Monday, December 23, 2013

Memory lane: Lets go poaching!

In 1987, at the tender age of 13, I had my first brush with the law- not so much a brush as a near miss, but it resonated, and helped shape me into the lawman-avoiding man I am today. Honest to God, I hate being around cops. I immediately feel guilty, and I'm one of the most vanilla people you'll ever meet. I frigging hate breaking the law.

 But sometimes it happens anyways.

     So, 1987, and it's late in the year.  Mid-December, when we in the Boston area start getting the first consistently frequent hard gales on a regular basis. This particular year hadn't seen too many strong easterly weather systems, and a VERY strong nor-easter blew in. The Old Timer, my employer and sea-daddy, invited us (myself, Johnny Sparks my former roommate from my days at The Pickle Jar where I lived when I started this blog, and his own son, Joe, who doesn't have a nickname here because he's a friend but not someone I get to see too much as an adult) to go pick up some quahogs on Nantasket beach the next morning.

 Quahogs (pronounced 'Ko-hogs'),  Mercenaria mercenaria, sometimes called 'hard clams' or 'round clams' are large clams with a VERY hard, dark-colored shell and rounded shape.

best tasting clam out there, too...and I'm a man famous for his appetite for eating... hey, you know what? There's no way to avoid a double entendre here, so never mind. 

Now, some more background. The Old Timer really had a hair across his ass when it came to his God-given right to take clams from the sea. No bs, he got ticketed and fined about a dozen times a year by the local fish cop for digging clams in his backyard. Never stopped him. But you have to understand, quahogs are special. These aren't the little frying clams, Venus mercenaria, these big boys are the ones you stuff, which is a southern New England delicacy, and hard to get illegally, as they live subtidally, so you can't get 'em in the mud at low tide.

 So, yeah, in the summertime the three of us boys were constantly underfoot on the Old Timer's lobsterboat, and he wanted to give us a chance to try our hands at the ancient art of poaching clams, so we slept over atJoe's house (well, his dad's house, but you get the idea), and somewhere just after 5am, long before sunrise, we were on Nantasket beach, jammed into the Old Timer's pickup.
    Way back when, before Massachusetts became a police state, the fish cops were few and far between. They handled fishermen and deer hunting, and that was about it. They were stretched pretty thin.
     There was no suprise here, though. The generation before us knew which way the wind was blowing, and there were a fair number of trucks idling down the beach road with no lights on. None of us had rubber boots. We had jackets, pants and workboots which weren't waterproof back then. And we had bushel baskets. It was probably about 36-37 degrees out, and we were going to have to get wet. As we took instruction, we realized this was actually kinda gonna suck.
          As little kids, we had a shot at getting a pass by the game wardens, who were on the beach in force with flashlights. No one else had flashlights, obviously, so as we took instruction (the old timer stayed in the truck), we were told to run like hell from the lights, and not to drop our baskets, and then it was time to go.

 It's been 26 years or more, so the memories are fuzzy. We ran down the stairs of the seawall, with our baskets, and down to the tide line- there were clams on the beach, but not many at all, and the ones there had broken shells- strictly forbidden if you wanted to not die from ptomaine poisoning. The other adult poachers were all in water that was calf deep, picking up clams in a frenzy.

 When an easterly winter storm comes in off the ocean, the large swells that form (rare for the Boston area), shoo the clams off of their preferred somewhat deeperwaters and into the shallows. The waves physically push them up the beach and into the low subtidal and intertidal zone.

 ... and we figured out that we had to get the clams in the dark in about 1-foot of water. So we did, and after about 5 seconds, the 38-40 degree water stops being cold and starts to hurt.  so, yeah, we start flinging clams into the bushels, and working up and down the tideline depending on where the game wardens were... all the while we were suffering- after a couple of minutes the water is wicking up our pant legs, and we all know that the moment the seawater hits our balls, we're just going to die.

 We did it though. As a I recall, in about 15-20 minutes we picked up 2 half-bushels of quahogs, and then almost ran straight into a game warden on our way up the beach, when we realized that we weren't strong enough to lug the baskets AND get away. So we stretched two of the baskets between the three of us and ran in a dogleg, then ran down the beach road where the old timer was waiting in the warm truck.

      I remember that as the only time in my life where I was just about ready to cry from the pain in my feet. The running was hell. I've had hypothermia several times, once even on purpose (I was swimming in 39-degree water for an hour- impossible according to the numbers, but there's a NOAA scientist who carried me out of the water after my legs stopped working enough to carry weight), but the prospect of a free breakfast at a real restaurant (something of a rarity for me growing up) was enough to get me to bite my tongue.

 By the time I got home I had diaper rash running from the back of my neck to my feet. Wasn't enough to stop me from shifting clothes and coming back to the Old Timer's house to see the stuffed clams, which I wouldn't try eating at the time, having an aversion to clams in general back then.

 Worth it.


Irish said...

Merry Christmas Paul :)

Anonymous said...

I loved that story! It reminded me a lot of the kinds of things I used to do as a kid.