I thought that living off the land was a kind of makeshift, make-do enterprise, but I was wrong. If you expect to come up with your own food in any significant quantity, you need infrastructure. If you want eggs, you have to build a chicken coop. For tomatoes, you have to till and fertilize a garden. Fish? Buy a boat.
Well, we built the coop, we tilled the garden, we bought the boat. It has taken time, effort, and money, and so far we haven’t had much to show for it besides what few herbs our chickens haven’t shredded. This week, though, we finally began to see results. First, we harvested our overwinter garlic. It wasn’t all it could have been – a damp, sunless spring prevented it from reaching its full potential – but it was a respectable haul.
More exciting was our inaugural saltwater fish. Inaugural, at lest, in the sense that it was the first we caught in our boat. Last summer, we caught a few in Charlie’s boat.
Charlie lives right on the beach, and he called us one morning and asked if we wanted to go fishing. We met at his house, not knowing quite what to expect. Charlie has a certain personal dignity that led us to imagine him, in yachting whites, at the helm of something substantial. When we got there, all we saw was the smallest possible fiberglass dinghy.
It was just a little shell of a thing – no hold, no motor, no gear. It did have its own hand trailer, a custom-made dolly with big fat wheels designed to carry a boat over sand. I looked at the boat skeptically. Kevin looked at the boat, and looked out to the water, hand shading his eyes, to see if he could spot the boat this boat would take us to.
“Where’s the boat?” he asked me, sotto voce.
“I think this is the boat.” I said.
“This can’t be the boat,” he said.
“I’m pretty sure this is the boat.” I said.
The boat had one of those little occupancy stickers inside it: “Maximum capacity, 349 pounds.” I did the math. Let’s see, there’s me, there’s Kevin, there’s fishing gear … Whew! We’re OK, as long as Charlie, who resembles Ernest Borgnine, comes in under 27 pounds.
“Come on,” said Charlie to Kevin, “let’s go get the motor.”
I wasn’t sure whether this was good news or bad news. On the one hand, at least there was a motor. I hadn’t relished the idea of rowing to wherever the fish were. On the other hand, the motor, a 3-horsepower Mercury four-stroke, probably used up all of Charlie’s 27-pound weight allowance.
Luckily, the water was warm and calm, and since the worst-case scenario was a long swim, I figured I’d rather have a severely overloaded boat with a motor than a less severely overloaded boat without.
Charlie and Kevin retrieved the motor, attached it to the boat, and we headed across the sand to launch. We all climbed in, and Charlie pulled the starter. Nothing happened. He fiddled with the motor and pulled again, and again. Still nothing.
I will admit here that I was half hoping the motor wouldn’t start. I was apprehensive about the boat, and I wasn’t at all convinced that there were fish off Charlie’s beach. I wasn’t even sure what we were fishing for – Charlie was new at this and couldn’t tell us what kinds he’d caught before – but it sure wasn’t striped bass.
But the motor started, and we set out. Charlie pointed to a buoy about a quarter-mile offshore. “That’s where we’re going.”
That’s where we went, and dropped lines baited with squid. To my surprise, the fish started biting immediately, and we pulled up fish after fish after fish. Most were very small, and some were unidentifiable, but there were a few grillable porgies that made a fine, if bony, dinner.
When we took our own boat out, we weren’t looking for porgies. We were looking for fluke, and we went out through Cotuit Bay into Nantucket Sound, hoping to find the shoals where the fluke reputedly hang out. Since we didn’t quite know where the shoals were – we’d only heard rumors – we didn’t have high expectations. We got to the general vicinity and dropped lines, baited with squid. It wasn’t long before I got a bite.
I started reeling it in, having no idea what was on the other end. If it was a fluke, it was really a fluke – it would have been blind luck that we hit the spot on the first try.
It wasn’t a fluke. It was a porgy, but it was big enough to keep.
Porgies (also called scup) feed en masse, and we hit a mass of them. They’re very good at nibbling your bait away without ever impaling themselves on your hook, and we watched our rod tips dip over and over but our upward yanks yielded nothing. We were using fluke rigs, which have fairly big hooks; they wouldn’t hook the smallest fish.
After about twenty minutes, I got something promising on the line. It fought, it swam, it pulled the rod almost double. It took a good couple of minutes to land it.
It was Moby Dick! I mean, for a porgy. It was two-and-a-half pounds, the size of a platter, dinner for two.
The garlic and the porgies should be only the beginning. With our infrastructure in place, the next few months will, with luck and decent weather, yield us tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, and assorted greens from the garden. It’s possible we’ll have shiitakes, and almost certain that we’ll have eggs, in late fall. We’re going to try for lobsters in September, and Kevin hopes to bag a deer in November.
Next year, maybe we’ll tackle the highway system.