• Otter Views: Dinner’s in the Net

    Some confluence of tides, currents and catch drew Monterey’s fishing boats close enough to shore this week to give landlubbers a rare glimpse of how the other half lives. Every morning, the boats thrummed out of the harbor to form a seagoing conga line from Otter Cove to Cannery Row. Queued up along some unseen thermal rift like buses on a boulevard, the boats enjoyed whitecap-free seas and mild May weather. Those same conditions beckoned onlookers to the recreation trail. Some with cameras tried vainly to get all 20 boats into the same photo. Others monitored the distant signs of marine enterprise – buoys splashing, cables rattling, gantries swinging. They watched a snowstorm of sunlit gulls circle each boat; heard laboring diesels draw glistening cones of netting from the sea.

    This week’s spectacle left me with a renewed regard for those who make their living fishing from boats. Watching from land on a warm, sunny day, it’s easy to forget how much colder everything is offshore. And when, from the warmth of my bed, I hear the boats throbbing past at first light, I marvel at how early their crews had to waken and stand to.

    It’s a profession with long, irregular hours; one where the catch sets the clock. My sole outing on a commercial boat convinced me that people who fish at sea rarely sleep more than a couple of hours at a stretch. After back-to-back 20-hour days pursuing elusive schools of tuna, even a pile of rope makes a heavenly bed.

    That voyage didn’t even include nets and gantries. Gripping long bamboo poles, the crew stood barefoot along the gunwales of a 50-foot Japanese “sampan.” After reading the birds and chumming the ocean with bait fish, they hurled barbless hooks into a seething school of tuna. Soon a rain of plump, torpedo-shaped bodies was flying overhead to thump down onto the duckboards, and thence onto chipped ice. It was all done with hooks, lines and poles. No nets.

    My only experience catching dinner with a net came not at sea, but in the shallow brackish ponds of Galveston, Texas. I had gone there one collegiate summer to work at Sea-A-Rama, a new marine park on the island’s marshy west end.

    As its name might suggest, Sea-A-Rama was not the Monterey Aquarium. Its big draws were a dolphin show run by a pair of West Texas oil riggers and a murky aquarium whose Ovaltine-colored waters hid several torpid “gars.” These huge, snaggle-toothed fish moped in the silty tank like patients in a dentist’s waiting room.

    I had gone to Galveston hoping to land a glamorous job as a dolphin-trainer at Sea-A-Rama, but I wound up digging ditches for $1.25 an hour, cursing the 95 degree heat and shoveling crushed clam shells onto the park’s pathways.

    Also on the grounds crew were twin brothers Victor and Larry of Waco, a hard- scrabble mid-Texas city so nondescript it made Galveston look like Vienna. Thanks to Sea-A-Rama management, the brothers and I shared rent-free a weather-beaten, two-story shack on the park premises. Leaning drunkenly toward the murky bait ponds at its feet, the house had a pronounced “list” that gave it a sort of doomed, nautical feel, like the final hours of the Titanic.

    We were the first people in 15 years to live in that decrepit shanty, so we started pretty much from scratch. We hung old nets up for décor and hammered “furniture” together out of crates and scrap lumber we found under the house. We discovered that by beveling the legs, we could make the furniture tilt in the opposite direction from the house, so when we sat in it, we were nearly level. That’s the kind of thing colleges don’t teach.

    They also don’t teach you how to forage for food. The Waco brothers and I were so broke that summer we subsisted on corn flakes, watermelons, wild tomatoes, and lumpy “gumdrop cookies” mailed in coffee tins by Victor and Larry’s worried mother.

    When the gumdrop cookies ran out, we unhooked the decorative nets from the living room wall and put them to use. Splashing through Sea-A-Rama’s muddy bait ponds three abreast, we became expert seiners for freshwater crabs. These would go into a cook pot along with some wild tomatoes and a packet of chili-pepper infused “Crab Broil.” The resulting gumbo would have lured few diners on Monterey Wharf, but it worked for us. Hunger, they say, makes the best seafood.

    In retrospect, we could have enjoyed a more wholesome and varied diet if nutrition had been a priority. But we were 19. Whatever money we saved went into the upkeep of a coal-black, 1948 Harley-Davidson three wheeler with a hand shifter and a “meter maid” box. With one driving and two seated on the box, we could clatter over to The Beach Hut where we hoped to meet girls and dance the shag. The big hit that summer was “Bare Footin’.”

    posted to Cedar Street Times on May 9, 2014

    Topics: Otter Views

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