Learning How to Fill Our Nets From the Local Fishermen

It looked so easy. Every morning, just after dawn, we would watch the fishermen launch their cast nets like shimmering blue parachutes that the weights would sink to the bottom of the canal.

My husband, Robert, and I live aboard our 37-foot Brown Searunner trimaran with sons, Zoltan (age two) and Ian (nine months). We were boatyard bound at Bob and Annie's Marine Railway on Pine Island in Florida repairing our rudder, skeg, and centerboard, which a nasty 40-knot squall had helped shatter just after Christmas.

Since the boys keep fishermen's hours, we were always on deck for the morning cast session. The boys were captivated by this spectacle and would dance with glee when the "fishee-men" hauled in their catch of jacks or mullet.

Zoli would take a little gear net from his bunk and pitch it across the deck in imitation after the men had gone. "See, I catch da fishee!"

"Yeah, da fishee-men!" Zoli would squeal as they arrived the next morning. After a few days of this we began to receive a pail of fish every day or so. I joked that I didn't need a hook to catch fish, all I needed was a toddler who worshiped the decks the "fishee-men" walked on.

"Don't let anyone around here catch him [Zoltan] saying that," a man at the general store warned one day. "People around here don't like the fishermen much. They just enacted a net ban on gill netters because there weren't enough fish to go around for the sport fishermen. Now they don't like the cast netters because they think they're stripping the canals."

I knew about the net ban. I also had been told that the gill netters had turned to cast netting and would soon be going after shrimp in an effort to make up for the lost revenues.

My problem is that I come from a different world than those who find the fishermen offensive.

When I was a little girl growing up in New York City, my family would go on vacation to Long Beach Island in New Jersey where my Great Uncle Peter (who bore a striking resemblance to John Wayne) would take me fishing.

Every morning he would wake me while it was still dark out and we would walk the block to the beach to go surf casting with all the "old timers."

They all looked as if they could step into a 1940s film at any time; varying from the John Wayne to the Spencer Tracey types. They had big rough hands, which to a seven-year-old seemed even more massive. They wore big canvas parkas and looked as if they had been in the sun since the day they were born.

I had been watching this new breed of "fishee-men" every morning for weeks and catching occasional snippets of their conversations as they shouted over their skiffs' outboards.

They talked about the going price of jacks and mullet and about how tight things had gotten financially. There was the occasional coarse comment regarding the legislators.

I wasn't particularly worried about them, though. I had bigger "fish" to fry since the storms in the Northeast had all but stopped the mail from flowing, and the money that was supposed to be waiting for us when we arrived in St. James City hadn't come through.

We had just had the most awful Christmas sail, were now out of grocery money, and had two little mullets of our own to feed.

But a fisherman showed up on the dock late one day, bearing an old, worn cast net. I had just written a piece about our misadventures for the local paper, and he had seen it.

As the saying goes, "Give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Teach him to fish and you feed him for life."

Marty (the fisherman) spent an hour or so giving me and my husband pointers on how, when, and where to cast.

"Heard about your bad luck," he said simply. "The net needs some repairs. I've had it for a long time, and it doesn't owe me anything anymore. I figure you've got more use for it."

There he was - John Wayne, Spencer Tracey, and my Great Uncle Peter all rolled into one - and handing me a way to get through hard times.

I don't care if some people think fishermen are "bad." Maybe there are people who are perceived that way in any profession.

I'm just glad that my boys are growing up watching and learning from men who are keeping up a tradition of life on the water that would have made my great uncle want to cast his lot with them.

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