It was cold on the beach. Five a.m. or so, waiting to set nets, fishing with the Havens crew in Amagansett. I was almost 15 and had left the boarding school I attended in ninth grade a bit before the end of the school year (long story). I moved to my parents’ summer house in East Hampton, where Doug Kuntz, an on-again, off-again boyfriend of my older sister’s who was in need of a place to live, was installed to keep an eye on me. He was my ticket to fishing with the Havens family, haulseiners for generations.
Haulseining was taught to white settlers by the local Indians and remained much the same over the centuries, with the exception of four-wheel-drive trucks with winches replacing hauling the nets by hand, and rowboats being retired in favor of 20-foot motorized dories towed to the beach and launched through the surf.
Our dory would launch just before dawn, when the truck towing it would back quickly and violently into the ocean and come to a sudden stop, letting momentum pull the boat free. While the truck pulled out of the water as fast as possible, sometimes with the help of a tow line already set in place and wrapped around a winch of another truck, the dory would power through the beach break, wader-clad fishermen preparing to drop nets after clearing the waves.
They’d head toward the horizon paying out net, the end of which was still tied to a truck, setting it in a deep arc before returning through the waves far up the beach. Crews manned each end of the net; one would work the large spinning steel winch that towed the net to shore while a second neatly coiled the rope. As the net at last began to pull clear of the ocean we’d run shots of line to the water’s edge and tie it around the net while the other end was wrapped around the winch to continue the haul.
It could take two hours: shot after shot of rope tied on, untied, then rushed back to the water as the trucks periodically moved toward each other, leaving a trail of netting above the surf line as the arc in the ocean tightened around the catch.
By the time the trucks were shouting distance apart, the tension would be an almost physical presence on the beach. Fish would have been cleaned from the net as it was retrieved, but that set’s success or failure was dictated by what was in the bag, a giant sock of netting at the center of the arc that held captive the fish that had hit the net and turned to run offshore. A full net could mean an early day and a run to Stuart’s market to deliver the catch. More likely, though, the process would be repeated at least once. But expectations were always high for that first set; the wisdom of haulseiners for generations said the best time to get your nets in was as the sun just came over the eastern horizon.
We woke up at 3:30 or 4 a.m. to fish. We’d sit in the dark living room of my house, Doug would smoke cigarettes, and we’d try to wake up enough for the drive to Amagansett in his drafty ex-Postal Service Jeep. Once at the Havens home we’d hop in the crew trucks for the drive to the Napeague strip.
It was sleepy, cold, noisy, chaotic movement before dawn, before the rest of the Hamptons bothered to get out of bed, with the roads empty except for our small convoy of trucks heading east before turning onto the two-track through the dunes leading to the ocean and our first set spot. Everything had an odd edge to it: the air, the lights on the dune grass, the cigarette smoke in the truck cab, the sound of the trailer humming behind. I’m not convinced anyone but the men in the dory fully came awake before we started to see fish on the beach, but attempts were made in those few slow, precious moments of calm while the boat made its long trip out and back.
Men would smoke, stand on the cold beach and talk about the day’s prospects, and toss causal, affectionate insults at one another. They’d tell me to be careful of bluefish, that one had leapt off the beach and latched on to Nicky’s upper arm once, that they’re dangerous fish, aren’t they? Yes, yes, bub.
I never knew if they were trying to scare the city kid, but when I was finally insulted by one of the crew (I won’t be specific, but it had to do with my potential ability and supposed propensity for bed insects), I felt in some small part (very, very small part) a member of the crew, at least for a time. Never fully, of course, that would have been impossible for a number of reasons: I was young, I was obnoxious, I was born in the wrong state.
But I didn’t care; the fact that I was there getting yelled at was what mattered. These were, after all, Real Men. Real Men who did Real Work, who smoked, who drank, who fought, who feared nothing I could think of. They were larger than life and stronger than gods and they let me fish with them in the spring of 1978.