Bonacker Ghosts – 2016 Grand Prize Winner in Dan’s Literary Prize for Nonfiction

Sometimes, in the pre-dawn light of a cold November morning, at a beach near Amagansett, the ghosts come back to me.

I am surf casting for striped bass—the king of inshore fish—who are making their annual migration around Montauk Point to head south for the winter. This is the most solitary style of sport fishing, and as I step into the surf to cast a heavy, bucktail jig out beyond the breakers my mind drifts back to another era: an era lost in time.

The beach in my memory is bleak and grey with fog as a pair of 4-wheel drive pickup trucks buck and jolt through a dune cut. They pass new, million-dollar houses which stare vacantly out toward a low, leaden sky above pewter ground swells that groan landward toward the narrowing fall beach. The sea air is heavy with the aroma of kelp and the salty tang of shells and sand. The vehicles turn east and lurch slowly between the hump-backed dunes and the wave cut shelf of eroded beach. Inside the trucks are men clad in canvas coats, oilskins, and high sea boots. They are fishermen—ocean haul seiners—whose ancestors settled in the Accabonac area of East Hampton centuries ago and gradually became known as “Bonackers.”

One of the pickups pulls a trailer with a big, double-ended dory stacked high with a half-mile-long seine net. The men in the trucks could be from any one of the dozen or so Bonacker families that once fished this beach: Havens, Lester, Bennett, Miller or Edwards are a few. But in my memory today I hear a voice from the lead truck say, “Here, Bub. This looks like the spot we can catch a bunch.” It is the voice of Dan King, and as I watch the dory backing down the surf, I see it is painted red, white, and blue with a big star on the bow.

Dan steps out of the truck. He is a powerful-looking bear of a man with an old-time whaler’s beard arcing across his chin, sans mustache. In the early-dawn light he looks much like his 19th-century whaling relatives would have looked. He signals two of his crewmen who leap into the dory and start the outboard, which is mounted in a center well. The motor shrieks as the boat hits the waves and slides off the trailer. It rises steeply over the first set of waves, cuts neatly through the next, and finally gains the relatively calm roll beyond the surf. The net is connected to a power winch on the truck, and one crewman stands in the boat feeding it over the stern. A few hundred feet out from the shore the boat turns parallel to the beach dropping the seine as it goes.

Within minutes a string of cork floats traces the long arc of the net just below the surface. An orange buoy in the middle marks the “bunt,” or bag, which imprisons the fish enclosed by the “wings” of the twine. Finally, the dory comes back ashore far down the beach where the second truck is waiting and a two-hour process of winching the net in begins.

My vision is interrupted by a powerful hit on my lure. I set the hook, my rod bends, the reel screams and for the next several minutes I concentrate on the fight. The sun is just above the sea now and the monofilament line glistens in the brilliance as it traces my connection to the fish. Waves break around my waist. I struggle to stay upright against the sucking current. Eventually, I reach out and grip the fish’s lower jaw and drag it onto dry sand. It is a striped bass, almost three feet long. It is a beautiful creature; dark, lateral stripes along white sides with a bronze-green back.

Admiring the fish, I, once again, envision Dan King standing in the “buddy bed” of his truck keeping tension on the hauling rope wrapped around a powerful windless head as the net comes slowly ashore. He jokes with one of his crew: “If we don’t get a bunch in this haul, Bub, you’ll be eat’n snowballs all winter. The only way to do that is to cook ’em real fast before they melt.” The other man grunts as he continues to clear kelp and crabs from the twine.

The trucks gradually move towards each other as the wings of the net are winched in on both ends. By the time the net has enclosed an area the size of a backyard they are almost nose to nose. Dan points to the “nervous water” where the backs of fish are darting from side to side in their panic. A few leap over the corks to freedom. Excited sea birds squawk and swoop down to grab whatever they can. “Get that bunt ashore before they all break out,” Dan yells. One of his crew runs to attach a heavy rope to it and begin the final process of winching the bulging bag ashore.

The sun is well up now as the bag is hauled past the surf line. It looks like a beached whale until Dan pulls on a rope that holds the end closed. Then the fish begin to spill out onto the sand. The big scales of the bass reflect like mirrors as the men begin tossing each fish into the truck beds. Dogfish, skates and other undesirable fish are flung back into the breakers, and the beach is alive with birds grabbing smaller baitfish.

It is not a huge catch: perhaps 500 pounds of stripers, worth $2 to $3 a pound at the Fulton Fish Market. Still, the men celebrate and congratulate themselves. The camaraderie of this type of commercial fishing is probably unique to haul seining—a tradition that goes back to Native American days.

But not everyone is celebrating. Inevitably, the commotion has drawn a few spectators. Some surfcasters gather and mutter their opposition to this type of competition for striped bass. Dan and his crew ignore the comments as they work quickly to clear the beach. The tension is only broken when the big dory—its American flag logo ablaze—is winched onto its trailer and the crew heads back up the beach.

I look at the big fish at my feet. Thirty years have gone by since the last haul seine was set. The sport-fishing lobby, aided by the discovery of PCB chemicals in the flesh of striped bass, brought an end to commercial fishing for the species. Although the fishery has since reopened, haul seining is still banned in this state. Along with it a Bonacker tradition has faded into history. Only the ghosts remain.

“I miss them,” I think out loud, as I hoist the striper and walk it down to the surf line. It is well above the legal size limit, but I don’t want to kill anything today. With one powerful thrust of its tail the fish is gone. The beach is empty once again.

***

“Bonacker Ghosts” by Richard Weissmann won the $5,000 Grand Prize in the 2016 Dan’s Papers Literary Prize for Nonfiction. Read all about the Gala Awards Ceremony at Guild Hall and Dan’s Literary Festival here.

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