough toward cresting waves breaking on the bar. When his progress checked at chest-deep, a few of the men thrashed into the deepening water to assist him while others joined Dad, bracing his pole firmly against the beach. Dad hadn’t really explained how all this would catch fish, but it soon became apparent that Charlie’s aim was to reach the far sandbar and enclose the slough in his net. I couldn’t see much, but through the last of the darkness, Charlie’s team seemed to be bobbing along neck-deep at the end of that long seine and, periodically, to lift above the whitewater and slide backwards against their footing. It looked like very hard work and I could tell from Dad’s concentration that the men on the shoreward end were watching Charlie’s progress closely and struggling to keep their own pole anchored firmly in the damp sand. The residue of waves from outside began to roil the slough at regular intervals and the sandbar seemed awash now in the tide. On our side of the slough, I was fascinated again by phosphorescence that pooled brightly with each receding wave around the end of Dad’s pole where it gouged the beach like a harpoon. It looked like nothing so much as a wound opening up in the nocturnal sand, and there was Ahab, stirring it with all the vigor he could muster.

In a little while, Charlie and his men reached the far bank of the slough and gave a yell. They were still knee-deep on the now-flooded sandbar, and Danny and I understood at once that it was crucial for them to cross the slough again before the tide rose another foot. With a great effort, they began to drag the heavy net to the south along the bar, toward the inlet. As they did so, it pursed out in a huge semicircle behind them, spanning the slough. Periodically, we could see flashes of silver in the water and Dad addressed Danny and I with a single word: “Mullet.” At one point, he beckoned to me and indicated that I should grasp the taut line that extended from his pole down into the water bearing the net’s floats. As I did so, I felt a sharp bump and then another transmitted up through the rope. “Did you feel the fish hitting the net?”, he asked. One of the men laughed. Danny tried it too and we were quickly overcome with a boy’s instinctive appreciation that this was a supremely efficient way to kill fish.

Ten or fifteen minutes later, Charlie’s team had gone as far as they could along the sandbar and, in the now-perceptible light, we saw Charlie waving am arm in a circle over his head, as if to signal: “I’m coming back.”  Backing into the slough and pulling hard against his pole, Charlie waded off of the sandbar and drew the great net into a tighter circle. On the beach, I became conscious of men breathing hard, and it occurred to me that any waves rolling across the bar now were pushing Charlie and his companions closer to their objective fifty yards or so south of us.  We watched as the water got deeper and deeper against their chests and the men struggled to hold the pole upright. Suddenly, a larger dark form flooded across the bar and into the slough, cascading a torrent of whitewater ahead of itself. Charlie’s pole and the tub appeared to rise briefly above the wave, then collapsed into a pile of floundering men. Quickly, one or two of them – we couldn’t tell which – regained their footing and raised the pole upright, maintaining tension on the net. I could hear spitting and a lightly-intended oath. Almost immediately, the others splashed back to the rallying point and resumed heaving. The circle closed tighter. Within the gathering loop of the great net, a marvelous thing had now become apparent. Fish were breaking water everywhere, boiling and leaping in panic. Some leapt clear of the maelstrom altogether, vaulting the ring of floats and dashing away to freedom on the other side. We could tell by the straining muscles on the men helping Dad that the seine had grown much heavier as Charlie’s team brought their end nearer to shore.

Then, very quickly, it was all over.

With a last heave, Charlie Brazell stood ankle-deep in salt water and stabbed his pole into the sand jubilantly, like the conquistadors who’d trod this beach before him. His helpers were grinning ear-to-ear. With the escape route closed, Dad’s team began to move away up the beach, pulling the loop tighter and guiding the net ashore. Now, all the men leaned into their poles, stretching the long net parallel to the water’s edge and dragging it up the beach, away from rising surf. Danny and I hopped around in amazement as the sudden onset of daylight revealed the magnitude of our catch for the first time. Someone – it might have been me—started a low rebel yell that seemed to be taken up by a dozen tired, but happy men. On the beach, the net heaved with flopping fish of all description, and for several minutes afterwards it writhed there like a strip of bacon on a hot skillet. While we admired this great bounty, some of the men returned to their cars and reappeared with washtubs and coolers to collect the haul. Warm beers were handed around and my brother and I set about counting fish, certain that this must be a world record for plentitude.

From the long expanse of mesh, a whole catalog of marine life seemed to spill out. There were hundreds of mullet, thick bullet-headed fish who’d propelled themselves into the seine up to their gills and then continued flopping vigorously, plus nearly as many bluefish and small mackerel, who lay breathless but shining on the sand. A man I didn’t know came along asking for striped bass, but I don’t recall whether our catch included them, and anyways, at that moment, a tiny needlefish that had somehow managed to come ashore with the seine fascinated me more. Beyond these, I counted a large contingent of bottom-feeders, including several dozen flounders (whose number included a large one that soon filled the bottom of one of Dad’s washtubs) some brutish catfish that remained stoically entangled in the net by their spines, and many small whiting and croaker. The latter fish grunted noisily in the rising daylight. As if these weren’t enough, a pair of ugly stingrays—one larger than a pizza box—writhed convulsively beneath the net, lashing their potent tails angrily. From the other end of the net, I heard Danny yell “Shark!, Shark!” and galloped away to discover that he was right. The net had also snared a small hammerhead, perhaps two and a half feet long, but ample enough to invade my dreams for many nights afterwards, imagining those men helpless in its proximity. All up and down the beach beneath the great net, we now witnessed a scurrying mass of blue crabs that, freed of their restraints, sidled back into the surf faster than the men could round them up.  An odd-looking brown horseshoe crab was not so lucky, and lay flexing on its back until one of the men grabbed it by the stick-like tail and returned it to the slough. Someone called me over to examine a tiny seahorse working its gills furiously in the air, and I proposed to keep it as a pet then rushed around looking for a suitable container until its briny odor overpowered that plan.

The men seemed to take a long time gathering the edible species into tubs and coolers, and as they worked, the sun rose above the Atlantic and the warm night breeze faded. Right on cue, a swarm of sand gnats arrived, and afterwards it seemed either too hot or too sticky to stay on the beach. I believe I retreated to the truck and slept. A few of the men stuck around to help fold and reload the net (although it is just as likely that they meant to finish off the beer) and it was mid-morning before I heard the heavy thunk of Dad’s full washtubs in the back of the truck. Looking at them afterwards, if I felt disappointment in the division of our catch, it was this: Mama hadn’t witnessed the spectacle on the beach, and, on the evidence of the share we brought home, might forever wonder if I was guilty of spinning another fish story!