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Reflections of:

Harriet Smith
copyright: 2003 - Harriet Smith

     Like most people, I have always been attracted to water. An ocean, a lake, a river, a pond, a little brook meandering through the woods. Even swimming pools. There was a time when I lived in California that I swam every day in a pool. Towards the end of that year in California, I was hugely pregnant and still swimming, my then-husband joking that the water level rose a whole foot in the pool when I got in.

     But nothing prepared me for my obsessive love for the work of the commercial fisherman. And "obsessive" is the right word - it is just like an addiction. A spell of bad weather or boat repairs will start a fisherman to walking the floor. On the water, there are no phones, no mail, no salesmen, no bills, no traffic. Just you and the boat, your crew if you have one, and Mother Nature. It's you hoping that you can be smart enough and lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to catch your share of whatever it is you are after. And in the meantime, not have your motor break down, not tear a hole in your boat or get stuck in the mud. It is the most basic of activities and at the same time, the most complicated. I won't say "You against Mother Nature" because that is not the case. If you are "against" Mother Nature, you will always lose. You work with her and sometimes, she will let you have your catch and not snare you with lightning or sting rays or biting flies or water too shallow. It is basic because it has changed little since the beginning of time when a man first made a crude net, possibly out of vines or spider webs, and caught some fish. Oh, yes, there are instruments and spotter planes and power winches and 5-mile driftnets. But it is still a frail human on the mighty ocean with only your skill and luck to serve you, no matter how big your boat is. And if you travel all over the world, you will see the same nets being cast or let out over the side of a boat and fishermen in late morning back on shore to sell their catch. I watched one fisherman in a little town on the Pacific Coast of Nicaragua as he finished his work for the day. He first came into shore and unloaded his catch to waiting buyers, including several people of the town who showed up with buckets or plastic bags to buy a fish or two. Then, he pushed away from the shore and tied the boat to a buoy - not an easy task in a boat by himself with some good sized swells.  After cleaning and neatening the boat, he unplugged the gas tank, put on his shirt and jumped overboard with the gas tank. He swam to shore pushing the floating tank ahead of him and then walked home with the tank on his shoulder. It's not so different anywhere.

     What is different is pollution, coastal development, bigger and faster (and noisier) boats, the depletion of fish stocks, incredibly poor fish management on the part of the government and, in Florida, the banning of the use of gill nets to catch fish, which with the stroke of a pen, changed commercial fishing forever. 

     I had never been able to make a living at fishing. I had to supplement that meager income by painting houses and taking tourists on my boat and working at motels. Usually, I fished for "jimmies" or Atlantic Spot, a fish similar to a bream. Just about the best day of my fishing life was when Mike Davis, who managed the fish house, said of me "She's a pretty fair jimmy fisherman." This was high praise indeed from this caustic and critical - and funny - man. If I caught any mullet, I laughingly told one friend, it was a sheer accident, for mullet fishermen are born and not made. The successful mullet fisherman was always the lord of the subsistence fishermen and greatly respected. Mullet are extremely wily and hard to catch and I often thought you had to just think like a mullet which took a long time to learn. One such fisherman, Horace Fine - also known as "Jigger" - had a severe heart attack and open heart surgery. But several months later, he was back on his airboat, looking for mullet. He usually fished at night and I could lie in my bed and hear him in his airboat, looking for fish. If the motor went on and on and on, I knew he was having trouble finding fish.  When it stopped, I knew he had found some. One morning when he didn't come home, they searched and found him dead on his boat. "It's the way I want to go." said the fishermen, all agreeing. But that was not to be.

     Oystering, yes, crabbing, yes. I tried them all. I even went offshore on an overnight grouper trip in a 24' open boat and didn't like that at all. But all these adventures - and they were many - ended with the ban on gill nets. I stood at the fish house as the last basket of mullet was hauled up and tried, like the men around me, not to cry.

     And so we turned to the only thing we could - clam farming. Through a job training program, we were trained and each leased four acres of submerged land to grow clams. It was extremely difficult and without any money, almost impossible to go forward - like any business. We inched forward, however, some of us taking on partners in situations that would later turn bad. Others, like me, determined to go it alone. The work consisted of counting and measuring baby clams - each about 10 mm across - into a nylon mesh bag that was usually 4' x 4' or 3' x 4'. Then, the bags were planted on the bottom of the submerged land leased from the State of Florida. The area where we were growing clams was about 1/4 mile from Cedar Key. The bags were staked down in rows, just like planting corn. The only difference was: you couldn't see anything -- except, of course, in the dead of winter when the water is clear and everyone worried about having their clam bags stolen because they were so easy to see. I called it "farming by Braille" because you could only feel with your feet and your hands what was going on. After about a year or 15 months, you would pull that bag out of the mud, put it on your boat and bring it to shore, put it in your truck and take it to a clam buyer. Of course, you wouldn't just harvest one bag - anywhere from 5 to 50 bags would be brought in at a time. And by now, they were heavy - heavy with sand and mud and heavy with clams. 

     I worked my clam lease - usually by myself - for several years until I finally realized that I could no longer work on the water. It was physically too difficult: the lifting and pulling of the heavy bags was too much. I was now 58 years old and with neck and back problems that kept me in pain just about all the time. The chiropractor I went to told me I had to choose between being in pain and not working on the water. I finally chose not working on the water and the freedom from pain. I bought a boat trailer - I had never had one - and put my boat "on the hill." I sold my clam lease and the clams on it. I always said I would enjoy taking the boat out just for fishing or picnicking or just riding at sunset. But six months went by and I had not put the boat in the water. It was time to sell the boat.

     How could this happen? I had loved net fishing so much. I had hoped that when I was older and had a little bit of an income - maybe from social security - I could just go net fishing whenever I wanted without the pressure of having to make a living. It was the best thing I had ever done and I loved it. But that was over. And I found soon after that that my time in Cedar Key was over. After eighteen years, it was time to move on.

     And here I am living on the side of a volcano in Costa Rica, raising cows, volunteering in a rainforest, looking for adventures whenever they come my way, and yes, drawing boat plans for a small wooden boat to take up the San Juan River into Nicaragua. 

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