It was just before dawn on the first of September. September is the first month with an “r” in it since April, and so the oyster flats were officially open to shell fishing, and we didn’t intend to miss the first low tide of the opening day of the season.
While my mother sat in the middle thwart of our 13 foot rowboat, I let go the bowline and my father started the small outboard motor and let go of the stern line. We slowly made our way to the channel and up East Creek in Cutchogue, NY towards Cutchogue Harbor where the nearest oyster beds awaited us.
The creeks have a speed limit of 5 mph to limit the eroding effects of boat wake on the salt marshes, so I made use of our slow transit by trolling a fishing line for snappers, the juvenile bluefish that put up a deceptive fight considering their small size, but got only a passing strike.
The water was calm, with a mist of fog rising from the placid waters. The snapping turtles popping their heads up out of the water were the only things disturbing the water’s surface that morning as we made our way down the creek.
We pulled into a cove on the bay, since all of the shell fishing beds in the creeks are closed, and my parents got out of the boat. I couldn’t go shell fishing because I didn’t have a permit, but after I got the boat anchored to the shore, I took a walk around the beach.
My father, ever the intrepid explorer, went deep into the mud flats at the head of the cove, where the water flowed from the marsh into the sea, and started to collect the largest oysters he could pick up. He said it was like shooting fish in a barrel, and soon had eight and a half dozen oysters.
Oyster fishing, along with collecting mussels, is a much simpler process then clamming. The oysters and mussels are attached to the marsh grass, along the roots, and are usually exposed during low tide. They are sometimes buried in the mud away from the shore, but usually along the mud flats still exposed by the fallen tide. Clams on the other hand, are usually found in the mud well in the water, and require a rake and some skill to harvest them.
What shocked me was that we were the only ones gathering oysters. I have discussed this with my parents and I believe that it is a sign of the population of Cutchogue now. Gone are the old locals, replaced by summering people from the city, who have no knowledge or desire to go shell fishing. I think it is easier for them to go to the local fish market and pick up a dozen oysters then trudge around in the smelly mud at low tide. Perhaps Labor Day wasn’t the best example of this theory, but I still find it fascinating that we were the only ones out there.
Since the tide was now dead-low, and we had all the oysters we needed, we decided to head up the coast of Little Hog Neck (also erroneously called Nassau point) , and see if we could catch some snappers. I took the helm at this time, and slowly motored out of the cove. We caught a couple very small ones that we threw back, and commented that they were in general, small for September. I did hook a surprise however; a sea robin. I didn’t quite get it into the boat, but got it far enough out of the water to know what it was. I had never seen one except in pictures, and had only heard of my grandfather catching one once. They are an ugly, orange fish, with large fins and are generally useless.
After puttering around for about twenty-minutes, we headed back to the creek where we managed to hook four decent sized snappers so my mother would have a nice seafood lunch.
We got back to the dock and I went off to pack, while my father spent the rest of the morning shucking his oysters for his oyster stew. It was a good morning getting back to the roots of North Fork living.