BOOKS: Men’s Lives

Reading Peter Matthiessen’s book from 1986 on the lost way of life of Long Island’s south shore surfmen and baymen. I’m a huge fan of Matthiessen’s trilogy of historical novels on frontier Florida, particularly Killing Mr. Watson and Bone by Bone. This book is so far a great read about a culture now buried under glitterati and horrible traffic every summer.

14 thoughts on “BOOKS: Men’s Lives”

  1. Dude,
    Those guys were the ones most responsible for the eventual closing of the striped bass fishery in the 80’s. When it became apparent that the populations could not withstand the kind of fishing pressure that was on it, they fought tooth and nail until it became almost impossible to find a striped bass anywhere. So0 then the feds had to step in and close the whole thing down. Same thing that is getting ready to happen to fluke (summer flounder) today. This whole “lost way of life” argument is the same crap I hear around here in defense of gillnetting, which is the most wasteful method of fishing and has led to a real depletion of our redfish the last two summers due to flounder prices being through the roof due to them being so rare…. and on and on and on…

  2. I’m not defending commercial overfishing at all or saying we need to get back to a “lost way”, just saying I’m enjoying reading this historical account of Long Island.

    The book starts with an account of whaling on the island, too, which is interesting to read about but that doesn’t mean I think they should go back to hunting whales from launches off the beach.

  3. Haul seiners did not cause the demise of the bass all by their lonesome .
    It was a great book and I read it when it first came out.
    Small bit of trivia .All the pictures in the book are from the south fork except the inside cover plate of a man and his boat in front of his fishing shack.That’s East Marion on the bay and all those fishing shacks are now McMansions.
    The only thing you can haul now is their garbage to the curb

  4. Pete,
    While your reading that book.Is there a statement in there that says that when the bluefish numbers go down the bass will be back? Or something to that effect ?

  5. Crowldawg, I haven’t noticed that but I will look out for it. To your other point about demise, I agree. For years recreational anglers have had a common target in commercial fisheries. And rightly so, as unchecked commercial overfishing can decimate fish populations.

    But on a fairly consistent basis, I see recreational anglers blatantly disregarding the regulations in place. Go out a boat on any given day during the season, and you’ll no doubt see at least one guy keeping shorts (hey man, they taste better!), keeping every fish he catches, keeping more than one cow. And that’s just the striped bass.

    You see it with fluke guys, too, keeping the smaller ones because they think the new regs are unfair or for whatever reason.

    And bluefish…I know some people who eat them, but even they say they are only good fresh. There is only one reason to keep more than one or two bluefish, and that’s if you plan to go mako shark fishing and need them for bait. But I’ve watched guys decimate a bluefish bust by gaffing every single fish they pull over the transom and throwing them in the box. What the hell?

    These types of guys piss me off more than anyone because they’re destroying my fishing opportunities, because they think the rules don’t apply to them. And they are undermining the efforts of every organization out there looking to protect and enhance recreational fisheries and anglers’ rights.

  6. Pete , we are on the same page regarding your above post .
    I went out on a party boat from an unamed town recently .I caught one keeper fluke and about 6 or 8 rather large shorts .
    Abot half the shorts were getting cleaned .These are the same guys that will blame somebody else for the fishes demise
    I took my porgies and went home.I won’t be back.
    You should try some small cocktails just out of the water .They are delicious .I prefer them in the spring when they are eatting squid .They get a little stronger when they are on herring and bunker(tangent is my middle name,lol)

  7. It’s sad and bewildering that there are people who believe thirty five men and five dories are more responsible for the decline of striped bass than tens of thousands of recs with rods, the natural population cycle, water pollution, ect.. The haul seine was actually the most humane method of catching fish, as all the fish that the governmnent did not allow them to sell went back into the water alive. The gill net, on the other hand, produces mainly dead bycatch, which todays baymen are forced to leave to waste and rot rather than fill their tags and sell, yet it’s the ONLY way the government will allow the baymen to effectively catch bass. When studying bass, even the government uses a haul seine today rather than a gillnet, since the fish they catch are and remain alive rather than dead. Oh the irony.

    The book is wonderful, completely accurate and beautifully well written. If you look up Billy Joels music video for “Downeaster Alexa”, you can watch how the dory is launched into the ocean. It is a dangerous art very few men know how to do today.

  8. Gill nets stink. That much is assured. The haul seine as it was and is continued to be used in other areas besides NY (NC actually) is and was the single way that targeted and continues to target fish that swim along a beach and can effectively wipe out thousands of fish in a single scoop. It wasn’t just on Long Island that this was used. Have you ever seen one in action? most folks haven’t maybe you have. They take everything and drag it onto the beach and the reality of most guys who do it is that anything they can’t keep for themselves or sell for a profit, they leave on the beach for the gulls. I have seen it with my own eyes and a few times if I and some others were not present it would have meant the demise of hundreds of redfish that were hauled in by means of a seine and left because they were over the slot size and could not be kept. The guys were going to leave them on the beach so we put them back in the water ourselves. Pretty weak.

  9. PS
    When I have read books like “Striper” and “The Perfect Storm” and hear Billy Joel lamenting the poor down easter Alexa, I have a hard time mustering any pity for poor commercial fishermen losing their way of lives. Especially since the guys who are making their living that way around here have the worst reputations as ne’er do wells and most have extensive criminal records.

  10. Capt. Gordon, this is obviously a hot button issue for you, as you have eye-witness photos of gill nets decimating reds, and it directly affects your livelihood as a guide. No arguments there.

    To be clear, in an argument between commercial and recreational interests, I’ll take the recreational every time, provided the recreational side isn’t also abusing the resources (see above).

    These books are history. The old ways of commercial fishing either are, soon will be, or should be history. Sustainable commercial fishing needs to happen, like you say on your Facebook page:

    But these books have value and are good reads.

  11. I’ve seen both gillnets and haul seines at work, and there isn’t a doubt in my mind that there are men who have abused both, but they weren’t the men in the book being discussed. These are families I’m both a descendant of and know personally and are a large part of here on Eastern LI, and we take a lot of pride in not wasting what we catch unless we are forced to. What was good about the haul seine was that, although it catches more in one set, we were able to return virtually all bycatch to the water alive, unlike a gillnet which sadly kills everything.
    Though seeing the wasteful nature of those you’ve known, don’t let it bias you and think that’s how baymen are all over, for it certainly isn’t. The men in NC and the like probably consider what they do nothing more than a way to mak money, but here it’s actually a culture the same families have been part of for over three hundred years. When the haul seine was banned, good men killed themselves not because they weren’t happy with “changing jobs”, but because their lives were physically taken from them. Even when Calvin Lester (may he rest in peace) passed on last year, his whole life was summed up in front of the funeral home, when his son parked his 79 Ford, with a dory draped with a flag behind it.

  12. As for criminal records, we like our beer so unless you count some conditional licenses here and there, we’re pretty clean, lol.

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